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Common Garden Lizard

Common Garden Lizard

The common garden lizard is the most common agamid of India. The male changes the colour of its head, does push ups and is ready to fight off any rivals for the female lizard’s attention, says Rahul Alvares who is fascinated by the common garden lizard.

The common garden lizard Calotes versicolor is an excellent climber. Photo: Rahul Alvares.

This large lizard occupies all kinds of ecosystems from dry deserts to thick forests, and is found from the plains to 2,000 m. up in the mountains. Being abundant in its distribution, it is known by a number of different names including the oriental garden lizard, eastern garden lizard, changeable lizard and crested tree lizard to name a few!

The male of this species is an impressive looking specimen and the combination of its muscular, swollen cheeks, and large, spiky, crested head has most people wrongly identifying it as a small iguana. The fact is that though this agamid is related to it, the iguana is only found in the New World (North and South America).

The garden lizard is an arboreal (found on trees) species and mostly prefers scrubland and undergrowth. It is excellently camouflaged in these habitats and can make itself almost invisible by staying very still. But if the camouflage fails, this feisty lizard can make a quick getaway with considerable speed, and being an excellent climber, can be up a tree in a jiffy!

The specimen in the photograph did exactly that – at first it stayed unmoving as I stalked it with my camera. But the moment I got too close for comfort, it bolted without warning.  In fact it moved so fast that it seemed as though the reptile was literally flying across the ground, propelled only by its insanely fast spinning back legs! The back legs pumped so furiously that they propelled the lizard’s body forward at a 20 degree angle, like a speedboat moving fast over water!

The garden lizard measures around 35 cm. (including the tail), and feeds mostly on insects and ants, though larger ones are known to occasionally feed on small birds, nestlings and frogs. Although it possesses teeth, these can only be used for gripping prey. The teeth don’t serve to tear apart prey and the catch must therefore be swallowed whole.

In the breeding season, which starts around April and ends in September, the head of the male turns a conspicuous red when excited. In fact, its shoulders and parts of the forelegs too turn scarlet red.This is why this lizard is sometimes also called ‘bloodsucker’!

The male garden lizard maintains its territory and will usually display from an elevated or conspicuous spot within it. The display is amusing to watch as the male does pushups in quick succession. These pushups serve to impress females or scare other males in the vicinity. These terrifying pushups don’t always do the trick however and then the male will have to physically fight off his rival. In doing so, the combatants tackle and bite each other while standing on their hind legs until one of them backs down and is chased out of the territory by the winner. Mating is short, with the male holding the female and twisting his tail under hers to copulate.

The female deposits her soft, leathery, white eggs in a hole dug by her in soft soil. She digs this eight to ten centimetres deep hole using only her forelimbs, and can take the better of two hours to do so! After depositing her clutch of 10-20 eggs in the hole the female scrapes soil over it and pats it down with her snout to make it virtually indistinguishable from the surroundings.

The eggs take between six to seven weeks to hatch depending on the temperature. The hatchlings take 9 -12 months to attain sexual maturity and usually begin breeding the following year.

Unlike most lizards, the garden lizard cannot drop its tail. Like other reptiles however, it does shed its skin. Interestingly, like the chameleon, the garden lizard can move each of its eyes in different directions!

Rahul Alvares, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXV, No. 9, September 2015.

 
 
 

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