Bengal Monitor Lizard
With a Velociraptor-like face, predatory swagger, and a powerful body as an adult, the monitor lizard seems to have crawled straight out of the dinosaur age, says Rahul Alvares.
Photo: Rahul Alvares.
I often encounter a Bengal monitor lizard Varanus bengalensis in a dilapidated old house opposite mine in Goa. It is over a metre in length and extremely shy. In fact, every time the big lizard sees me, it dives headfirst into an unused well. The well is about six metres deep, and dry in the summer. But the monitor is apparently unaffected by the fall as it continues to repeat this seemingly suicidal tumble every time I see it. These days, the well is shrouded in a thick post-monsoon green cover and I don’t see the lizard anymore. But I know it’s definitely there because I’m often treated to the sound of a loud splash when I walk past the well! Obviously this is the monitor landing belly first in the water.
The lizard in the photograph is about 18 cm. long and was spotted by a friend right outside my compound wall. On examination, I was surprised to notice that this juvenile had much more interesting patterns and colours than the drab brown patterns of the adult. Six photographs later, the monitor suddenly launched itself off the branch and disappeared into a hole in the wall.
Monitor lizards are diurnal (active during the day) but mostly forage in the mornings and evenings. They have excellent eyesight and sense of smell – their forked tongue, which is protruded in the manner of snakes, helps them effectively find food. Large claws and a strong bite render it a formidable predator, with the adult monitor taking reptile and bird eggs, birds, arthropods, snails, frogs, skinks, insects, small turtles, snakes, fish, crabs, scorpions, and small mammals as prey. If live food isn’t always available, monitors will readily feed on carrion too. Young monitor lizards mostly feed on insects.
When disturbed, most monitors will make a dash for it with considerable speed. If there’s a tree at hand, a monitor might scale it easily. Most escaping monitors however will usually find a burrow or crevice to dive into. Not to hide in particular, but to wedge itself into. An adult monitor is almost impossible to dislodge since the lizard inflates its body by filling its lungs with air and locks its claws on to the inside of the burrow with a vice-like grip. So the legend of monitor lizards with ropes tied to their waists being used to scale high walls might very well be true, since wedged securely in this manner, an adult monitor can easily hold on to the weight of a climbing human for a fair bit of time.
Monitor lizards are excellent swimmers and can hold their breath under water for several minutes. During periods of food scarcity, they can live off fat reserves or go through periods of reduced metabolic activity for months at a time. Most females will lay about 20 eggs, which strangely often take eight to nine months to hatch!
Monitor lizards were once prized catches in Goa. Their belly skin was used to make the drumhead for a local percussion instrument. Thousands of monitors were slaughtered for this purpose. Many were killed for extracting their body fat, which was used in folk remedies. Despite being protected by the law now, these cruel and illegal practices still continue in rural areas.
The monitor lizard has obviously been an evolutionary success: fossils of bygone animals show that the species was present over 50 million years ago!
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXV, No. 11, November 2015.