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Draco Lizards and Flying Dragons: Reptiles That Glide

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

Strange and Interesting Reptiles

Draco lizards are strange and interesting reptiles that have folds of skin on each side of their bodies. When the skin folds are extended, they look like wings. These "wings" enable the lizards to glide for long distances in their forest habitat.

Draco lizards are also known as flying or gliding lizards or, in the case of some species, as flying dragons. The scales covering a lizard's body and the fact that the animal seems to have wings remind some people of a dragon. In fact, draco is the Latin word for dragon.

Over forty species of Draco lizards exist. All of them are native to Southeast Asia. They are classified in the family Agamidae. Members of this family are often referred to as agamids or as agamid lizards.

In this article, the term "Draco lizards" refers to all animals in the genus Draco. This article focuses on Draco volans, also known as the common flying dragon, and Draco mindanensis, also known as the Mindanao flying dragon. It also includes a few facts about other lizards in the genus.

Draco volans: The Common Flying Dragon

The scientific name of the animal known as the common flying dragon (or simply the flying dragon) is Draco volans. The term "flying dragon" is sometimes used for other Draco lizards, but I'll use it to refer to Draco volans.

Flying dragons are tiny reptiles, unlike their mythical counterparts. They have slender bodies and reach a length of eight inches or a little longer. The lizards have a very long tail compared to the length of the rest of their body.

The species is found on the islands of Java and Bali in Indonesia and possibly in other areas. Some forms that were once considered to be subspecies of Draco volans have been moved to their own species, however, which can be confusing. The animal lives in the trees and catches insects to eat. In some countries, it's bred as a pet. As might be imagined, keeping an animal built for long-distance movement content in captivity could be difficult.

Physical Appearance of the Flying Dragon

Like many Draco lizards, common flying dragons have a mottled appearance. They are generally a mixture of grey, brown, black, and green in colour. Their colours help to camouflage them against the trunks of the rainforest trees.

The scientific name for the wings is "patagia" (or patagium when one wing is being discussed). The upper surface of the patagia of flying dragons has a mottled or banded black, grey, and brown pattern. It also has yellow or orange pigment. The amount of this pigment varies. The patagia of some Draco lizards have very colourful upper or lower surfaces.

Flying dragons have a loose flap of skin called a dewlap or gular flap hanging below their neck. Like the wings, the dewlap can be extended. The male has a yellow dewlap while the female has a smaller, blue-grey one.

Patagia or Wings and Gliding Ability

A flying dragon's wings extend from just behind the front legs to just in front of the back legs. The last five to seven of the animal’s ribs are elongated and extend into the wings. Muscles attached to the ribs cause the ribs to move and the wings to unfurl like an opening fan when the animal wants to glide. Research suggests that in at least some cases the "hands" of the lizard's forelimbs grab hold of the wings to help them unfurl.

The lizard has a smaller wing, or lappet, on each side of its neck. When the lappets are extended to the side, they act as mini-wings that help the animal to glide.

Some reports state that flying dragons can glide as far as sixty metres (just under two hundred feet), or even further, and that they lose one foot in height for every five feet travelled through the air. Most glides seem to be around thirty feet, however.

The lizards have better control of their motion than other reptiles that take to the air, such as flying geckos and flying snakes (which are also gliders, despite their names). Flying dragons can move their patagia as they glide. They can also move their tail, which acts like a rudder for steering. The animals have a flattened appearance while they are gliding.

The lizard in the video below is the southern flying lizard or Draco dussumieri. The species is found in southern India and has the most westerly distribution of all of the Draco lizards. The animal in the video demonstrates how the colour, patterns, and protuberances on its surface can camouflage the lizard.

Life in the Trees

Flying dragons are active during the day. They glide from one tree to another, or sometimes from one branch to another in the same tree, in order to find food or a mate or to escape from predators.

Males also glide to chase away other males. A male patrols a territory consisting of a few trees. He glides around the trees to protect them from invading lizards. When the males land, they often flash their dewlaps to advertise their territory. Unfortunately, this makes their presence more visible to predators. The animals do have one advantage over many of their predators, though—the ability to take off into the air and control their direction with precision.

When they’re not gliding, the lizards often travel rapidly up and down tree trunks and along branches. They may also stay motionless for a while. This makes them very hard to see because they blend in with their background.

Small lizards tend to live lower in the tree canopy than larger ones. When the heavier animals take off from a tree, they need to develop speed before they extend their wings to glide. Starting their journey from a higher point helps them to do this.

Diet and Predators

Most of a flying dragon's diet consists of ants, but it also catches termites and other insects. The lizard often feeds as it ascends a tree trunk. A male very rarely—if ever—comes to the ground. A female comes to the ground to lay her eggs, however.

It's thought that the lizard's chief predators are arboreal (tree-living) snakes, large birds, and monitor lizards. Despite the presence of their predators, most flying dragons are very successful in their habitat.

Draco dussumieri or the southern flying lizard

Draco dussumieri or the southern flying lizard

Reproduction

There is still much to be learned about the lives of flying dragons in the wild, including information about their reproduction. Researchers know that the animal has an interesting mating display. During courtship, the male displays his dewlap and his wings to attract females and also bobs his body up and down.

After mating, the female digs a hole in the ground with her snout. She deposits up to five eggs in the hole, which she covers with soil. She guards the eggs for about a day and then leaves them on their own. The estimates for the length of time between egg laying and egg hatching vary widely. The time likely depends on environmental factors.

The dewlap or gular flap of a male Draco dussumieri

The dewlap or gular flap of a male Draco dussumieri

The Mindanao Flying Dragon

The Mindanao flying dragon lives in the Philippines and has the scientific name Draco mindanensis. It's been found on the island of Mindanao and on neighbouring islands, but none of the populations seem to be dense. The animal is rarely seen and may have been uncommon for a long time.

The lizard's body is pale grey-brown in colour. The upper surface of the body has both large and small white spots. The dorsal or upper surface of the patagia is red with lighter spots and striations in the male and black with lighter areas and striations in the female. The dewlap of the male is an attractive orange colour. The female's is duller and has a cream or yellow tip.

Like other gliding lizards, the Mindanao flying dragon lives in the forest, eats insects, and is active during the day. It's found quite high on tree trunks. The lizard is larger than many of its relatives and can glide further and faster.

Variable Patagia Colours

A confusing aspect of investigating Draco lizards is that the colour and/or pattern of the patagia of a species may vary. Researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of Malaysia have made an interesting discovery related to this observation.

Dracus cornutus lives in Borneo. The scientists found that two populations of the species had patagia with different appearances and that the colours matched those of the falling leaves in the area. One population had red patagia, which matched the colour of the leaves falling in their coastal mangrove forest habitat. The other had green and brown patagia, which matched the colour of the falling leaves in their rainforest habitat located further away from the coast.

The researchers believe that the different colours help to camouflage the lizards and protect them from bird attacks as they glide. More research is needed to answer questions raised by the study, but the scientists have made some very interesting observations.

Population Status of Draco Lizards

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies animal populations according to their nearness to extinction. Unfortunately, the Mindanao flying dragon is classified in the "Vulnerable" category. In addition, the IUCN says that its population is decreasing.

The last population assessment for the Mindanao flying dragon was performed in 2007. A lot may have happened to the animal during the long gap between the assessment of its population and the present time. It's a shame that there hasn't been more emphasis are collecting new information for the sake of both the lizard and the other organisms living in its habitat.

The Mindanao flying dragon is threatened by deforestation. The IUCN says that forest disturbance is probably a threat as well. Efforts are being made to protect the animal's rainforest habitat, which will hopefully allow its population to grow or to at least stabilize.

The status of the common flying dragon population has been classified as "Least Concern" by the IUCN. In this case, the assessment was based on relatively recent data from 2017. The population trend for the animal is unknown, however.

Some people think that Draco lizards are poisonous, but researchers say that this isn't the case. The animals are actually harmless to humans.

Fascinating Animals

Draco lizards are unusual and fascinating little creatures. They are well adapted to their forest habitat and are fun to observe. A gliding lizard is a beautiful and often impressive sight, especially in the species with vividly coloured patagia.

Studying the animals could reveal new features of their biology and lives. In the case of the Mindanao flying dragon, it might also help us understand what is happening in the animal's environment and discover how to deal with the problems. This discovery could be beneficial for multiple species of wildlife. Hopefully, we will be able to see Draco lizards on trees and moving between them for a long time to come.

References

© 2011 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 28, 2014:

I agree, Jade.a! Flying dragons are cool.

Jade.a@dicsovery.school.nz on May 28, 2014:

It is very cool

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 26, 2013:

I'm afraid that I have no experience with keeping a draco lizard as a pet, nazryyy. I imagine that in most cases the lizards would be happier if they were left in the wild.

nazryyy on August 26, 2013:

i kept this d.volan as a pet, but i still don't know how to kept them,anyone here with experience to kept this guy?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2013:

Hi, Anonymous247365101. Draco lizards live in tropical rainforests. They inhabit warm areas that receive a lot of rain and contain many trees.

Anonymous247365101 on April 17, 2013:

What is the flying dragons habitat like?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2012:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, michael and dj. I think that draco lizards are interesting reptiles, too!

devon arthur aka dj on November 14, 2012:

draco lizard are the best lizard in the world the can glid from tree to tree

micheal on November 14, 2012:

i thick that dracos are cool lizard and the can extend their ribs cool

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 14, 2012:

Thanks, ignugent17. I appreciate the comment and the votes. Draco lizards are certainly fascinating little creatures!

ignugent17 on September 14, 2012:

This is really interesting. I remember in the Philippines when my brothers used to play with sling shots. They would try to hit a flying lizard. I am not sure if it is a Draco lizard but it looks the same.

Thanks for the information.

Voted up and more. :-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 26, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, the votes and the share, Peggy! Draco lizards are certainly very strange creatures. I agree with you - they do have an almost prehistoric appearance!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 26, 2012:

Thanks for another interesting hub Alicia. In the first video the flying draco lizards could almost look like falling leaves as they glide from one tree to another. In the second video, it truly blended in with the tree. It is almost prehistoric looking in its appearance. Voted up, interesting and will share.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 01, 2012:

Thank you, wilderness. Yes, draco lizards are fascinating animals. I never get tired of exploring the animal kingdom and learning about unusual creatures!

Dan Harmon from Boise, Idaho on May 01, 2012:

Fascinating animals, aren't they? There are so many creatures out there that we know so little about and that so many people have never heard of, let alone seen, just like the Draco Lizard.

A neat hub, Alicia - thanks. There is sooo much to learn in this world!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 27, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, monkey face. I agree with you - they are cool lizards!

monkey face on March 27, 2012:

cool lizards

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 12, 2011:

Hi, Prasetio. The draco lizard is strange. I can see why some people call it a flying dragon! Thanks for commenting and for the vote.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on December 12, 2011:

This was very strange lizard. Thank you very much fro showing this information to us. I learn many things about this reptile. Keep on writing. Rated up!

Prasetio

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 12, 2011:

Hi, TheNerdyGardener. Yes, all the gliding animals are very interesting, and rainforests are fascinating places. Thank you for commenting.

TheNerdyGardener from Brisbane, Australia on December 12, 2011:

Interesting article, there are so many beautiful and unique creatures that inhabit the earth's rain-forests. I've read of species of gliding frogs and snakes too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 03, 2011:

Thanks for the comment and the rating, Nell. Yes, these lizards are small. When someone's hand is shown by them it's surprising to see how little they really are!

Nell Rose from England on December 03, 2011:

Hi, fascinating article on Draco lizards, I never realised how small they were, I have seen them on TV but you can't get the scale from that, rated up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 03, 2011:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Eddy! I hope that you have a good day too.

Eiddwen from Wales on December 03, 2011:

So well presented and so very inetresting.

Here's to so many more to share on here and your hard work has certainly paid off.

Take care and enjoy your day.

Eddy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2011:

Thank you very much, CMHypno. I agree with you - reptiles are very interesting, and there are some amazing ones alive today.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on December 02, 2011:

There are some amazing reptiles on this beautiful planet of ours, so thanks for the great information on draco lizards Alicia

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2011:

Hi, Chatkath. Thanks for the visit and the comment. Yes, draco lizards are certainly well equipped! Their ability to glide through the air is very useful. I'd love to see more lizards near where I live, but I don't see them very often.

Kathy from California on December 01, 2011:

Amazing Alicia! My brother used to catch the ordinary blue-belly lizards and make them little apartment homes :-) Unfortunately for him but fortunately for the lizards, most of them got away! These guys are quite equipped! Good Job.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2011:

Thanks for the comment, MM. I think that draco lizards are amazing, too!

Movie Master from United Kingdom on December 01, 2011:

What an amazing lizard, I had never even heard of them, really interesting hub thank you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2011:

Thank you for the comment and the vote, drbj. Yes, draco lizards do have excellent camouflage when their "wings" and dewlaps are hidden. They blend in very well with the tree trunks.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on December 01, 2011:

The Draco Lizard really is an amazing animal. Thanks, Alicia, for the introduction. Their camouflage in the video is perfection. It's very difficult to distinguish the lizard from the tree to which it is attached. Voted up, m'dear.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2011:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Kimberley. It's nice to meet you!

Kimberley Lane from N.W.Pacific Coast, USA on November 30, 2011:

Nice article, Alicia. Great variety of information. Thumbs up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2011:

Thank you very much for the great comment and the votes, Tina! I would love to see draco lizards in real life, too. A flying dragon would be great fun to watch!

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on November 30, 2011:

Such amazing animals! I didn't even knew that they existed! They look like an animal from another time:) Thanks for sharing this fantastic hub, it is filled with interesting information and the videos are fantastic! I would love to see them in real. voted up, interesting

Tina

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