Dispatches from the field: new adventures with endangered crocodile lizards and oriental garden lizards

It’s been a very busy year, which explains why I am only now writing this blog post from my trip to China earlier this year (May-June). I had the amazing opportunity of seeing one of the world’s most endangered lizards—the crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus), in the wild, and working with one of the largest captive populations. Crocodile lizards are particularly unique because they are a monotypic family and genus (i.e., one species in the entire family). Sadly, this lizard has been heavily collected for the pet trade, particularly in Vietnam. It is endemic to a small part of Vietnam (slopes of Yen Tu Mountain) and southeast China (Guangxi Province). The Vietnam and China populations are separated by over 500 km. There are 8 extant (surviving) subpopulations in China and all are separated by at least 10 km.  Five other populations are now thought to be extinct. Besides the pet trade, the other reason for their demise is a common theme—habitat destruction. And related to this, as forest is removed and people encroach on their habitat, their streams become polluted and uninhabitable.

This figure is from Huang, C. M., Yu, H., Wu, Z. J., Li, Y. B., Wei, F. W. & Gong, M. H., 2008. Population and conservation strategies for the Chinese crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus) in China. Animal Biodiversity and Conservation 31.2: 63–70. “Fig. 1. Present distribution of the Chinese crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus) in China. Numbers indicate the eight areas of distribution: 1. D&B; 2. S&L; 3. LX; 4. GX; 5. JL; 6. DG; 7. LS; 8 LK. (For abbreviations see Method of survey in Material and methods.)”

I flew into Chengdu and met up with my regular collaborator, Dr. Qi Yin, from the Chengdu Institute of Biology (CIB), which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. From there, we flew to Guilin, which is a popular tourist destination in Guangxi Province in part because of its spectacular karst topography. We were hosted by Professor Wu, who is head of the Department of Life Sciences at Guanxi Normal University, where we gave a talk to his research group.

After a few days in Guilin, we took the high-speed train, which travels at 200-250 km/h, from Guilin to Hexhou. From there, we drove about 50 km to the Hejiang River and then took a boat to the field station. I have to say that this was the first time I have worked in a reserve named after a lizard! We stayed at Guangxi Daguishan Crocodile Lizard National Nature Reserve, at an old forestry station.

On our first night, we ventured into the forest and walked up a stream where we saw 17 crocodile lizards, including a few babies from this year. Of course, the joys of working in rainforest is that you regularly get distracted by all the other cool fauna you find along the way. That night we also saw three species of snakes. One of these, Sinonatrix annularis (链华游蛇), is semi-aquatic and was common in puddles on the forestry roads where it dines on frogs. These snakes would quickly take flight at the first sign of danger, abandoning their shallow puddles in favour of dense vegetation. The other two snakes were a Pareas boulengeri (鳞钝头蛇)and a Eurypholis major (翠青蛇), the latter was about 20 cm above Qi Yin’s head, tightly coiled in amongst some branches, staring nervously down at the top of his head!

On a different night we sampled another stream, where we saw 23 Shinisaurus over about 3.5 hours. This was a narrower stream than the previous one, with some steep waterfalls (but not high) and fast flowing, clear water. We also saw a new agamid (Acanthosaura lepidogaster) sleeping on some vegetation near the water’s edge. And then, a real stroke of luck. While walking back along the road, we came across a krait (Bungarus multicinctus). This was the first time I had ever seen one, and it did not disappoint. It quickly went into defensive mode, and exhibited a range of defensive behaviour, including hiding its head.

While it was heartening that the streams with healthy populations of Shinisaurus still have clear water, it probably would not take much for that to change. And certainly, the nearby Hejiang River is badly polluted. Sadly, the local view is that the river is a convenient landfill—out of sight, out of mind. We did not see much aquatic bird life besides the occasional heron and a few kingfishers.

The captive breeding setup for the crocodile lizards is very impressive. The reserve has a large number of outdoor enclosures with circulating fresh water. Adults are generally kept in groups of four and babies grow up together in groups, but without any adults. When we arrived, there were some new pairings of lizards as part of a different study and we were able to observe a range of social interactions including some fighting and copulations.

Our work focused on behavioural interactions and the potential role of social behavior in any future release programs. To this end, we started with a simple experiment focusing on behavioural interactions between offspring and adults. There has been the occasional observation of adults eating babies, so were interested in whether babies could discriminate between their mothers and an unrelated adult female. We did not look at mechanisms of recognition, but merely whether they managed risk in relation to the identity of the adult with which they were presented. To examine this behavior, we constructed three Y-mazes in which babies could choose between associating with their mother vs no lizard (a stick), an unrelated adult female of the same size vs no lizard, or mother vs unrelated female. We are busy analyzing this data and don’t want to pre-empt the publication by giving away the findings. This information is potentially useful for future head-start programs when babies get released back into the wild.

We also spent several days measuring most of the captive lizards (148 in total), their bite force, and their spectral reflectance using an optic spectrometer. We also went into the forest to get irradiance measurements and background vegetation for calculating contrast. Male colour is variable and there appears to be several morphs depending on the preponderance of yellow or orange.

After wrapping up the Shinisaurus field work we had a day to do the tourist thing, and went on a boat trip down the famous Li Jiang River. This is a popular tourist destination and there is literally a long line of boats that proceeds down the river. The vista is spectacular—one karst rock formation after another, in a sea of hills. There is a point in the river that is illustrated on one of the Chinese bank notes and the thing to do is to hold up a bank note and photograph it against the background it depicts. We then left Guilin and flew to Haikou, a city on Hainan island, where we visited Dr. Wang, whose lab is working on a range of turtle and lizards. We saw his setup for freshwater turtles, as well as maybe about 10 or so marine turtles that are in rehabilitation.

The purpose of this trip was to help Dr. Wang start a study on the Oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor). Unfortunately, we did not have much time, and the lizards were not as common as we thought. However, it turns out that they love hedges and there were more than a few hedges on campus so we concentrated our efforts there. These lizards are capable of dynamic colour change and go from a dull brown to a deep orange in less than a minute. They are truly spectacular in their orange and back display colour.

This was another great lizarding adventure in China. We certainly saw lots of cool herps and if you would like to see all the photos, check out our albums on Flickr.

An album of all photos from the China field work.

An album of Crocodile Lizard photos and portraits.

An album of lizards from China.

An album of snakes from China.

An album of frogs from China.


Turn up the colour: male frogs use bright colours to avoid confusion at the pond

Imagine being a frog during the chaos of the breeding season and navigating the gathering crowds around the pond. How do you know who might be a suitable mate let alone whether they are male or female? One solution is colour. If one sex, typically males, is able to turn on some bright colour . . . → Read More: Turn up the colour: male frogs use bright colours to avoid confusion at the pond

Brains and Brawn: dominant lizards are better learners too!

Note: this blog post is republished from Fonti’s web site

Dominant individuals tend to have greater monopoly over food and mates and therefore have more offspring compared to subordinate individuals. Are these successes attributed to greater cognitive ability? Or are dominant individuals just better at freeloading from their clever subordinate counterparts?

We investigated . . . → Read More: Brains and Brawn: dominant lizards are better learners too!

PhD opportunity – visual ecology of lizards

We are looking for a highly motivated and suitably qualified candidate to conduct a PhD program of research on reptile visual ecology, commencing in 2017.

The successful applicant will be guided to develop a project to investigate the visual performance and ecological adaptations of a range of lizard species with differing life history traits. . . . → Read More: PhD opportunity – visual ecology of lizards

Hot off the press! Roommates are not all they’re cracked up to be (if you’re a lizard)

Recently, myself and collaborators published our study that found – social experience has a crucial role in development of a family-living lizard. We also discovered that despite their social nature, the Australian tree skink (Egernia striolata) does not necessarily thrive in a ‘share-house’ environment.

Egernia striolata from Gluepot, South Australia

Group- and family-living . . . → Read More: Hot off the press! Roommates are not all they’re cracked up to be (if you’re a lizard)

Hot off the press! Toads at the invasion front are more prone to explore and take risks

By Jodie Gruber

The cane toad (Rhinella marina) has been spreading rapidly across northern Australia since its introduction to control sugar cane beetles in 1935. While toads have been the focus of considerable research, we still have a poor understanding of how behavioiural traits vary across the range, particularly with respect to traits that . . . → Read More: Hot off the press! Toads at the invasion front are more prone to explore and take risks

Julia Riley interviewed on ABC radio!

Take a listen to Julia Riley discussing our latest publication on the influence of social environment on learning in tree skinks (Egernia striolata). The interview was with Marc Fennell on ABC radio.

This work, led by Julia, has been published in Animal Cognition:

Riley, JL., Noble, DWA., Byrne, RW., Whiting, MJ. 2016. Does social . . . → Read More: Julia Riley interviewed on ABC radio!

Skinks and Ladders: A family-living lizard’s learning ability is not affected by their home environment

By Julia Riley

A family-living lizard’s ability to navigate through a complex maze is not linked to how they were raised

We have found that the learning ability of the Tree Skink, a lizard that lives with family, is not linked to growing up with others. These lizards were . . . → Read More: Skinks and Ladders: A family-living lizard’s learning ability is not affected by their home environment

Dispatches from the field: frogging at the DMZ

After attending the 8th World Congress of Herpetology in China, I had a night and a day in South Korea before flying on to my next destination, the US. What to do? As it turned out, I had a windfall (thanks Julia). I met Amaël Borzée, a PhD student from Seoul National University. Amaël . . . → Read More: Dispatches from the field: frogging at the DMZ

The 8th World Congress of Herpetology

Note: the following post is by Julia Riley and also posted on her web page.

On 14 August 2016, a small contingent of the Lizard Lab headed from Sydney, Australia to Hangzhou, China for the 8th World Congress of Herpetology. Our fearless leader, Martin Whiting, as well as James Baxter-Gilbert and I were the Lizard . . . → Read More: The 8th World Congress of Herpetology