Burrowing Dragons, group 1

In his book "Biology and Evolution of Australian Lizards", Allen Greer sorted the lizards I study, the genus Ctenophorus, into different groups based on where they live: those that live in burrows, those that live in rock crevices, and those that live in vegetation. Looking at the phylogenetic relatedness of the Ctenophorus dragons, there are two groups of each: two groups of burrowers, two groups of rock-dwellers, and two groups of vegetation-dwellers. I thought it'd be fun to put up pictures and descriptions of all these groups, since I have a large pile of pictures from my fieldwork. Here is my first post, on the first group of rock-dwellers. 

Since I started with a small group, why not continue the trend? The first group of burrowers also consists of only two species. In sharp contrast to the two rock dragons, however, these two look almost identical. They're both called "netted dragons" because it looks like someone's taken a plain-coloured dragon and tied a fish-net stocking over it. I guess they're rather kinky fellas. 

Though they're both named for their geographical distributions, as the central and western netted dragons, in reality their ranges overlap quite extensively. The central netted dragon is found over a huge swath of Australia, as can be seen in the map below which I screen-grabbed from the Atlas of Living Australia. The western netted dragon is more restricted to southwest Australia, but is still found over a huge area. The atlas is not perfect, and some of these points are almost certainly erroneous. For example, the central netted dragon record from Brisbane and the western netted dragon record from Katherine.

The ranges of the central (in green) and western (in brown) netted dragons, according to the records of the Atlas of Living Australia.

Central Netted Dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis)

The central netted dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis) is one of Australia's most recognisable and ubiquitous lizards. The only lizards I can think of that beat the central netted dragon in these two categories are the bearded dragons (Pogonas vitticeps and barbata). Maybe the bluetongues of the genus Tiliqua. Though central netted dragons may not be quite as ubiquitous or famous as those critters, they share many of the same characteristics. They are tough as nails, live happily in the harshest habitats Australia offers, and make wonderful pets. They are easy to breed in captivity and are regularly available in the pet trade in Australia.

A hatchling central netted dragon that was bred here at the ANU. Central netted dragons are easy to breed and make excellent pets. Photo by Lisa Schwanz.

Central netted dragons are found across a wide variety of habitats here in Australia, but they seem to be at their densest in red sand country. Driving along a dirt track in a sandy area of central Australia can give you the impression that these guys exist in plague proportions. Because they are so common, they are well known to the people who live in the Australian outback. When I showed some cattle ranchers what we were looking for, they knew the lizards quite well and referred to them as "gumby lizards" apparently because of their dumpy heads. They love to sit along the side of dirt tracks, on that little elevated mound of dirt made by the grater as it smooths out the road (about the same thing as what a snow plow used to leave on my driveway back in Canada, after I'd already shovelled it.) Being burrowers, they'll usually have a little burrow in the mound, which they'll duck back into if they feel threatened. 

A red dirt track with sand ridges makes perfect central netted dragon habitat. Henbury Station, Northern Territory, 2012.

Western Netted Dragon (Ctenophorus reticulatus)

The other species in this group of burrowers, the western netted dragon (Ctenophorus reticulatus), looks very similar to the central netted dragon, to the point where you have to examine the shape of their femoral pores to be sure of which species you're looking at. However, western netted dragons are a heck a lot rarer than central netteds. We spent a fair amount of time in western netted dragon territory during my fieldwork, and in that whole time, every netted dragon we ever caught was a central. In 2013 we spent a week doing research outside the range of the central netted dragon, so every netted dragon we saw was pretty much guaranteed to be a western. In that week, I saw two lizards I was pretty sure were netted dragons. Both times we failed to catch the dragon, so I'll never know for sure if I've ever seen a western netted dragon. Good thing we didn't need them for my PhD!