Rock Dragons, Group 2

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. Here is my second, on the first group of burrowers. Here is my third, on the first group of vegetation-dwellers.

The second group of rock dragons is my favourite group of Ctenophorus. This is a clade of six dragon species that all live on rocky outcrops and they are primarily South Australian. The males are generally gorgeously and gaudily coloured in oranges, reds, blues and greens while the females are gorgeously and subtly coloured in browns and tans. These species are mostly allopatric, meaning that their ranges do not overlap, making for a very pretty map:

Distributions of the six members of rock dragon group 2. The rusty dragon (Ctenophorus rufescens) is in dark blue; the ochre dragon (Ctenophorus tjantjalka) is in light blue; the peninsula dragon (Ctenophorus fionni) is in purple; the red-backed dragon (Ctenophorus vadnappa) is in red; the tawny dragon (Ctenophorus decresii) is in green; and the border ranges dragon (Ctenophorus mirrityana) is in puke. Maps courtesy of the Atlas of Living Australia.

There are some range-overlaps, so they are not completely allopatric. The most well-known overlap is between the red-backed and tawny dragons in and around Gammon Ranges National Park. However, a friend of mine who's doing her PhD on tawny dragons went looking for tawnies around the Gammon Ranges and couldn't find a single one, though she found many red-backed dragons. Another interesting overlap is just north of Marla on the Stuart Highway, were the ranges of the rusty and ochre dragons supposedly meet. If this is true, and both species are present there, it would be an excellent place to visit. Both species otherwise inhabit very harsh, remote terrain and are therefore very difficult to come across in the wild (despite being very common in the remote areas where they live). However, I have my doubts about this overlap because, as with the netted dragons, there are some glaring inaccuracies in this map. For example, Adelaide has clearly erroneous (or escapee) records of peninsula and rusty dragons. There are records of tawny, rusty and red-backed dragons on the Eyre Peninsula that, to me, are clearly misidentified peninsula dragons. However, there are other, more insidious inaccuracies. The purple dot at the very northern tip of Lake Torrens (the northernmost purple dot) looks like it could be just on the edge of the range of the peninsula dragon. Actually, the animals that live there are red-backed dragons that have been misidentified. I know this because a herpetologist at the South Australia Museum looked at those specimens and told me they were misidentified, and also because I went there and collected red-backed dragons at that exact spot! Misidentifications like this make it difficult to know where the precise contact zones are between the different species.

Tawny Dragon (Ctenophorus decresii)

The tawny dragon is the most well known of this group of rock dragons and a popular research subject. This is most likely just circumstance, it's found around the most populated area of South Australia (Adelaide). The tawny dragon comes in three distinct lineages: a southern lineage (Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills), a central lineage (southern Flinders Ranges) and a northern lineage (northern Flinders Ranges). The central lineage comes in distinct colour morphs, each of which seems to have a slightly different personality. The northern lineage is the one that no-one, including my friend who studies them, has heard from recently, and as a result no-one knows much about this lineage.

We caught our tawny dragons from the central lineage, around Burra and Hawker, South Australia. Chasing lizards near Burra was a surreal experience for many reasons, not the least of which was that we were wandering through rolling, grassy sheep pastures that looked more like something out of pastoral England or New Zealand than somewhere you might expect to find a semi-arid rock-dwelling dragon. But there they were, basking on rocks in the dried creek beds in between rolling hills. One day I will have to do a post of just pictures and stories from Burra.

Male Tawny Dragon (Ctenophorus decresii). Burra, South Australia, 2011. Photo by Tobias Hayashi.

Female Tawny Dragon (Ctenophorus decresii). Mount Remarkable National Park, South Australia, 2011. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Red-backed Dragon (Ctenophorus vadnappa)

Male red-backed dragons are spectacular. Their backs are a vividly patterned mix of red, blue and green, and their throats are a gorgeous yellow. We visited the westernmost known population of these guys, at the northern tip of Lake Torrens, and we also visited another spot in the core of their distribution, near Gammon Ranges National Park. This species was one of the first rock dragons we went searching for, and gave us our first taste of our most hated habitat type: granite rock outcrops. Huge granite boulders are a terrible thing to try to walk across all day, let along chase tiny, fast lizards across. They are rough, sharp and sometimes even unstable, and have impressively worn down my brand-new heave-duty hiking boots. It was also at Lake Torrens, chasing red-backed dragons, that volunteer Mitch invented and perfected the art of noosing lizards out from under boulders. 

Male Red-backed Dragon (Ctenophorus vadnappa). Arkaroola Station, South Australia, 2011. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Female Red-backed Dragon (Ctenophorus vadnappa). Arkaroola Station, South Australia, 2011. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Peninsula Dragon (Ctenophorus fionni)

The peninsula dragon, unfortunately, also lives on granite outcrops. This species is found all over the Eyre Peninsula, and also along the west coast of Lake Torrens. It gets more and more colourful as you move away from the coast (a similar thing happens with the ornate dragon). Near the coast, males are mostly black and grey, but as you move inland they gain oranges, yellows and blues. We did our peninsula dragon chasing near the northwestern-most limit of their range, in between lakes Edward and Gairdner. Both of these are salt lakes, lest anyone get the impression there is a drop of fresh water around this area, and the region is impressively dry and foreboding. I remember hot, lonely days (because each volunteer took their own section of terrible granite outcrop) wandering around searching for lizards, not seeing any for hours. But for some reason I had fun the whole time. Something about the landscape, the emptiness, the adventure and the challenge made it all worthwhile.

Male Peninsula Dragon (Ctenophorus fionni). Kokatha Station, South Australia, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Female Peninsula Dragon (Ctenophorus fionni). Kokatha Station, South Australia, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Ochre Dragon (Ctenophorus tjantjalka)

The ochre dragon is extremely poorly known. This dragon lives in some of the most remote, arid country in Australia, not far from where the Australian weather bureau had to add new colours to their heat map after the temperature went off the charts, literally. They were completely new to science in the 1970's and officially described as a new species in 1992. The locations we visited were part of the southern ochre dragon population, which was only discovered in 1995. The cattle rancher who told us where to find them and how to get there (and helped us fix a flat tyre) was the same one who accompanied the guy who found them in the first place. He even claimed to have caught the first individual! The southern ochre dragons differ from the northern ones in that the males are patternless and powder blue (as opposed to grey). Both populations have salmon (or ochre) on their flanks. 

Male Ochre Dragon (Ctenophorus tjantjalka). Anna Creek Station, South Australia, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Female Ochre Dragon (Ctenophorus tjantjalka). Anna Creek Station, South Australia, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Rusty Dragon (Ctenophorus rufescens)

The rusty dragon is almost as poorly known as the ochre dragon, though it has been known to science for a lot longer. This species is the only member of rock dragon group 2 in which males and females look similar, to the point where I couldn't tell a male from a female for the longest time. Males are not gaudily coloured like in all the other species, instead they are brown and tan like the females. This was also the most challenging species of rock dragon for us to catch. They are fast devils, with longer legs and tails than the other species, and would hide in the most impenetrably narrow crevices. Tearing across granite boulders in the midday heat day-in, day-out, while catching very little was a frustrating endeavour, especially in a location where the closest pub was 200km away by dirt road, and the closest grocery store over 500km!

Male Rusty Dragon (Ctenophorus rufescens). Victory Downs Station, Northern Territory, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Female Rusty Dragon (Ctenophorus rufescens). Mulga Park Station, Northern Territory, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

Border Ranges Dragon (Ctenophorus mirrityana)

The border ranges dragon was only described last year! Up until then, it was thought to be a distinct population of the tawny dragon. This is the only member of rock dragon group 2 that is not native primarily (or exclusively) to South Australia. They are endemic to far western New South Wales, where they are endangered. They are also the only species of rock dragon that I have never seen in the wild. Their endangered status means that it would be very unwise of me to go and collect some for my research. Luckily, they are common in Mutawinji National Park, so I should be able to go out at some point and check them out in the wild. However, an even easier option than driving 13 hours into the desert is to head to Sydney. The Taronga Zoo has a male on display in their reptile house! So if you want to see Australia's newest dragon species AND Australia's newest endangered species, it's really very easy, and you can admire a baby komodo dragon at the same time.

Male Border Ranges Dragon (Ctenophorus mirrityana). Taronga Zoo, Sydney, New South Wales, 2014.

I don't have a picture of a female border ranges dragon, so instead here's a picture of a baby komodo dragon that you can visit along with the male border ranges dragon at the Taronga Zoo. Sydney, New South Wales, 2014.