During my travels to cities around the world, I have observed that each city has its own community of wildlife that has learned how to survive and thrive alongside human beings. In most cases it is birds and rodents that take the opportunities presented by human excess but in a few cases it is the reptiles that have moved in.
An urban wildlife success story from Asia, and one of my personal favourite city dwellers is the Oriental Garden or Changeable lizard.
Since a child, I have always had a special interest in reptiles and amphibians. This interest draws me towards any scurry in the leaves and undergrowth or splash in a pond, so on my second day in Singapore, when something caught my eye among the tree roots, I moved in for a closer look. I was delighted to make the acquaintance of this confident urban lizard.
Changeable lizards can be seen all over the island of Singapore, from tree trunks in the fashionable Orchard Road shopping district, through the suburbs to the island’s nature reserves. The males position themselves on tree trunks about a meter from the ground, where they display to nearby females or to potential males moving in to their territory. Propping himself up on his front legs, the display involves inflating the neck and throat and bobbing his brightly coloured head up and down. On many occasions, the more confident males will perform this warning dance to passing humans who linger for too long. It really is delightful to watch.
Related to iguanas and members of the family Agamidae, the Changeable lizard is a robust little dinosaur of a lizard with a long, stiff tail and crest of spines running down the body. The total length is up to 38 cm (15 inches), most of which is tail.
Although the Changeable lizard was introduced to Singapore from Malaysia in the 1980s, It is widespread across the rest of South East Asia, India, Sri Lanka and parts of the Middle East. A small breeding population has established itself in Florida in the United States. Although these urban lizards are a welcome sight, its introduction to Singapore has had disastrous consequences for the local and more rural Green-crested Lizard who appears unable to compete with its more aggressive cousin.
This well travelled lizard of many names and an ability to change colour to match its mood is often referred to as the Bloodsucker. This local but inaccurate name refers to the fact that during the courtship season the male will flush his head and neck with blood red coloration. Local myths suggest this red coloration is a result of a night of sucking blood from unsuspecting victims.
The Sri Lankan species is marginally larger than others in the family. I photographed this red flushed male in the beautiful, lush green highlands of Ella. As I leaned in to take his picture he was nodding his head to stake a claim to his territory on top of a tree stump in a tea plantation.
Invasive species it may be, but I always enjoyed seeing these little lizards, so full of personality, as I strolled through the intense heat and humidity of Singapore.
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