Colours of Wildlife Special: Hunting Lizards in Sekukuniland
Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
No, no harm was intended to any lizard! Three of us – Ruan Stander, Daniel Engelbrecht, and I, were off on a little lizard-finding expedition to Sekukuniland on Wednesday the 8th of May 2019. It was national and provincial election day here in South Africa, and Ruan had the day off work so we had time for our hunt. Yes, I voted (Ruan would vote later, Daniel is still too young to vote) before we went.
The region we were off to is the western part of Sekukuniland. You may remember if you're a regular reader that I've been to Sekukuniland a few times, primarily to the Leolo Mountains. Today we went to a quite different part of the region, much drier. It was near the town of Atok and near the Potlake (Po-tlaa-kee) Nature Reserve. The region was one of very rocky hills, some even looking as if giants had stacked huge piles of rocks, thousands and millions of rocks. When we entered the region Dan asked somewhat incredulously if they were natural features or rock piles made by humans, perhaps as a side effect of mining (the area has many mines supplying a variety of rare metals, mainly with uses in high tech industry). But they're totally natural. The hills we went to were not as extreme as that, the boulders being a bit less numerous and relieved by plenty of trees and shrubs rather than being almost bare rock. It is still a very dry region that gets extremely hot in the summer. On this sunny autumn day the weather was fairly cool, and that helped – it meant the lizards would likely be out to bask in the sun around the time we got there.
The species we were looking for is the Sekukuni Flat Lizard, Platysaurus orientalis. The scientific name means 'eastern flat lizard'. This is indeed around the eastern part of the range of the whole flat lizard group. Ruan, our reptile expert, is intrigued by the fact that both of the two recognized sub-species of this lizard occur in the region: the main one, Platysaurus orientalis orientalis, and also Platysaurus orientalis fitzsimonsi, named for noted South African herpetologist Vivian Frederick Maynard Fitzsimons. On the other internet encyclopedia, the range of these two are given as 'Drakensberg Mountains in Mpumalanga' for orientalis, and 'Eastern Sekhukhuneland' (alternative spelling of Sekukuniland) for fitzsimonsi. So we were well outside of what is the official range for both: we were in Limpopo, not Mpumalanga, and we were in western rather than eastern Sekukuniland. But Ruan knew that these lizards had in fact been recorded over here, some time ago. So we were heading out to do some serious prospecting with potential scientific value.
On the drive, Ruan explained to us the differences between orientalis and fitzsimonsi: mainly the latter has a blacker cheek region, the former being lighter bluish-green. There would be other, more technical differences also, but those were what we'd look for. Now let's talk about flat lizards as a group. They are amazing African reptiles, belonging to the family Cordylidae which also includes the Armadillo Girdled Lizard. In our country, flat lizards are more characteristic of the northern and eastern regions. There are species occurring further east than this one, as far as Swaziland. They occur also in the Northern Cape, and around the northern edge of the Western Cape, which is as far south and west as the genus reaches. Limpopo province has the greatest abundance of flat lizard species. They're medium-sized lizards, usually around 15-20 cm/6"-8" in length. They are indeed extremely flat! In your hand you can even squash them flat without harming them, their ribs and likely inner organs just spreading out sideways. Ruan and I spoke about how it would be great to have some idea of just how the lizard arranges its innards to make all this possible, but there's very little known of their internal anatomy. The skull as well is likely made out of a variety of loose and pliant bones so it can be flattened and distorted without causing any harm to the lizard. The reason for this flatness is that flat lizards live in rocky regions, and they can squeeze themselves into unbelievably narrow crevices to escape from potential predators.
Other than their flatness, these lizards are remarkable for the beautiful colours of the males. Females are dull brownish or greyish, with usually a few dark and white lengthwise stripes along their backs. Females and youngsters tend to all look the same whatever the species. The males however are distinctive and colourful, usually bright green above, sometimes with dark and white speckles and stripes. Usually there's a bright reddish or orange tail. The most vivid coloration is on the throat and belly. And here is also where the species differ from each other the most, with different colours and patterns. The bright colours are usually hidden while the males scurry about the rocks, but they display them to each other by doing a kind of push-up motion! With its head lifted and its little 'arms' straightened, the lizard displays its bright throat, breast and belly colours; this is for other males, to intimidate them – 'I'm the baddest on this rockpile, bro!' – or for the sake of the females – 'I'm the sexiest on this rockpile, babe!' – sorting out territories and privileges.
We spoke a bit but not much is known of the social systems of these lizards. Flat lizards in general have very complex societies for reptiles. There can be some that live socially in big, crowded colonies; others live a bit more singly and spread out. There are hierarchies in lizard societies where there are several males living together, perhaps with only the most dominant males having access to the females. There's precious little known about all this.
Flat lizards are rather omnivorous compared to other reptiles, eating insects and other small critters as well as taking some plant food like berries, flowers, leaves and such. They typically focus on their prey and grab it with a lightning-fast dart. Some flat lizards in reserves that receive lots of tourists have learnt to feed off bits of food the people throw at them, getting quite tame. But the ones we had here, were anything but! We were looking for them for most of the day. Ruan has a little trick to attract them: he eats an apple and then spits out little bits of it towards them. They smell the tasty piece of apple and dart out to grab it. Which gives Ruan a chance to grab it! But this strategy didn't work very well this day.
But Ruan has more tricks up his sleeve. Here you see him with his improvised 'lizarding rod' (and Dan standing by). There's a small noose at the tip. Ruan creeps up on the little creeper, very slowly, which sometimes lets him get the noose almost completely around the lizard's head and neck. This was the main challenge of the day. We had finally found one, a male, but then Ruan had the challenge of catching it. The problem with these hills is that there are thousands of cracks and crevices for the little critters to hide in; when it runs out of one crack and around a boulder and you get to the other side of the boulder and on that side there's ten or twenty crevices, you've no idea where it's got itself to. But finally we did get one; Ruan had me stand on one side of a boulder while he was on the other, and when the lizard ran to the other side I could tell him where it was and where it went. And so, at last, he managed to snag the little thing! It was so fast and a bit alarming to see the little lizard flying through the air at the end of the noose as he yanked it in. He quickly took it out of the noose and put it into a little bag to calm and cool down for photos.
And here you see the results! Without the black sides of the jaw, this was an orientalis rather than a fitzsimonsi. Look at what a gorgeous beastie it is! The belly is bright blue and the scales are exquisitely intricate. Lightly stroking the belly with your finger, the scales are extremely soft and pliable with an almost satiny feel. After having us examine the lizard in his hand, Ruan put it on a rock for photographs, as you see here. The poor thing was rather exhausted and thus sat still for us for a while – even though it did attempt a couple of sprints to safety, Ruan easily caught it again after each of these. Eventually after all the indignities we visited upon it, Ruan put it back in exactly the same spot where we had caught it. From its perspective, it had been abducted by aliens.
We took most of the day to find the lizards. Ruan tried snagging a female also, but she was much too savvy, and didn't fall for the 'slowly approaching noose' approach. When she'd run so high up that he couldn't reach her with the rod any longer, Ruan gave up. We'll have to come again sometime later for a female. There are also so many other hills and mountains and ridges and rock piles in the region that we would need many, many trips to prospect them all. It would be fine if we could get some of the fitzsimonsi's. It is extremely interesting that in these flat lizards, you can get different species or different sub-species living close together without conflict and without interbreeding. How so? We just don't know enough about their ecologies and lifestyles to say.
Other than for lizards, the region is very rich in animal and plant diversity. I got some photos of plants flowering profusely in this rather barren region; some other day I hope to get some of the botanists to come here as well. We found a lovely orange-red Hibiscus flower and also some Stapelias with furry, dead-animal-mimicking flowers that attract the flies they use as pollinators. Daniel and I also noted the birds, and actually I saw two species that were all-time new ones (lifers) for me: Lark-like Buntings, and a Booted Eagle. Centipedes, scorpions and butterflies were in evidence, and we found a wonderfully stick-like praying mantis, and an equally intricately camouflaged, wingless, saw-backed locust, which moved with a jerky movement very reminiscent of a chameleon. Other reptiles we saw, but did not catch, were a few giant plated lizards, a couple of rock agamas, and a few rainbow and varied skinks. Despite all the rocks we turned over, we didn't find a single snake!
Well, that was that for our little herpetological excursion. I'm sure we'll do this again here as well as in some other interesting localities, and when we do, you'll hear about it right here!