Airworthy Athletes: Here Fly Dragons

When a creature with cyptic colouring hurls itself off a branch — sailing through the forest, flying between trees

By Janaki Lenin

No one warned me of dragons on my first treks in the forests of South India. I knew to watch out for elephants, sloth bears, and leeches. But lizards with wings flying between trees? Not a word.

I sat down hard on a boulder in a dry streambed. Energy ebbed as I had oozed rivers of perspiration. The thin sleeping bag I had left hours ago acquired the allure of a soft bed. I lay back on the rock and stared at the patterns of the evergreen canopy. That was a mistake. I didn’t have the strength to get up, let alone trek several leagues more. Something flew on the periphery of my vision. Was it a butterfly? It disappeared before I could exclaim, “What’s that?” Moments later, a leaf sailed by, the yellowish-red colours aflame in the sunlight. But it had a head and tail. What on bleeping earth was that? I followed it with my eyes until it settled on a tree trunk.

The southern flying lizard flies from one tree to another in search of food, to escape a predator, or look for a mate. Photo: Sudheendr Bhat
Southern flying lizards are found across the forests of the Western Ghats and in some forests along the Eastern Ghats. Cover Photo: Sudheendr Bhat

An ordinary lizard. It looked no different from the many that my reptile-crazy husband had pointed out. Was I so exhausted that I was hallucinating? Visible in profile, it vanished when it changed position. Cryptic colours and patterns down the length of its seven-centimetre-long body blended with the tree trunk and lichen. Other pieces of bark moved as if the trees were haunted. Sunbeams pinned one of these reptiles to every tree.

“A flying lizard,” my partner replied as if he saw them daily. It hadn’t been my imagination then.

Dracos often signal and communicate by using a flag-like 'dewlap', a bright yellow extension from under their chin that they move up and down. It is the probably the only time you’ll spot a draco that is otherwise perfectly camouflaged against a tree bark. Photo: Sudheendr Bhat

One of the fantastic creatures did push-ups against the trunk. Not to build its muscles as I thought, but to threaten other males. Another mimicked its moves. As a football umpire waves a yellow card, the first lizard waved a bright, inch-long yolk-coloured dewlap, warning of breach of etiquette. As swiftly as it appeared, the colourful appendage disappeared. What was this magic? An answer flashed from the other tree. Accompanied by the piercing background score of cicadas, these lizards mimed in a silent argument. I would later realise this was an average morning in their lives and the dewlaps folded flush against the throat. The first one brooked no dissent. It peeled off to become a guided falling leaf and landed near its rival that ran up to avoid a confrontation.

To call that flying is an exaggeration. Unlike birds that turned their front limbs into wings, the lizard kept its legs intact and grew a pair of magnificent membranous airfoils called patagia. When the creature hurls itself off a tree, the colourful skin supported by six extra-long ribs stretches from the armpits to the inner thigh of the hind legs. It arches its back and hooks the claws of its front feet onto the top edge of the wings, unfurling them in the manner of kids holding their Batman capes with their hands. Two small yellow distended flaps on either side of its dewlap offer lift, balance, and stability. The tail steers like a rudder. Despite the simplicity of its gliding gear, the dragon can guide its flight to a specific tree, change its mind midcourse and veer off at a right angle, or even circle around.

Startled biologists of the 19th century called the amazing group of flying lizards or dragons by the scientific name of Draco, meaning ‘huge serpents’. But the biggest species is 13 centimetres long, not including the tail. Every little kid could become Saint George to these dragons. Lurking in South and Southeast Asia, they are the closest living representatives of the gigantic winged monsters of fable. They may not breathe fire, but they simulate it with their flashy dewlaps. Instead of hiding in the deepest darkest caves, they sneak around in the open, in broad daylight, evading the attention of their human neighbours.

A snack and drink later, I slowly rose to my tired feet and stumbled behind my partner. Treacherous roots tripped me up and aching muscles launched bodily disobedience. I wished for a patagium to sail through the forest. I saw it as an escape from exertion, but it meant much more to the reptile.

Has a hungry snake crept up close? No problem. The lizard can thumb its nose and dive, leaving the befuddled predator behind. Is that a rival encroaching into its territory or an attractive mate that it spies? Off it wafts through the air to rendezvous. The only time the male’s feet touches the ground is in infancy, while the female makes an annual descent to dig a hole for her eggs. Once the young hatch, the males won’t set foot on soil again. To calm its ravenous appetite, the flying dragon consumes not the flesh of men and animals, but lots and lots of ants and only ants. It picks them off as a conveyor belt of the sacrificial insects march up one by one. It may be the anticlimax of dragon lore, but it is the real deal in the ant world.

You’d think this mode of quick transport would spawn a host of species and the air would be thick with dragons zipping by. Birds, after all, come in every size, from small sunbirds to large sarus cranes. They occupy all continents, from pole to pole, from islands to continents, from mountains to oceans. Instead, fewer than 50 species of flying lizards flit in Asian forests.

Hilly terrain and high rainfall create a multitude of life forms. But South India has only one species of flying lizard while the Northeast has two, perhaps three. When two of a kind share the same forest, they change sizes to avoid competition with each other, one becoming bigger than the other. The patagia don’t keep up with growing body size and can’t support stout bodies. The larger species climbs higher up before letting go. It plummets before recovering and gliding   a short distance, unlike the zippy smaller-sized ones. Solitary species are all of the same slender build, best suited for airworthiness.

Although gliding liberates the lizard, it confines the creature to forests. The dragon needs trees from which to take off and land. Without them, it would be grounded. Across their range, males guard riches of the botanical kind, trees. They lay claim to several and won’t tolerate another dragon stealing onto one.

Flying lizards evolved about 60 million years ago in the thick, high-canopied jungles of India. When the subcontinent crashed into Asia, rainforests spread into the southeast, and the toy-sized dragons followed.

The legend of Saint George slaying the monster may portend a real-life crisis. Deforestation is turning humans into scores of Georges unwittingly putting pressure on the dragons.

Janaki Lenin

A city girl gone feral, she is the author of two volumes of My Husband and Other Animals.

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