Dragons on the beach

Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on Komodo Island
Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on Komodo Island

There’s not an awful lot to say about Komodo dragons, other than the fact that they are a huge lizard – the biggest in the world – and give us an indication of the reptilian megafauna that once stalked the earth.

Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on Komodo Island approaching a water hole
Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on Komodo Island approaching a water hole

They are not creatures I think anyone could find attractive. Respect, admiration and awe, but not affection. They are just too reptilian, too unknowable. What is going on in that tiny brain when it looks at us. Just the notion, I think, that we are edible!

Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on Komodo with forked tongue
Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on Komodo
with forked tongue

I didn’t really like them, with their deer-chomping habits and slimy mouths, but they are magnificent animals and I am very glad to have had the opportunity to see them up close.

Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) drinking from water hole
Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) drinking from water hole

I must confess that they did have an air of dignity about them. When this large one approached the water hole to drink, we scattered, but he remained still, upright and alert (first photo) for some time before moving in for a drink. After all it was his water hole. Was he being cautious or dignified? Maybe a bit of both. He (or she) had probably been drinking there for decades whilst we were only spending a fleeting hour on the island.

137 Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on beach with deformed foot
137 Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on beach with deformed foot

The ones on the beach were said to have been fed occasionally, which is why they are very interested and attentive when zodiacs containing tourists arrive to gawp at them and take pictures.

'Shooting' dragons on the beach
‘Shooting’ dragons on the beach
134 Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on beach
Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) on beach
Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) on beach
Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) on beach
Komodo dragon with open mouth.
Komodo dragon with open mouth.

The young ones, which spend most of their lives up trees to avoid being eaten by the larger ones, are almost cute. Until I saw one catch, kill and swallow a rat (below sequence).

Young Komodo dragon hunting up a tree
Young Komodo dragon hunting up a tree
Young Komodo dragon with freshly killed rat in its mouth (Komodo Island)
Young Komodo dragon with freshly killed rat in its mouth (Komodo Island)
Young Komodo dragon swallowing a rat
Young Komodo dragon swallowing a rat

It stalked it up a tree and then fell to the earth with a thud. It then raced off to a quiet spot (not so quiet on account of the photographers following it with their cameras!) and proceeded to swallow it whole. They shan’t be on my Christmas list. But like them or loath them, they deserve respect; for surviving so long if nothing else!

Baby Komodo dragon peering out of a hole up a palm tree.
Baby Komodo dragon peering out of a hole up a palm tree.
Young Komodo dragon resting on a log
Young Komodo dragon resting on a log

The poor animals which God, sorry evolution, has elected to be food for these giant lizards, are an attractive cervid called the Timor deer. It must be a rum existence never knowing when one of these lizards is going to inflict a venomous bite leaving you hobbling around waiting to be eaten. But perhaps only the weak and sickly get taken. This deer did not seem at all concerned about the presence of the dragons nearby.

Timor deer or Sunba sambar (Rusa timorensis)
Timor deer or Sunba sambar (Rusa timorensis)

All photographs taken in Komodo National Park in October 2016.

A Balinese skink

Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis)
Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis)

I am very fond of skinks and it was a pleasure to see this beautiful creature on a number of occasions in Bali recently. They are however, rather shy and I only managed to get some decent photographs in one location: the Bali Mangrove forest walk. These lizards are kept as pets by some people, so it is not hard to understand why wild ones are a little leery of human beings. These lizards have also been moved around S E Asia by humans in the past, either knowingly or unwittingly in goods and transport.

The Many-lined Sun skink, Eutropis multifasciata – which was formerly known as Mabuya multifasciata – is a medium-sized, lizard, which gives birth to live young (vivipary). There can be between two to seven baby skinks in a litter (1). The Many-lined sun skink has a very wide tropical distribution, ranging from southern China west to India, south to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea (2). Here is a picture of one I took in Chiang Dao, in northern Thailand (below).

Many-lined Sun Skink (Mabuya multifasciata)
Many-lined Sun Skink (Eutropis multifasciata)

The name ‘many lined’ refers to the dark scale lines (five to seven) which run longitudinally down the dorsal (back) side of the body. The Balinese skink clearly has the same pattern, as can be seen in the following photograph of one climbing up a curb to a path in the Bali Mangrove Forest (Mangrove Forest Nusa Lembonga).

Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis) climbing a small wall
Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis) climbing a small wall

The Many-lined Sun skink is a variable species and the colour of the flanks can vary from olive-brown to reddish-orange (3). The throat colour is also reportedly variable, from white to yellow (3). These skinks have the endearing habit of lifting one or two limbs off the ground, presumably to cool down. The same skink has raised its left hind-limb in the above photograph, but a few moments later raised its left fore-limb for a few seconds on top of the wall (below).

Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis)
Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis)

Sun skinks feed on invertebrates such as spiders, insect larvae, snails, grasshoppers and crickets (4). I’m not sure if this one was a male or female, but males are slightly larger than females and have larger heads. The Bali skink is very characteristic with its lovely yellow scales running along its flank. Other varieties of this species have a more orange colour, but all the ones I saw on Bali were yellow.

Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis)
Bali Skink (Eutropis multifasciata balinensis)

It’s tempting to think that something that looks so different is a different species, but that is not always the case if varieties can interbreed. Populations on islands such as Bali have become genetically isolated and are reportedly somewhat different from mainland populations, but not by very much. Examples of the different varieties are shown on Link 3. The Balinese skink was first named as a separate subspecies by a German herpetologist called Robert Mertens in about 1930 (5).

Despite the rather obvious differences between some varieties of this widespread species, recent research suggests that the Bali skink is not sufficiently different to qualify as a separate subspecies. For example, it was only about 1% different in terms of its mitochondrial RNA, from E. multifasciata populations on nearby Java (6). Presumably they could interbreed, but perhaps this has never been tested! It’s a pity that it is not a separate subspecies in a way, as the Bali skink looks so different, but the yellow coloured scales on the flanks is probably a superficial character and may not amount too much. That said, I bet the skinks know which ones come from Bali and which ones come from other islands!

mangrove-broadwalk-1

The Bali skinks were further inland from the actual mangroves where another skink – Mangrove Skink (Emoia atrocostata) – was very abundant.

Mangrove Skink ( Emoia atrocostata) in Bali
Mangrove Skink ( Emoia atrocostata) in Bali

Links and references

  1. Sexual dimorphism and female reproduction in the many-lined sun skink (Mabuya multifasciata) from China. Journal of Herpetology, 40(3), 351-357.
  2. SUN, Y., Yang, J., & Ji, X. (2009). Do not Compensate for the Costs of Tail Loss by Increasing Feeding Rate or Digestive Efficiency. JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL ZOOLOGY, 311, 125-133.
  3. http://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/lizards/many-lined_sun_skink.htm
  4. Ngo, C. D., Ngo, B. V., Truong, P. B., & Duong, L. D. (2014). Sexual size dimorphism and feeding ecology of Eutropis multifasciata (Reptilia: Squamata: Scincidae) in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Herpetol Conserv Biol, 9, 322-333.
  5. Mertens, R. (1930): Die Amphibien und Reptilien der Inseln
    Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa und Flores. Abh. Senckenberg.
    Naturf. Gesell. 42: 115–344.
  6. Mausfeld, P., & Schmitz, A. (2003). Molecular phylogeography, intraspecific variation and speciation of the Asian scincid lizard genus Eutropis Fitzinger, 1843 (Squamata: Reptilia: Scincidae): taxonomic and biogeographic implications. Organisms diversity & evolution, 3(3), 161-171.

Just like us!

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant
Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant

When I was in Bali (Indonesia) recently, like many tourists, I visited the Ubud Monkey Forest; also called the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. This relatively small (10 ha) site, as the name suggests, is famous for its monkeys. Officially known as Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), these monkeys are also called long-tailed macaques or locally, Balinese long-tailed monkeys.

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant among sweet potatoes

The monkeys are an object of fascination, but demand respect because they can bite if you are not careful. They are well fed and there are plenty of attendants at hand to make sure that humans and monkeys are kept apart, but the monkeys are intensely interested in bags and rucksacks, which they know may contain food. The dominant males have a fearsome set of fangs (below).

Crab-eating macaques(Macaca fascicularis) adult male
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) adult male

Unfortunately, some people are careless with their food, and either drop, or deliberately give the monkeys inappropriate food, such as chocolate biscuits (see below). Like some of us, this monkey seemed to enjoy licking off the cream from the biscuits!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) licking the cream off a biscuit
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) licking the cream off a biscuit

The reason why we enjoy looking at monkeys (and apes) is of course because they are so much like ourselves. How anyone could have ever doubted that were were not just descended from the apes, but an ape ourselves – and very much like a monkey too – is beyond me. You only have to spend a few moments in the company of monkeys such as these to realise that we have so much in common. Their behaviour is essentially the same as ours. It’s all there: maternal love, play, jealousy, conflict, sloth, companionship, sex and so on.

The long tail provides an easy way to hang on to an infant!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) female with infant

Crab-eating macaques live in social groups comprising up to twenty females and their off-spring. The young males disperse when they reach puberty. I assume that the juvenile and infant in the following photo are siblings.

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infants
Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) female with infants

Scientists sometimes pretend that they do not anthropomorphise when studying animals such as these, but because of our shared ancestry, it is impossible not to project our thoughts and feelings onto them and to try to interpret their expressions. What is this infant thinking?

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) infant
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) infant

We can all relate to someone having a little snooze or afternoon siesta!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) sleeping or dozing
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) sleeping or dozing

Quite what was going through this chap’s mind I am not sure! I will leave you, dear reader, to do your own anthropomorphising!

Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) young male examining penis
Crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) young male examining penis

Grooming has a social function. Like monkeys, we are bereft without the company and physical presence of others, although in our society many of us rely on pets to provide the necessary contact.

Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) grooming
Crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) grooming