Thursday, July 25, 2024

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HomeIssue 50A touch of light: waving at dragons

A touch of light: waving at dragons


Photos © Mike Gillam

Our resident dragons, bearded and long nosed, began digging egg incubation burrows before the recent rain. They test the ground for weeks in December and it’s not unusual for a single gravid female, bulging with eggs, to patiently start and abandon dozens of holes before she finds the soil texture and compaction to her liking.

A period of dragon rest was forced by the week-long rain, cloud and resulting cooler temperatures and when conditions warmed up, Gowidon’s first priority was hunting insects. Hunger assuaged, the dragons began digging with renewed vigour, helpfully aerating our soil and enhancing water infiltration in the next downpour.

The dragon pictured (at bottom) is Gowidon (previously Lophognathus) longirostris, often called Ta Ta lizards by virtue of their tendency to wave a forelimb when interacting with other lizards or, if you’re lucky, respectful humans. The long whip-like morphology of Gowidon’s tail is referenced by the less appropriate common name of Lashtail.

In early January the last of the heavily pregnant females will lay their eggs, numbering, at a wild guess, from five to twelve in a clutch. It’s likely some females will lay earlier and also possible that some will have more than one clutch between October and January. I simply don’t know.

Typically, at our place the eggs will hatch in January or February when the grasshoppers have peaked and the newly independent dragons will gradually disperse and work their way up the prey size scale. Growing rapidly in the summer months they will become dormant during the cold winter, emerging hungry in the following late spring/early summer.

The female Gowidon, providing gargoyle embellishment on our wrought iron gate, was photographed in January a decade ago. The temporary orange hazard barriers in place to protect fresh concrete, added a pleasing touch of industrial colour to the scene.

If you don’t see these lizards in your garden, chances are your yard needs some serious habitat improvement starting with the removal of that water guzzling biodiversity desert, called lawn.

Agile and long limbed, Gowidon is semi arboreal, so it likes to climb trees, stretch out on a horizontal branch and keep watch for insects. From this vantage, Gowidon will periodically leap to the ground and sprint on its back legs to snap up a centipede, grasshopper or cockroach. (Note: Mulch the lawn, increase invertebrate diversity and biomass and forget the insect sprays!)

All urban lizards need options for sun and shade and especially dense shrubs, jumbles of rocks or fallen logs, to provide protection from the neighbour’s cat. Gowidon loves a pool of water but needs an easy means of climbing out (suspended shade cloth is perfect) otherwise they will definitely drown. If your yard fits the ‘tidy town, cat marauding, pit bull bone snapping’ bill, then the chances are your children won’t experience the delight of waving at Ta Tas in the backyard. Discovering carcasses of lizards on the doormat is really no substitute. 

On a recent trip to the Tanami I was fortunate to photograph an elusive relative of Gowidon longirostris, the dragon decorating my front gate. I’ve observed this species in palaeodrainage environments in the Tanami over several decades but to my great frustration never managed a useful photograph. As any wildlife photographer will tell you there’s a sanity-preserving rule of thumb for such situations. Whether it’s a damsel fly or a dragon, nine out of ten individuals will likely prove uncooperative so you casually practice on them while waiting for the unfazed number ten.

On my last trip I finally got an image of a very relaxed and inquisitive dragon (at top). The first and only one we saw in a mixed woodland of desert walnut and Acacias. Note the enlarged nuchal and dorsal crest, unique facial colouration and absence of a distinctive white dot in the black patch behind the tympanum.

This is clearly an undescribed species awaiting revision of the Gowidon species group, currently confined to G.temporalis and G.longirostris. Central Australia gives up its secrets slowly. Finally, I have an image and I didn’t have to shoot a specimen with a fire-arm for the museum collection.

Dead lizards in bottles will always be needed to provide a small number of voucher ‘type’ specimens as part of the scientific naming process, but new technologies have reduced the carnage. Modern reptile taxonomists will be satisfied with fewer spirit specimens supplemented by photographs and especially the DNA samples taken by clipping the tail tips from wild specimens and releasing them. 



Recently in this series:

A touch of light: Gryllacridids in the Gidyea

A touch of light: ivory gums and sacred kingfishers

The complete series is collected in our Features section – see the menu bar on the home page.


  1. Running a course that has provided welcome diversion throughout this pandemic era, Mike has riveted my attention to matters close to home, a politics of the garden no less.
    And his homage to lizard Gowidon continues to sparkle with small epiphanies available to each of us caring enough to move from in the house to the garden, from media news to immediate news beckoning from rocks, mulch and bark in our yards.


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