Lightning Lizard

Photographed after pursuit [3]

A lizard so dangerous that you run the risk of being struck by lightning. This is the lore of the Maasai people in Laikipia about the red-orange colored agamas. Just as mantids will fly up your nose and a black moth is the harbinger of death, it’s interesting to learn about how certain organisms are perceived in different cultures and how over centuries the stories of human interaction with wildlife have developed a peculiar kind of ecological knowledge about them. Superficially it may seem that many of these stories are untrue, though often times if listened to closely, they can bear information that reveals something about the ecology or behavior of the animal. For example, in Australia there is a rare species of grasshopper (Petasida ephippigera) that is called Alyurr – “children of the lightning man.” They too are adorned with a bright red-orange suit and coincidentally are associated with lightning. After a mysterious disappearance for over 70 years, small isolated populations have been documented along the sandstone plateaus in Arnhem Land just for a week or so every year. It turns out that these grasshoppers coincide their breeding cycle with the onset of the monsoonal rains, indeed emerging by the hundreds at the end of the ‘build-up’ of heat — calling to Namarrgon for heavy rains and lightning. It was so special to witness the tail end of this event last year, with just several grasshoppers still out as storms loomed around.

Photographed in situ [1]

Red-headed agamas (Agama agama) appear to dominate the rocky outcrops throughout Mpala. They are successful in removing competitors locally through their high abundances, aggressive dominance displays, and in general simply low toleration for cohabitating with other saurians. Because of this, another species is often overlooked out in the field. The Elmenteita rock agama (Agama caudospinosa) differs from the red-headed agama in both color and girth. As opposed to iridescent blue in the breeding coloration of male A. agama, male Elmenteita agamas are light gray to white on the lower half of the body, contrasted by a deeper and even more vibrant red-orange on the head, shoulders, and belly. They are also characterized by a thicker and spinier tail, sometimes with alternating light and dark rings, sort of like a ring-tailed lemur but with less contrast. So far we have only been able to find a few patches of rocks with high local abundances of this agama. I wonder what factors are limiting for the distribution of red-headed agamas, e.g. microhabitat preference, elevation, patch connectivity… and how these small areas instead allow Elmenteita agamas to thrive.

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