Water Dragons

A colony of about 15 Eastern Water Dragons live in my backyard in Sydney Australia. The back yard is steep, very rocky, has a swimming pool, and is full of small caves - perfect lizard territory.

Eastern Water Dragon males can grow to about one meter long. The length is mostly tail - their bodies are fairly short and stout. They are striped in a similar way to Sydney Blue Tongue lizards, but are immediately differentiated because of their very long toes and spiky crest which starts at the head and extends down the back. The females are much smaller - often only about one third to one half the size of the males.

The males are territorial after a fashion. They'll chase each other all day, and can be quite aggressive to each other, especially during the mating season. However, at night I've often found two competing males lovingly curled up with each other in the swimming pool filter box - one of their favourite haunts.

Eastern Water Dragons are very agile climbers. They have long sharp claws, and think nothing of climbing up vertical brick walls. The younger females will often climb up considerable heights in the trees. The will climb out on very flimsy branches - places where BigBoy is too heavy to go - and spend hours just resting there.

Most of the lizards in my back yard are very shy, but there are a few that are the exact opposite. Apart from spending their days in the pool, they like nothing better than to come inside, sit on the lounge, watch a bit of TV, or go look at themselves in the mirror. In summer we often leave the doors open at night to try to catch any cooling breeze. I've often got up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, only to step on a lizard that's decided to spend the night in my bedroom. They seem to enjoy human company - and not just for the handouts. The lead male - BigBoy - will often come and sit with us for hours if we sit in the backyard reading a book. Some of the females haven't worked out that human extremities, such as toes, are not separate animals. I think they are short-sighted. If you wiggle your toes at a Water Dragon it will cock its head and watch for a while, and then pounce. Their teeth are so small they they don't even break the skin - your can hardly feel the bite, which makes me think its more an exploratory peck than the real thing, as I have seen a Water Dragon crack a chicken bone to get at the marrow. A neighbour once had his finger broken by a small female he was trying to hand feed - not a good idea.

Eastern Water Dragons will eat just about anything. They are partial to grapes, love mango and banana, and will readily eat chicken, bacon and beef mince in small quantities. They also eat ants, but not in large quantities. I have even seen a Water Dragon with a bush mouse in its mouth. BigBoy's nemesis - Teenager - once gave a pet lorikeet a nervous breakdown after the lorikeet had been put outside in a small cage to get some fresh air. Alerted by the loirkeet's frantic whistling, I found Teenager draped over the top of the cage, trying his level best to get at the bird. I've seen Water Dragons eat slugs, snails, flying ants, and most fruit. They don't like oranges. Sydney is renown for its mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches and garden pests such as snails and slugs. Nothing of the sort lasts very long in my neighbourhood - the lizards eat them all.

At certain times of the year Sydney gets inundated with bogong moths migrating to the Snowy Mountains. The air can be thick with them. On our tile roof, and the tile roofs of all the neighbours, you'll see lizards waiting patiently for a moth to fly by. When one does, the lizard will leap up - sometimes spectacularly - and catch it.

During the mating season Water Dragons are the most fun to watch. The males turn a brilliant red on their chests and abdomen, and spend their days chasing each other, posturing and chasing the females. The females don't seem very receptive, but will signal their presence to the males by lifting a front foot and waving it in a circular fashion in the air. I am not sure if this means "Come and get me" or "You're the boss" as I have seen younger males do it to older males as well. The same sort of behaviour has been seen with other types of lizards in our backyard (there are blue tongues, leaf-tailed geckos, and skinks) so it seems to be a universal lizard thing. Mating itself seems a brutal affair, and the females seem intent on avoiding it.

Mating is also a bit perfunctory. A male will aggressively start nodding his head and start chasing one of the nearby females. The female either runs away as fast as she can, lifts her legs and tail up, slowly walk around on her toes for a few seconds, and then run away as fast as she can, or just sits still. If it's the latter, the male will grab her by the spikes on the back of her neck and lie on top of her. He'll just lie there for about 20 seconds, doing nothing, then suddenly he'll twist both their bodies to one side so that their genitals touch, then release her.

The females lay a small clutch of white leathery eggs in any loose soil or sand that's in a sunny position. The eggs are about 2cms across, and feel like a fine-grade sandpaper.

The males will occasionally fight, but BigBoy always seems to win. He has only one small scar on his back, whereas Teenager has many, only half a tail (the other half is slowly regenerating) and is missing quite a few toes. Teenager once or twice had won a battle, and banished BigBoy from the pool for a few months, but BigBoy always manages to come back. BigBoy is also the oldest lizard: he is at least 15 years old. We first met him 1999, and, judging by his fully grown size, he was at least five years old then. When this article was last updated, in November 2009, BigBoy was still going strong. Some years ago neighbours took a dead lead male they had in their yard to Toronga zoo to find out why it had died. The people at the zoo estimated the age of the lizard to be around 35: it had probably died of old age. Some blogs on the internet dismiss this, but it's true.

The females generally try to keep out of the males' way, but if there is food to be had things can get pretty amusing. The lead males tend to stand over their grapes for a while before eating them, warily eyeing off any competitors. Seeing this a female will, with lightning speed, run over to the male, grab a grape, and run away - often so fast that the male doesn't seem to understand that he's just been robbed.

There are two other signals that Water Dragons use. One is rapid head bobbing, which I think means "I'm bigger than you, so watch out" as well as signalling amorous intent. Lead males will head bob at each other and any females within sight. Bigger females will do the same thing to smaller females. Another is slow foot bobbing, where a front foot is rapidly raised, then slowly lowered. I have no idea what it means. Water Dragons don't make any vocal sounds, unlike the leaft tailed geckos that also populate my back-yard, and which can hiss like a steam-kettle.

The females will lay their eggs in soft dirt - preferably sand. The eggs mostly hatch around December - January (high summer in Australia) and hatchling lizards - about about 150mm long - will then be seen all over the garden scuttling around like clockwork toys. The hatchlings are very very shy - and with good reason: most of them get eaten by birds and cats.

Cats are a big problem. Just a scratch from a cat will kill a lizard -albeit slowly - as they can't cope with the cat's pathogens. And cats love to hunt lizards. Unfortunately some of our neighbours don't understand that their well fed pet cat can still be a lethal predator. I am one of those who believes cats have no place in the Australian bush.

Another danger to the lizards is cars. Water Dragons will lie in the middle of the road to soak up the warmth from the asphalt. If it's a young lizard or a female, they'll get out of the way quickly enough, but the older males like to stand their ground, holding their heads up as high as they can. Often you have to stop your car, get out, walk over to the lizard and sometimes even pick it up to get it out of the way.

And, surprisingly, not all Sydney-siders actually like having lizards in their backyard. I can always tell when they pay a visit to a neighbouring swimming pool, as I hear frantic screams from a woman telling her husband to 'get rid of that horrid thing.' The males can un-nerve tradesmen as they are very curious and will come to watch any activity. A piano tuner recently was bemused by BigBoy watching him through the window intently the whole time he spent tuning the piano.

Being cold blooded they tend to slow down a bit in winter, and may disappear entirely for a couple of months if the weather turns cold. But even in the middle of winter, if the temperature is in the high teens or early 20s (centigrade) they'll come out for the day and maybe eat a few insects.