Chasing the dragon's tail

Richard Peters has been travelling to the Tibetan plateau to observe how lizards communicate in their natural habitat.

On the Tibetan plateau 3,500 metres above sea level, a ten hour bus ride from the city of Chengdu, China, there’s a population of lizards called the Qinghai toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus vlangalii). They live in burrows on the rocky ground, amongst the sand dunes, clumps of grass, and the occasional yak or hardy goat. It’s a remote place to travel to study lizard behaviour, but to Dr Richard Peters it’s a necessary journey.

Like many species of lizards, P. vlangalii use their tail to communicate, and a series of flicks or curls can warn an enemy away, court a mate or signal to another lizard. Observing and filming their behaviour in the field can give an accurate account of how and why motion signals vary, and whether it’s dependent on conditions.

“If you want to get an accurate picture of how these lizards communicate to each other it won’t work in captivity,” says Dr Peters. “The lizard needs to be in its own habitat, and comfortable enough that it’s going to act naturally. It’s not going to do that in the lab, so that means we have to go to the lizard, out on the plateau.”

Dr Peters is a zoologist who has spent his career studying reptile behaviour, in particular the tail-flicking behaviour of lizards. He’s worked extensively in Australia and Ecuador, and his current collaboration with Dr Qi Yin of the Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, takes him to China.

lizard“The toad-headed agama is an excellent subject for us because of their complex dynamic tail displays, simple desert habitat, and population density,” says Dr Qi. “This provides us with an excellent system to test the function and evolution of dynamic visual signals.”

Travelling to China for a month armed with filming equipment and rugged field gear yielded results, and Drs Peters and Qi have been able to observe and document the behaviour of P. vlangalii and begin to develop 3D animations to replicate it. Working with PhD students Jose Ramos and Yayong Wu they have now published their first of a number of collaborative research papers in the journal Scientific Reports.

While signaling is usually just a trait of the male, the tail-flicking behaviour has also been observed in the female P. vlangalii. While it’s unusual it isn’t unheard of, and Dr Peters says these lizards have a lot at stake in their environment.

“To these lizards their burrow is the center of their universe,” he says. “If they lose it they’re without shelter, and if winter hits it can mean their life, so they can protect it fairly fiercely.”

In the future their research will focus on refining 3D animations to provoke the P. vlangalii to signal in controlled conditions. Their filming and observation techniques will also be applied to other species of Phrynocephalus lizards in China, and a trip with Dr Qi to observe lizard populations in Victoria, South Australia and Northern Territory, Australia is also in the planning.

“I hope to see different lizards and learn how to do animation playback study in the field when visiting Australia,” says Dr Qi “This will contribute a lot to my next years' study on display function and efficacy of the toad-headed agama, and facilitate our future comparative study on lizards signals between north and south hemisphere.”

“So far our collaboration has been very successful, and we both bring different strengths to the research,” says Dr Peters. “I look forward to hearing Dr Qi’s perspective on our local lizard wildlife.”