In September 2012 I went on a field trip to South Australia to help my mate Jose with his PhD research. Jose is investigating dragon behaviour, specifically the signaling behaviour used by many species to communicate during territorial disputes or courtship displays.
During our three week adventure the plan was to go to Ngarkat, Dangalli, Flinders Ranges and Gawler Ranges to try and find and record HD videos of dragon interactions. Sounds easy right?
After Jose picked me up from Ballarat we headed for the border and took a rest stop in the Little Desert for a leg stretch and some light herping. We found several species here before moving on to Ngarkat. I’d just acquired some new camera gear to experiment a bit with lighting, so some of the photos didn’t turn out great (but they improve!).
Garden skink (Lampropholis delicata), a common species across south eastern Australia.
Robust Striped Skink (Ctenotus robustus)
Male painted dragon (Ctenophorus pictus). This was one of our target species but Jose’s permits only covered work in SA, not Vic. Image below showing the pronounced preanal and femoral pores of male dragons.
Female painted dragon (Ctenophorus pictus) with more subtle preanal and femoral pores (bottom image).
We arrived at Ngarkat in the afternoon and after a bit of sun and a short walk around near the campsite we came across a few painted dragons (Ctenophorus pictus), one of Jose’s target species, and a couple of birds. Jose is analyzing the signaling behaviour on a 3D scale so to do this two video cameras were used which had to be mounted on the same frame and be stationary when recording. So we set up all the gear, including a funky looking 3D cube dubbed “the weather station” – a reference structure to calibrate the videos, it is made of polypipe, metal rods and 27 ping-pong balls! I wish I’d taken a photo of it!
Painted dragon (Ctenophorus pictus)
Female golden whistler
After getting out there and locating some more painted dragons and eventually some mallee dragons (Ctenophorus fordi) we quickly learnt that catching their behaviour on video would be no simple task. It took a bit of time to get the two cameras aligned on the same target and by that time the “target” was long gone. Not to mention most signaling behaviour is directed towards another dragon so we were basically trying to get within a few meters of wild dragons before they ran into each other and began interacting.
Mallee dragon (Ctenophorus fordi), males have black markings on the throat and chest
Over the next few days we chased mallee and painted dragons enough to eventually get some footage of a couple of mallee dragons “head bobbing” to each other. And of course the bonus of camping in such a nice place for a few days is turning up some other awesome critters.
Bardick (Echiopsis curta)
Common scaly-foot (Pygopus lepidopodus)
Marble-faced legless lizard (Delma australis)
Marbled gecko (Christinus marmoratus)
Juvenile shingleback (Tiliqua rugosa)
As well as being an excellent home for many reptile species the spinifex was a great host for invertebrate life as well, the spiky grass provides a safe barrier agains many predators such as birds and when the spinifex dies it can form nice dense mats that provide protective insulation against the hot days and cold nights.
These metallic moths (Pollanisus sp.) would fly out of the spinifex if it was disturbed.
Female metallic cockroach carrying an egg case.
The wildflowers were in full bloom at this time of year so on the quiet dragon catching (cool) days I got some shots.
Flame heath, a favourite food of emus.
These sun orchids, true to their name, would only open on nice sunny days and stay closed overnight or in overcast weather.
The challenge of recording the dragons wasn’t the only problem either; the weather was pretty bad for most of the time. Freezing, blowing a gale, raining etc. This wasn’t good for our sun loving dragons, so we did what any reptile lover would deem the only sensible option in such a situation. We went north…
(DISCLAIMER: We revisited Ngarkat on the way back to try for a few more days after refining our technique, but I can’t actually remember if the weather was worse the first stop or the last. This fits well into the story though…)
Stay tuned for Part 2!!