LIFE View All

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles and amphibians might appear to be hang-overs from the past, struggling to cope in today’s natural world. But they overcome their shortcomings through extraordinary tricks and strategies to be a global success.

The pebble toad of Venezuela appears to be living proof that this group can no longer compete. It’s just an inch long, crawls very slowly and can only hop an inch. Yet when a predatory tarantula suddenly appears the toad tucks up its legs and bounces away down the rocks like a rubber ball. The tarantula is left far behind. The toad is so small and light its trick does it no harm at all. This kind of innovation allows this group to thrive.

The Jesus Christ lizard, from Central America, is preyed on by birds. An escaping lizard has an amazing trick for gaining valuable seconds. Instead of sprinting into the forest it runs the other way, across the surface of a river. It does this by pedaling its hind legs so fast that it only ever sinks a few inches into the water and its speed keeps it moving forwards. A human being would need to run at 60 mph to achieve the same feat.

The pygmy gecko of Brazil has another trick to prevent it sinking into the water. It is one of the world’s smallest lizards. It lives on the rainforest floor, vulnerable to drowning during rain storms. But its skin is so hydrophobic, water-repellent, that when washed into a puddle the gecko floats – it is unsinkable.

Reptiles and amphibians also need innovation when breeding. The Niuean sea krait must leave the water and lay her eggs on land, where she, and they, will be vulnerable. But she has a unique solution. She dives and swims down an underwater tunnel to an air-filled cavern at the far end. It is sealed off from the outer world and is a totally safe place to lay her eggs.

Reptiles must be also innovative to capture their prey. The chameleon has become almost invisible among the leaves so that it cannot be spotted by its enemies. But it has lost the ability to chase prey. Instead it launches a surprise attack by firing an extendible tongue the length of its body at its insect prey, immobilizing it by hitting it behind the head.

The Komodo dragon is one of the world’s top predators. It has a unique hunting strategy which enables it to bring down water buffalo, ten times its size. In the dry season dragons gather at the last water holes and try to land a bite on the back leg of a buffalo. The wound bleeds but the buffalo walks away. Then up to seven dragons follow it every day. Recent research shows that the dragon is venomous but in a prey as large as a buffalo the venom can take several weeks to kill. The dragons wait for the buffalo to die then they devour its carcass in just a few hours.

Life on Location – Chasing the Dragon

No one has ever followed or filmed a Komodo dragon hunting a water buffalo – this was the challenge for cameraman Kevin Flay. At one waterhole, and after a long wait, he managed to film a dragon biting a buffalo.

He followed the buffalo constantly over the next three weeks as it was trailed by up to seven dragons. This meant staying close to the dragons, which was potentially a very dangerous position.

The tracking process was emotionally difficult as Kevin couldn’t help but feel for the buffalo, weakening daily from the venomous bite. Yet he was also impressed by the power and charisma of the dragons. Finally, the buffalo died and he filmed ten big dragons reduce it to bones in just four hours.