The Blanket Lizard, King of the Eucalypts

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Blood vessels running through a frillneck lizard’s frill, viewed from the back side. It would be incredible to somehow see all the blood vessels extending throughout the frill.

Because of the frillneck lizard’s (Chlamydosaurus kingii) elaborate frill structure, it’s easy to gloss over their remarkably long neck. Just imagine a frilly without the frill— what a bizarre morphology! To me, this species is like the giraffe of agamid lizards. They have elongated cervical vertebrae to create space for the large frill to drape over the body without covering it completely or touching the ground. Even so, on a large male dragon sometimes the claws actually tear the bottom portion of the frill, which is likely the case with the individual pictured here. When basking they hold the head high off the ground, resembling a budding termite mound to the passing eye. Read the short story below about Ga’ni to find out why frillies hold their heads high with pride— they are basically heroes wearing capes. When approached, frillies flee rapidly on their two hindlegs toward the nearest tree, where they will flatten their bodies against the bark. They behave cryptically, constantly moving upwards and shifting to the opposite side of the tree. Their sprinting gait and long neck give them a theropod-like appearance, and many people have told me they are little dinosaurs or “dinosaurios.” Despite their attempts to use the frill defensively in acts of terror, one of their names in Aboriginal culture is nganyjalaw, meaning “blanket lizard.” How adorable is that? The latin name of the genus has a Greek origin, “Chla’mys”, referencing a woolen outer garment fastened around the neck by a brooch.


Below I’ve linked to several really charming tales of the frillies in Dreamtime. I highly recommend checking them out! … ranging from the harbinger of storms, to a fondness for honey, a distaste for platypus, and a fiery frill. The frilly in this image inhabited a section of the savannah woodlands that had recently experienced a bushfire. Eucalypt bark was charred and blackened up to eight meters high, and many stumps and fallen trees eventually became obscured by the tall spear grasses. Frillies can escape bush fires by fleeing above the line of fire to the canopy, though in the late dry season they experience high levels of mortality (~30% in some populations). Bush fires also attract predatory raptors that prey on fleeing arthropods and vertebrates. Even if a frilly manages to escape a fire, it can count on literally hundreds of kites and goshawks ready to swoop down. On one occasion I found a female who had the rim of her frill burnt — an incredible survivor in a seasonally scorching and hostile environment.

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King of the eucalypts
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Milbi: Aboriginal Tales from Queensland’s Endeavour River, by Tulo: Bunyjul and the origin of the frill (link)
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Ga’ni the burnt lizard (link)
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A  beautifully-constructed frillneck lizard skeleton created by Vaukalaka

excerpt from Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines, by W. Ramsay Smith:

—Now there was a tribe or family connected with the reptiles that possessed knowledge of rain-making. Their totem was the elements– lightning, thunder, rain, hail, and wind. These people were becoming important. They resolved that they would not consult anyone, but would act as they pleased. They were the frilled lizard family. So while the conference was progressing they sent representatives to various parts of the country with instructions that on the days and evenings of the week preceding the new moon every lizard was to begin singing the storm song, and when the time arrived they were to take their flint knives and cut the body and cause blood to flow, and then were to smear the body with fat and red ochre and daub the face with pipeclay. They were to begin chaunting their prayer song, pleading that the Great Spirit of the lightning, thunder, rain, hail, and wind would grant this, their humble request. They sang, “Come, O lightning; come, O thunder and wind; come with all your force and destroy the platypus family. They have become too numerous.”

They repeatedly sang their song of the storm until the last few days and evenings before the appearance of the new moon. Then great clouds began to mantle the clear sky, and out of the black clouds the lightning flashed and rent the sky and earth, and struck terror into the hearts of the animals, birds, and reptiles. The thunder roared in reply to the angry lightning-flashes, and the winds came hurrying and tearing the limbs from the huge, towering gum-trees, uprooting smaller trees and shrubs, strewing them along its path, and driving the rain and hail into every hiding-place of the animals, birds, and reptiles.

When the birds saw what was coming they took wing, mounting upon the wind, and soaring up and up until they were far beyong the could and storm. The animals struggled hither and tither in the blinding storm, seeking shelter, travelling up and up, and dodging behind trees and rocks and boulders on the mountain-side, until they reached the summit, where they sought safety. Thus the conference ended in desolation and death.

It rained and rained. The valleys and the low-lying country were deluged. Nearly all life was destroyed in the great flood. But the cunning frilled lizards, while their medicine-men were singing their storm song, had sought mountain-tops, and there had built homes to protect themselves against the storm.

… The frilled lizard, that was hidden away comfortably upon the mountain-top, came out of his snug home, and inquired, “Why weep, O kangaroo? Have you suffered great loss among your family and tribe?” “No,” said the kangaroo, “I would not feel it so much had some of my tribe and family been lost in this flood. I am so sorrowful because the platypus family is no more.”

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Black storm approaching Fogg Dam. It was beautiful seeing the dark clouds move at such high speeds over the floodplain

… On the southern portion of the great camping-ground the reptiles were earnestly searching the traditions of their race, to find out what relationship they had with the platypus. The carpet-snake said, “I must admit that he resembles the animals and birds more closely than he does the reptiles. There is no likeness whatever to us, except in the laying of eggs.”  “And that is not much to go on, is it?” said the goanna, addressing the sleepy lizard, who was at this time yawning and showing his blue tongue.

Just at that moment the impudent frilled lizard threw a pebble right into the open mouth of the sleepy lizard, who coughed and coughed until he ejected the pebble from his throat. The goanna ordered the frilled lizard to retire, and said that if he began his nonsense again he would instruct the tiger-snake to destroy the whole of his frilled lizard family, as they had already been the cause of the great flood, in which many families had perished, and that he, the goanna, and others of the reptile family would see that this sort of thing did not occur again.

So the frilled lizard wandered away. He said he would not take any more interest in tracing his relationship to the platypus. He sulked and brooded over being ordered away from the conference. His whole being was filled with hatred, and he bears the ugly frown of anger today in the spiky frill of whiskers on each side of his face. The more he thought of the humiliation imposed upon him by the goanna the uglier he became. The goanna instructed the other members of his tribe to keep an eye upon the wicked frilled lizard, to prevent him from causing further trouble.

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Rock art of two frillies in Arnhem land, photo taken by my friend, Maddie Sanders

excerpt from Dingo makes us Human, life and land in an Australian Aboriginal culture, by Deborah Bird Rose:

—The gliding possum was playing the didjeridu in the coastal area to the north of Yarralin. She and the blanket lizard decided to travel south, playing the didjeridu all the way. At each stop they found that when they played to the north they were heard, but when they played to the south they sounded faint. When they got to a hill near Daguragu they found that they had no wind left at all. Unable to play, they turned back and went home. The gliding possum and the blanket lizard were testing social, cultural, and geographical boundaries, taking salt water culture– Wangka and didjeridu– down to the desert fringe.

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The “gliding possum,” northern glider; photographed after pursuit [3]

Below is a selection of frilly images from Fogg Dam from my previous blog posts. I caught the lizards for my study as the slept high in the eucalypt canopy at night (with appropriate permits). All of the photographs in this post are taken during capture or release [5]

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Godzilla frilly (F13)
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