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April 2020

Leaping lizard takes aim

I watched this Water Dragon leaping high in the air to catch insects. Its tongue is protruded from its mouth. Is this sort of behaviour common?

Answer

An acrobatic Water Dragon leaps with tongue protruded towards a flying insect, hoping for a mid-air capture. Photo: Lex Barton.

Chameleons are the most famous lizards that use their tongues to capture prey. This Sri Lankan Chameleon (Chamaeleo zeylanica) is catching a butterfly. Photo: Steve Wilson.

It is not common for lizards to catch food with their tongues. Skinks, geckos and most other lizards usually grasp prey with their mouths. However, there are some important exceptions. Dragon lizards, chameleons and iguanas belong to a large superfamily of lizards called the Iguanoidea. Among their shared features is the use of the tongue to capture prey. Chameleons are the most famous because their exceptionally long tongues are shot out as high-speed projectiles. When fully extended a chameleons’ tongue may exceed the length of the head and body combined. Although less impressive, the much shorter tongues of dragons and iguanas are also important tools in gathering food.

For Thorny Devils that dab ants scurrying in trails over desert sands, and Bearded Dragons that pick large insects and dandelion flowers, it is the short, thick, sticky tongue that makes initial contact, and draws food into the mouth.

With their long limbs, upright postures, keen eyesight and sharp reflexes, some dragons can execute rapid manoeuvres to snatch insects from mid-air. The Water Dragon (Intellagama lesueurii) in the photo is clearly demonstrating how the tongue is protruded to catch prey. The picture also records its remarkable acrobatic skill. It is testament to the lizard’s ability that it launched itself, not from a firm base, but from the mobile platform of a water lily, yet still successfully captured several bees in this manner. This unique high-speed image says it all.

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