By Jim Knox
For millennia, dragons have commanded undeniable awe, esteem, and wonder across world cultures. Creatures of unfathomable power and mystery, their likenesses have adorned and populated artwork, architecture, and literature through the ages. Clearly such immense and fantastical beasts must reside solely in the realm of folklore. Or do they?
There is a creature—actually 40 known species—that flies from the realm of fantasy into the tropical forests of reality. Shy and nocturnal, these poorly known creatures fly under our 21st century radar, yet they have been a source of wonder for biologists for two centuries.
The Five-lined Flying Dragon, Draco quinquefasciatus, is an Australian lizard of uncommon ability. Like their counterparts across the animal kingdom such as flying squirrels, flying lemurs, flying frogs, and flying snakes—yes flying snakes—these creatures are not true flyers, but rather gliders. Gliding ability, while rare among vertebrates, confers tremendous survival ability to those that can master it. Among these gliders, the Flying Dragons possess an exclusively arboreal lifestyle which limits them to life almost entirely above the forest floor and life within an extremely limited range of several individual trees within a forest. Such finite habitat boundaries require the dragon to employ a degree of specialization which sets them apart.
When looking to find a meal, a mate, or simply looking to traverse its territory, the Flying Dragon launches into action. By utilizing its unique adaptations in concert, the dragon takes to the air high above the forest floor. Named Draco (for dragon), these insectivorous lizards possess a streamlined body and greatly enlarged ribs connected by thin flexible membranes known as patagia. The unfolding and folding of the patagia is controlled by the intercostal muscles that are responsible for breathing in other lizards. Yet these tiny dragons don’t simply take a leap of faith and hope for the best. They grasp their patagia with their forelimbs to form a straight wing-like edge and adjust their patagia through angling, lifting, and dipping to change the shape of their flexible airfoil, generating lift. By employing this technique, the little lizards can cover an astounding 25 feet per second through the air. What’s more, they use their slender tails to counter their body weight and “whip the air” to adjust their trajectory in the midst of a glide. The powerful combination of unique adaptations and innovative technique enables the small 7-inch-long lizard to cover remarkable distances of up to 200 feet! While this is impressive, the feather-light lizards weigh less than an ounce and boast an altitude loss of just 33 feet over the course of such a 200-foot glide.
Specializing in ants, termites and their eggs, these small dragons are small, agile, and lightning fast to capture fleet insect prey. Skittering along bark and branches, the radical reptiles defy the odds, the competition, and the predators of the tropical forests. Ranging throughout Southeast Asia, India, New Guinea and Australia, the Draco genus employs similar adaptations and behaviors throughout their worldwide range.
As with most little-known creatures, the body of knowledge of the Flying Dragons could fit into a scientific thimble. Each of the 40 known species is unique and varies from its closest neighbors. While there is still much to discover, what we know is intriguing. Males spend their lives in the trees. Females descend to the forest floor to lay 2-5 eggs in the forest soil and leaf litter. After a one-month incubation period, the young hatch. Precocious, they require no care—fending for themselves from the moment they hatch.
With an astounding 20,000 new species discovered each year, it is likely our knowledge of Flying Dragons will expand. With it, the unique biology, adaptations, abilities, and scientific offerings will come to light. Through the fascinating and growing field of biomimicry, such discoveries hold tremendous promise for adaptation and application. With the first known ancestors of Draco quinquefasciatus, appearing on our planet approximately 258 million years ago, the form and function are proven and remarkably well adapted to life among the trees.
Why reinvent the wheel when Mother Nature perfected the design more than a quarter of a billion years ago? In the Five-lined Flying Dragon we have a creature which is simultaneously ancient yet one which offers to inspire future innovation and invention. Elusive, like their mythological brethren, the Flying Dragons may yet inspire us, enabling concepts to become reality—and ideas to take wing.
Jim Knox serves as the Curator of Education for Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo and as a Science Adviser to The Bruce Museum. A proud Member of The Explorers Club, Jim enjoys sharing his passion for wildlife with audiences throughout Connecticut and beyond.