A forest full of dragons

The eye staring back at me was large and round and cold with a black pupil set into a flame-red iris that burned even in the warm tropical sunlight. It looked more like a precious stone than anything organic. It was set in a dull gray scaly skin that was sandpaper-rough to the touch. Above the eye were two demonic-looking spines: the first in a row that ran down the length of the lizard’s body.These spikes were a deterrent to any would-be predators: trying to wolf down this forest dragon must be like trying to swallow a spiked medieval mace. Not, of course, that I had any culinary intentions with this magnificent creature: I had only caught it so that I could take photographs and then take my time marveling at it. This was only the third time I had come across Acanthosaura natalia in my forest wanderings and I reveled in every second of what must be, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular of reptilian encounters.

Forest dragon
Forest dragon

It was my third encounter but would not be my last on this trip. In fact, our team came across the species several times over the course of the expedition. We had unknowingly entered a kingdom of dragons. And each encounter was unique. Though presumably the same species, there was, to my surprise, substantial phenotypic variation in the lizards that we came across. The naturalist in me wondered if the specimens I was labeling as Acanthosaura natalia might in fact be different species. One lizard was tarnished-gray, the color of a well-worn and scuffed suit of armor, while the next was a vivid yellowish-green. The most stunning was a juvenile specimen that we spotted scurrying up a tree trunk one morning while we were moving along a mountain stream. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a streak of red flash vertically to my right. Red? I thought. What is large and red in this jungle? I took a second look. It was small forest dragon. Yer, our local Katu guide, must have noticed the surprise on my face because in no time he scurried up the tree and caught the lizard. He brought it down. I was amazed. Never have I seen such an incredible reptile: its crimson head glowed with the neon ferocity one would expect to find on the signs that light up the streets of Saigon at night. The twin red spikes crowning its head gave it a devilish demeanor. I picked it up between thumb and forefinger and gazed at it in wonder for what must have been several minutes. At last Yer placed his hand on my shoulder and said that we had much work to do and that it was time to move on. He was right. I let the lizard scamper back into the jungle. It was gone. But its fire-red image remained burned into my memory.

Red forest dragon
Red forest dragon
Red forest dragon
Red forest dragon

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