The three species in the genus Hydrosaurus, commonly referred to as Sailfin Dragons, are among the most spectacular lizards on earth. Even after decades of working with all manner of reptiles in zoos and the field, I’m still stopped in my tracks by the sight of one. Unfortunately, the coastal swamps and forests they inhabit are being developed out of existence, and captive breeding is not common. Recently, genetic studies of lizards illegally held in Philippine pet markets surprised herpetologists by bringing to light a new species of Sailfin Lizard.
The Currently-Recognized Species of Sailfin Dragons
The Philippine Sailfin Lizard, Hydrosaurus pustulatus, is the species most commonly seen in the pet trade. Stoutly built and reaching over 3 feet in length, males sport huge crests along the back and tail, and are clad in several shades of green, neon purple, and red-tinted blue. Small wonder they are high on the wish-lists of lizard enthusiasts worldwide (and “large wonder”, in my opinion, why zoos do not pay them more heed!).
The Amboina Sailfin, H. amboinensis, is found in Indonesia and New Guinea; its occurrence in the Philippines is debated. Weber’s Sailfin Lizard, H. weberi, appears limited to the Indonesian islands of Ternate and Halmahera.
Unfortunately, Sailfin Lizards are a poor choice for all but experienced keepers with a great deal of space. They require huge enclosures and usually remain high-strung, even after years in captivity. Today, as in years past, nearly all in the trade are wild-caught, and captive breeding is very rare.
An Uncertain Future for Sailfin Lizards
In order to access the Sailfin Lizards’ status and formulate a conservation strategy, herpetologists from the University of Oklahoma surveyed natural habitats and pet markets in the Philippines (Biological Conservation, V 169, Jan, 2014). The coastal marshes and riverside forests upon which these lizards depend were found to be under immense pressure from logging, fishery expansion and other forms of development. Only 10% of the Philippine Sailfin Lizard’s habitat lies in protected areas – the rest is open to human activities. The species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
Illegal collection also seems to be a problem, as black market animals were easy to locate, and field surveys of easily-accessible habitats revealed few adult specimens.
A New Species Emerges
Animal markets in Manila seem to be the main source of entry into the pet trade. DNA studies of scale and nail-clippings from lizards found in these markets revealed that Sailfins inhabiting Sulawesi, Indonesia are genetically distinct from those in New Guinea; both are now classified as H. pustulatus. The newly-described species has not yet been named.
Why Bother with Genetic Identification?
“Discovering” new species via genetic research is becoming ever more common, and I think there’s sometimes a tendency to regard this as less noteworthy than finding an animal that is “new” in the sense of having never been seen, or seen only by people living within its habitat.
However, it’s important to bear in mind that genetic differences evolved over millions of years undoubtedly have survival value. Well-known examples abound – Green Anoles from southern Florida cannot tolerate north Florida winters, venoms of rattlesnakes with wide ranges differ radically (in response to prey defenses) from place to place, and so on. These unnoticed but very significant differences can greatly affect conservation plans and captive breeding attempts.
Also, properly identifying a species can have important implications where legal protection is concerned. Considering the horrific confusion and red tape that plagues international conservation laws, any means of introducing order and clarity should be welcomed.
A Sailfin Dragon “Substitute” for Lizard Fans
As mentioned earlier, Sailfin Lizard ownership should not be undertaken lightly, as they are quite demanding pets. However, those who are enamored of large, beautifully-colored lizards bearing “dragon-like” crests do have excellent alternatives – the Green Basilisk, Basiliscus plumifrons and the Asian Water Dragon, Physignathus cocincinus. You can read more about the care and breeding of these very impressive lizards in the articles linked below.