If you’re a fantasy-phile, you’ve probably encountered the word draco many times. Latin for dragon, it gives us Dracula and drakes and, I’m told, a character from Harry Potter, amongst many others. In our previous exploration, we discovered a monkey that “flies.” Unfortunately, today, I do not have evidence to present you regarding the existence of dragons. Fortunately, the world is wonderful enough to contain a genus of flying lizards!

Like our previous study, Proboscis monkeys, the lizards in the genus Draco are arboreal, meaning they live in trees. I’m starting to sense that flying animals love trees! Also known as flying lizards or flying dragons, these draconian reptiles can soar. 

They’re also fairly adorable:

Draco volans - photo by Charles J. Sharp

These insectivores live in the tropical rainforests of Southeastern Asia, from the tip of India to Thailand to Indonesia and to the Philipines.

Currently, scientists recognize 40 distinct species. The type species of the genus is Draco volans, the common flying dragon. Interestingly, the different colors of the types of flying lizards match the hues of falling leaves in their habitats. This camouflage keeps pesky predators that actually fly – birds – from munching the tiny reptiles.

How does a lizard fly? In reality, they glide, but who wants to split scales here? The secret is a membrane called a patagium. These lizards can stretch their patagia over elongated ribs, forming wing-like structures. The critter will leap from a tree, descend headfirst to orient itself correctly, then unfold the patagia, at which point they catch the breeze.

Draco taeniopterus with outstretched patagia - photo by Psumuseum

Members of Draco are tiny, usually around 8 inches long, including the tail, but can soar for hundreds of feet. The longest recorded leap was 200 feet. The most incredible aspect of that feat was the lizard lost only 30 feet in height as it zoomed!

Like the Proboscis monkey, the lizards evade predators with ease and travel the forest in search for food with aplomb. Unlike the monkeys, however, they also escape each other. Male lizards are highly territorial. When it’s time to move out of another honcho’s domain, being able to paraglide out of trouble is a wonderful ace-up-the-scales.

Full-fledged, firebreathing dragons they may not be, but these flying lizards have one advantage compared to their bigger brethren: they actually exist!

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