22 June 2012

Froglife's Dragon of the Month: Sand Lizard

It's our monthly meeting with a Dragon of the Month to celebrate 2012, the Year of the Dragon.  This month, our Reserve Warden (and resident Viking) Paul Furnborough has been getting out and about looking for the UK's rarest lizard ...   

"In my spare time I like to see wildlife and hit friends with swords, but it’s rare that I get to both at once. But last year I got just that chance. On a sunny April morning my wife and I packed our kit and headed down to Corfe Castle for a long weekend re-enacting the battle of Warham, fought between Saxons and the invading Vikings in 876.

This took us deep into Dorset – a stronghold of our rarest native lizard and a species I’d never seen before – the Sand lizard. On previous trips we’d risen early and gone herping on local reptile reserves with hopes raised high of seeing any and all our native reptile species, but sadly all we managed to turn up was a solitary Slow-worm. But we planned to build on this and explore the area some more after the event was over.

I was shocked when, over lunch in the encampment, someone shouted out “Look, a lizard!” – and sure enough, there was a large, beautiful, green lizard basking right in front of me on the castle walls, and then a second, just as gorgeous but brown – a female. They seemed perfectly juxtapositioned to the Viking setting, but why? Rough grassland interspersed with scrub, stone walls, rugged topography with plenty of south facing slopes, decent connectivity – there’s no reason to believe that in this seemingly unchanging landscape their ancestors could have watched ours building Corfe Castle. But what lizards were they?

I’d assumed, in my naivety, that due to their larger size and intense colouration they must be Sand lizards – how could a mere Common lizard look so impressive? But since then I’ve seen very green Common lizards and with time I’ve become less certain on my size judgement.  I was probably being over-enthusiastic. But I still reported my sightings to the ARG-UK record pool, with a note warning of my uncertain ID and suggesting it might be worth a follow up visit. 

After a bit of digging I could find no evidence for sand lizards at Corfe Castle, but there is a well known colony of Wall lizards which are thought to have been illegally released by a private breeder, so maybe I saw two of these animals, which are also larger than the Common lizard.

Unfortunately when I returned this year I didn’t see any, but that’s just the way with herping sometimes. I’ll be back next year on an extended holiday, with an explicit aim of exploring more sites for exciting reptiles, so wish me luck for a full sweep of reptiles in 2013!"

Dragon Factfile: Sand Lizard
(Lacerta agilis)

Dragon Facts:
- Sand lizards require a very specialist habitat – either coastal sand-dunes or dry lowland heath
- They’re a very picky species which require patches of open sand for egg-laying
- They are mainly distributed in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, with some reintroductions in other areas - see the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust for more information
- They lay eggs in May or June with juvenile lizards hatching in late summer to autumn
- They are protected under UK law due to their rarity, more information is available from Natural
Male Sand Lizard in Breeding Colours

- Sand lizards are larger than Common lizards, with a chunkier head and neck
-The males also develop an intense green colour, which becomes even greener during breeding season
- Females are brown
-The key characteristic to look for is a spotting pattern, often referenced as eye-spots or ocelot spots, with a pale dash through a dark outer ring or c-shape.

- Click here for more information on Corfe Castle Wall Lizards
- You can report your amphibian and reptile sightings to the ARG UK Record Pool here 

Photos: Silviu Petrovan

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