By Elaine Vaina
| March 05, 2015
Have you ever seen a dragon breathe fire? I guess it’s a no! Yet, you may have come across a dragon many times and not known it!
There was a fair amount of eyebrow raising when the front page of Post Courier on Monday 10th November 2014 announced to the world that a team of our scientists discovered a dragon on Mussau Island in New Ireland province.
Some people expressed disappointment on seeing the front page of the Post Courier that the animal was actually a lizard rather than a mythical dragon. This wasn’t a mistake, dragons do exist and they are here in PNG.
Thanks to television, books and comics mythical dragons have become rooted in our minds that we tend to forget that these are just fairytales.
However, Nathan Whitmore, our Scientific Support officer explains that these kinds of lizards that were found by the team on Mussau Island get called dragons solely because they looked like the mythical creature due to their scaly skin, and the spines which run along their backs and heads.
“Fortunately they don’t breath fire, fly or terrorise people – which is a good thing because about 20 different kinds of dragon are found throughout Australia and Melanesia”, says Whitmore.
These PNG dragons are different to the world famous Komodo dragon which is in fact a type of giant monitor lizard, which is a close relative of the ‘kundu palai’ found in PNG.
Whitmore explains that scientists distinguish between different kinds of organisms with similar common names, like the Komodo dragon and the Mussau dragon by giving them a two part name to avoid confusion.
“In the case of a tiger the scientific name is Panthera tigris. The first part of the name is its genus name (Panthera) which refers to a collection of closely related species (big cats) and the second part is the species name which scientists use to identify a collection of individuals which can naturally interbreed together (in this case tigris = distinguishes these big cats as tigers). So, while a tiger is Panthera tigris, a lion is Panthera leo,” explains Whitmore.
While the WCS scientists are yet to identify the Mussau dragon as a species, they already know that the dragon is in the genus Hypsilurus because of its body shape, size and behaviour.
Whitmore said the identification process of new species is complicated. Scientists have to compare the animal against closely related but already established species. This means they must compare the anatomy of the animal (e.g. in the case of a dragon: size, shape, colour, number and position of scales) and their genetics to other known species. This process may take several years and is sometimes challenged by other scientists who disagree. Only when the description of the animal is published in a recognised scientific journal will the new species start to gain acceptance. Consequently it would be some time before the dragon found on Mussau can be confirmed as a new species and given a full scientific name.
“Next time you are in the forest you can try and keep an eye out for the dragons. You may find them perching on branches while trying to ambush their next insect meal. You’ll notice male dragons often have a pronounced flap of skin on the underside of their necks (called a dewlap). The male can make it expand at will to attract mates or scare rivals. The dewlap together with their spines, make them appear somewhat fearsome, as a dragon should do,” Whitmore adds.
Sadly, many of the world’s species are going extinct before scientists have even had the opportunity to find them. Dragons too are not as common as they once were as their habitat is disappearing because of forests clearance for logging, plantations and industrial development.
“Like so many places in the world PNG forest communities are weighing up the potential monetary gain from resource-extraction opportunities and the potential long term damage to their environment and the species, such as dragons, which inhabit them. It’s a tough choice for the landowners, and it’s their choice. I don’t envy them”, says Whitmore.