Kingdom of the Lizards

science

Drawn by the promise of footage of keas1 in the trailer, I watched a programme about the natural history of the islands around Australia. In the course of describing the arc of islands from the north of Australia to the south-east, they passed over New Caledonia, which perked up my attention while I was waiting for the keas. I always knew that it was a very small island, but it isn't until you see it on a satellite photo relative to the huge bulk of Australia, and even the smaller swathe of New Zealand, that you realize what a tiny speck of land it is.

They presented New Caledonia as 'Jurassic Land', where the lizards are king. This is true in part (though there are hundreds of interesting species from all kinds of taxonomic groups there — except for mammals), but it reminded me of all my lizard encounters during my stay there.

The thing is that you don't see all this teeming zoological activity at first glance. You might see one or two geckos silently skittering across your hotel walls as I did on my first night in the country, but to really see the wildlife you need to go in to the forest and just sit still. The first time I just sat still on the beach, I noticed that after a decent interval the entire surface of the beach started to move. On closer inspection, the moving bits turned out to be hundreds if tiny hermit crabs, each no larger than the end of a biro. Most crabs have a solid hatch — called an operculum — which closes the opening of the shell when the animal is inside. But as hermit crabs borrow their shells, they don't have a handy door, and have to close the opening with their own legs, which are cleverly flattened and curved in an arc. When you pick them up, they retreat and curl their legs around, then stay still for several minutes. If you're careful not to move your hand, they gradually venture out again, and their tiny legs tickle your palm.

It was very similar with the lizards; as I sat in the forest quietly, the surrounding foliage gradually started to teem with very small lizards which were like trails of molten copper or mercury against the green leaves. Their sharp, precise movements were fascinating to watch. I saw the occasional much larger lizard, of which my favourite was one I called the 'roof lizard'.

For most of my stay, I camped in tent which was pitched inside the case of the kanak family I stayed with, which looked much like this but didn't have any walls. The family built it for reasons of tradition and ceremony, but didn't live in it. It was a wonderful construction, thatched with palm and pandanus leaves, and with very solid pillars cut from local coconut trees. After a brief siesta in the middle of the day, I used to sit in front of my tent under the case for a few moments before I went back to work. Almost every day, at almost the same time, there would be a resounding SMACK on the concrete floor of the case, and a big lizard would lie there — dazed and slightly reeling. After a couple of minutes of gathering its tiny reptilian brain together, it would wobble off the shelter of a nearby bush. I don't know if it was the same lizard every day, but if it was I don't think it had a terribly good sense of balance. Or perhaps it suffered from vertigo.

1 Keas (Nestor notabilis) are large and very social parrots — unique to New Zealand — who often live above the snow line. They are fiendishly intelligent, and seem mainly to use this intelligence to destroy things. They have taken to loitering around ski resort car parks, idly ripping the rubber seals off people's windscreens, and tossing cafeteria trays over their shoulders. Imagine a bunch of bright, bored toddlers set loose with a chainsaw in Ikea. The child — and the biologist — in me loves keas.

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