For those who work primarily in the West Indies, it can be difficult to imagine a lizard fauna dominated by anything other than anoles. However, if you’re interested in learning more about lizard communities that don’t include anoles, no book fits the bill better than L. Lee Grismer’s recent monograph on the Lizards of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and their Adjacent Archipelagos. Grismer takes readers on a tour of Peninsular Malaysia’s impressive lizard diversity, with species-by-species accounts that include morphological diagnoses, notes on coloration in life and among sexes, dot maps, and detailed notes on each species’ natural history. Grismer is the first to comprehensively review Peninsular Malaysia’s 128 lizard species, and his book represents the “first time the entire distribution of this fauna has been precisely mapped.” Of course, Grismer’s book is also chalk full of spectacular photographs, including many of Grismer’s trademark photos of animals in their natural habitat.
Sandwiched between Thailand and Myanmar to the north and Indonesia to the south, Peninsular Malaysia is a geographically, historically, and ecological diverse region that includes numerous mountain ranges, offshore archipelagos, and isolated karstic rock outcrops. The habitats of Peninsular Malaysia range from mangrove forest to lush multi-layered Dipterocarp forest to “post-apocalyptic” oil palm plantation dominated landscapes. Grismer does a great job familiarizing readers with the region by beginning his monograph with detailed information of the region’s biogeography and environmental diversity.
Most importantly, of course, Peninsula Malaysia is home to 128 lizard species, mostly geckos, skinks, or agamids, but also the occasional dipamid, lacertid, varanid, and leiolepid. Some 45% of these species are endemics, the vast majority of which are skinks and geckos that are narrowly distributed in montane habitats, isolated karstic rock outcrops, or off-shore archipelagos. The agamids, however, are likely to attract the immediate attention of anole lovers because this group includes most of the region’s arboreal, diurnal, and often conspicuous, lizards.
The most diverse agamid radiation in Peninsula Malaysia is Draco, the remarkable genus of gliding lizards that is found throughout much of southeast Asia. Draco is widely considered an adaptive radiation throughout its range and up to 11 species can exist in sympatry. Eleven phenotypically and ecologically diverse species of Draco exist across Peninsular Malaysia, many of which appear to be ant specialists akin to some trunk anoles in the West Indies. Its hard to imagine more interesting lizards than Draco. Even though they aren’t quite as species rich as anoles, they’ve outdone our favorite little lizards in several noteworthy regards. First, and most obviously, they have massive, extensible patagia that are supported by five or six remarkably elongate ribs. The patagium permits the genus’s remarkable gliding capabilities, which Draco are apparently not very shy about using. Grismer reports aerial dogfights between males involving mid-air jukes and weaves during gliding pursuit. Elsewhere he reports that one common species found in human-altered environments actually ended a glide by landing on him. Draco also outdoes anoles when it comes to display enhancers. In addition to their often strikingly colored patagia, Draco have impressive dewlaps flanked by extensible throat patches. Some amazing photos of these displays are on pages 157, 172, 176, 195, 217.
As remarkable as the lizards belonging to Draco are, they aren’t the only spectacular agamids in Peninsular Malaysia: Aphaniotis gapes when threatened, exposing its skyblue gums; Bronchocela boldly glides from heights of up to 15 m in spite of lacking Draco’s impressive gear (p. 144); males of one species of Calotes turn tangerine orange during the breeding season (p. 152); females of one species of Gonocephalus have a lavender, purple rimmed dewlap; a semi-aquaitic Gonocephalus has blue flanks and yellow polka-dots; still another Gonocephalus has strikingly dimorphic eyes – blue irises with orange rims in the males and dull brown in females.
Grismer also provides detailed notes on each species’ natural history. Although its speculative to make comparisons among communities, some of these Malaysian species appear to have lifestyles that are somewhat analogous to West Indian trunk-ground anoles; tending to perch low on broad perches that permit foraging on the ground. Pseudocalotes looks a bit like a twig anole. In other cases, different lizard families seem to have assumed roles that might be occupied by anoles in the West Indies. Peninsular Malaysia, for example, is home to more species of arboreal skinks and geckos than are found in the West Indies. Karstic areas in Peninsular Malaysia that might be occupied in the West Indies by species like Anolis bartschi are instead occupied by rock geckos that are sometimes at least partially diurnal.
I’ve only touched on some of the highlights of Grismer’s book, which is without question one of the best books ever published on a regional lizard fauna. I’m not sure I can call it a page-turner in the traditional sense, but I had a hard time setting Grismer’s monograph down; the writing is great, the photos are spectacular, the data are impressive, and there are thought-provoking insights on every page. In spite of its steep price ($120+), I think this book has a place on the shelf of any dedicated lizard lover.