By Charlotte Owen
The legendary St George is famous for slaying a terrible dragon. You might immediately picture the huge, flying, fire-breathing kind but English folklore tends to favour an altogether different beast: a crawling, cave-lurking, oversized lizard spitting venom rather than flames, with impenetrable scales and a whip-like tail. Inspiration no doubt came from nature, combining some of the most feared and impressive attributes of our native reptiles and enhancing the result with a healthy dose of imagination.
If you know where to look, there are still plenty of ‘dragons’ to be found in Sussex today. Granted, they are miniature ‘dragons’ at just 15 cm from nose to tail but the Common Lizard is no less fearsome to its insect prey. It isn’t venomous (this trait was borrowed from the adder) but does have a voracious appetite, whether lying in wait to ambush an unsuspecting victim or launching a rapid and agile attack to take down anything from worms and slugs to spiders, grasshoppers and even flies. Once in the grasp of its powerful jaws, the lizard’s prey is stunned with a rapid shake of the head and swallowed down whole.
When darkness falls, the lizards will retreat to their miniature caves beneath piles of rocks or logs, or to underground burrows. They will emerge with the sun, moving to a patch of open ground to bask in its warmth ahead of the day’s activity. Their scaly skin comes in a variety of colours but is often a well-camouflaged muddy brown or olive green, with an intricate pattern of speckles and stripes. Their impressive tails are often twice as long as their bodies and can be shed to escape the clutches of a predator, when they will keep wriggling long enough to distract attention while the lizard scuttles to safety.
April sees the start of the breeding season and even this can be a ferocious affair. The male grasps the female’s head in his jaws to initiate proceedings and is often met with fierce retaliation. After mating, females give birth to live young rather than laying eggs, and these tiniest of ‘dragons’ measure just a few centimetres.