In 2011 the genus of the Sungazer was changed from Cordylus to Smaug. This was based on a mitochondrial DNA analysis that placed the Sungazer, along with a few of the other large cordylids, in the new genus.
The name Smaug is taken from the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (above). Smaug was a fierce dragon with impenetrable body armour that lived in a cave underground, and it is quite possible that Tolkien drew inspiration from the Sungazer for this character as the author was born and spent the first few years of his life in the Free State.
The large caudal spines are used to fend off attackers.
A blood sample is drawn from a Sungazer.
Rare Sungazers pose tough challenge for conservators
In October 2011 ten Sungazer Lizards (Smaug giganteus) were donated to the Reptile Park of the National Zoo as part of a new conservation project for these rare lizards. The project, initiated by Dr Ian Little, Manager of the Threatened Grassland Species Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), is a collaborative effort coordinated by the EWT.
Sungazers are a species of girdled lizard endemic to South Africa and their habitat is limited mainly to the highveld grasslands of the Free State. Currently Sungazers are listed as 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and international trade in these animals is limited as they are listed under CITES Appendix II.
The common name for the Sungazers refers to the characteristic stance these lizards take when basking in the sun at the entrance to their underground burrows. The Sungazers are also sometimes called Giant Girdled Lizards and are often locally referred to as 'Ouvolk'.
Historically Sungazers were common in their natural habitat, but over the last few decades there has been a significant decrease in the numbers of wild Sungazers. This can be attributed to a number of factors. The two most significant threats these lizards face are continued habitat destruction and illegal collection of wild specimens for the pet trade.
The Sungazer's natural habitat (highveld grasslands) is unfortunately also very good land for agriculture and as such much of their habitat has been destroyed. Many farming practices have led to the fragmentation of existing populations into smaller isolated groups which are more likely to become locally extinct.
The second biggest threat to these lizards is collection for the pet trade market. Most of the Sungazers that are illegally collected in South Africa are smuggled overseas where they are sold privately or at reptile expos as "captive-bred" animals. However, Sungazers are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity and there are only a handful of institutions worldwide that have successfully bred them.
As noted by Althea Guinsberg in the most recent Sungazer Regional Studbook, none of the participating institutions have so far achieved bona fide captive breeding. Often cases of 'captive-breeding' occur simply when a female lizard was caught out of the wild in a gravid/pregnant state and then gave birth in captivity.
Sungazer conservation project
Although Sungazers are already listed as 'Vulnerable', the last time this species was reviewed by the IUCN was eighteen years ago. It is for this reason that a Sungazer conservation project was set up last year -- a collaboration between a number of universities and other institutions, including the National Zoo.
As part of the Sungazer conservation project, Shivan Parusnath, an MSc student at the University of the Witwatersrand is currently doing his Masters research project on the conservation of the Sungazer. The project aims to assess the status of wild Sungazer populations across their distribution range and to examine the effects of different habitat management types on local populations. This information will allow for an updated IUCN Red List assessment to be conducted.
There is a high likelihood that with this research and an updated assessment these lizards will be moved to the 'Endangered' category by the IUCN. Finally, the project will identify areas where the Sungazer will benefit most from protection in the form of formal reserves.
Landscape genetics of the Sungazer
Shivan will also be collecting tissue samples from Sungazers across its distribution range for a collaborative study with Professor Antoinette Kotze, Manager of Research and Scientific Services at the NZG. This research will explore the landscape genetics of the Sungazer, as well as genetic variation between and within adjacent populations. Tissue samples have been taken from the Sungazers being housed at the NZG, and these will be used to develop and test primers to amplify microsatellites for the species.
The conservation status of the Sungazer has long been neglected and this pertinent research is a big step towards the conservation of this unique and charismatic species.
Finding a sanctuary at the NZG
The NZG received these ten rare lizards as part of the Sungazer conservation project, They were originally housed in Durban by a private individual and were in a very bad state when they arrived at the NZG. Although none of them appeared to be emaciated, most were missing digits on their hands and feet, and they were all suffering from various other ailments. The most concerning was a serious skin infection, caused by a Streptomyces bacteria, which had led to numerous abnormal lesions on most of the lizards' scales.
When the Sungazers first arrived, they were accommodated in the Quarantine Room where the Komodo Dragons were originally housed for their quarantine period. Three large indoor enclosures were modified for the Sungazers. They were filled with sand to allow the Sungazers to dig burrows as they would in the wild and special Ultraviolet (UV) lights were installed. Each individual was fitted with a microchip and identity photographs were taken for easy recognition of individual animals.
All of them were taken to the NZG's veterinary hospital for a check up where they were treated by Dr Adrian Tordiffe and Dr Ian Espie. Many of the Sungazers were put on a course of antibiotics to help overcome the bacterial skin condition. Four of them improved quite well and have since been moved to an outdoor enclosure where they can get natural sunlight which is very beneficial for them. However, six have still not fully recovered and are now on a new course of long-term antibiotics.
Recreating their diet in the wild
When the Sungazers first arrived, they refused to eat most of the food we were offering them. Many captive Sungazers get fed a diet purely made up of tinned dog or cat food. While this is fine in small amounts it should not make up the entire diet of these lizards and often leads to them becoming obese or having kidney problems. The wild diet of Sungazers consists almost exclusively of insects, mostly beetles. We have tried hard to re-create this diet in captivity and we are pleased to report that almost all of our Sungazers are now eating very well.
The four Sungazers that we have moved to the small temporary outdoor enclosure are flourishing and we are hoping to move all the Sungazers to a larger outdoor enclosure in the near future. We are desperately looking for funding to begin building this enclosure.
I would like to say a big thank you to everyone involved in the Sungazer conservation project for entrusting us with these ten rare lizards. I would also like to thank the NZG's veterinary department as well as to Shivan Parusnath for his input and assistance in writing this article as well as for providing the NZG with valuable information on the Sungazers.
I would also like to thank the Reptile Park staff for looking after the Sungazers; especially Chris Cooke and Given Phaswana for showing a genuine interest in these lizards, and for taking special care of their day-to-day wellbeing.
Michael Adams, Reptile Conservator, NZG Pictures by Chris Cooke, NZG
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