Carnivora-Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard - Smaug giganteus (2022)

Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard -Smaug giganteus

Carnivora-Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard - Smaug giganteus (1)

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Family: Cordylidae
Genus: Smaug
Species: Smaug giganteus

The sungazer (Smaug giganteus, syn.Cordylus giganteus), also known as the giant girdled lizard or giant dragon lizard or giant zonure, is the largest species of the Cordylidae, a family of lizards from Sub-Saharan Africa. This threatened species is endemic to Highveld grasslands in the interior of South Africa. In 2011, it was assigned to the new genus Smaug along with seven other species previously belonging to the genus Cordylus, based on a comprehensive molecular phylogeny of the Cordylidae.

The sungazer is a heavily armoured species, with a typical snout–to-vent length of 15–18 cm (5.9–7.1 in) (exceptionally up to 20.5 cm or 8.1 in), and is easily distinguishable from other cordylids by the elongated pair of occipital spines and the enlarged keeled caudal spines.

Carnivora-Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard - Smaug giganteus (2)

The species is known as the sungazer because of its distinctive thermoregulatory behaviour of elevating the anterior parts of the body by extending its forearms, usually near the entrance of its burrow as if looking at the sun. The species is well known throughout its distribution, and goes by several different common names, in different languages. The most common local name is ‘Ouvolk’, given by Afrikaans landowners who liken the thermoregulatory basking position of the species to retired farmworkers, who spend much of their days sitting in the sunlight. The sungazer is also known ubiquitously as ‘Pathakalle’ by Sotho speaking people and ‘Mbedla’ by Zulu speaking people.

Unlike most other rupicolous (living among rocks) members of the Cordylidae, sungazers live in self-excavated burrows (typically 0.4 m or 1.3 ft deep, and 1.8 m or 6 ft long) in the silty soil of the Themeda grassland in South Africa. They are insectivores, but occasionally will eat small vertebrates. These colonial, ovoviviparous lizards reproduce every two to three years, and only produce one or two offspring per breeding cycle. They are long-lived and captives have been recorded surpassing 20 years of age.

Carnivora-Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard - Smaug giganteus (3)

The decline in sungazer numbers is a result of habitat destruction, and illegal collecting for the pet and traditional medicine trade. Entire colonies can disappear when a patch of native grassland is converted to farmland or otherwise "developed".

Sungazers are very difficult to breed in captivity, and successes have only been reported by a handful of places worldwide. At least some reports are likely not true captive breeding, but rather pregnant females being caught in the wild and subsequently giving birth in captivity. Wild caught sungazers are therefore imported from South Africa to the USA, Europe and Japan, where they command a very high price. Most of these animals are smuggled out of the country and are not accompanied by the CITES permits required in legal exports/imports of the species. In its native South Africa, it is illegal to possess a sungazer (dead or alive) without a permit.Cordylus tropidosternumandCordylus jonesiiare occasionally marketed as “dwarf sungazers.”

Carnivora-Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard - Smaug giganteus (4)

Popular sungazer lizards under threat from poaching
Poaching, habitat destruction put this unique and highly vulnerable species under pressure to survive

Date: August 16, 2017
Source: University of the Witwatersrand

Carnivora-Giant Girdled (Sungazer) Lizard - Smaug giganteus (5)
A sungazer lizard in its natural habitat.
Credit: Shivan Parusnath/Wits University

The Sungazer (Smaug giganteus), a dragon-like lizard species endemic to the Highveld regions of South Africa, is facing an assault on two fronts as farming and industrialisation encroaches on its natural habitat -- which already consist of only a several hundred square kilometres globally -- while the illegal global pet trade is adding pressure on pushing the species into extinction.

The Sungazer lizard is listed on CITES Appendix II, which means only the "grandchildren" of wild animals (captive bred animals), may be traded, these animals have been traded in Europe since the 1800s. Since then, only one instance has been recorded of an animal successfully being bred in captivity, yet, to this day, animals are being traded on a regular basis. Sungazers can sell for thousands of dollars each internationally, with the main markets being Japan, Germany, and the USA. If caught in the possession of a Sungazer without the correct permits in South Africa, guilty parties can face up to 20 years in prison or a R5 million (South African Rand/ZAR) fine.

Shivan Parusnath, currently a PhD student at Wits University, conducted a conservation assessment of the species for his Masters research. He found that the species' population has declined more than one/third over the last decade, and that just under half of the species' habitat has been irreversibly transformed by humans -- primarily for crop production.

Unlike the most other members of the cordylid family which live in rocky crevices, the Sungazer is a grassland specialist and lives in self-excavated burrows.

The Sungazer's natural distribution area is restricted to only parts of the Free State and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa. They only inhabit flat and gently sloping Themeda triandra dominated primary grassland. Like other habitat specialists, Sungazers appear to be restricted to this area not only because of physical barriers such as large rivers and mountains, but also because of the unique climactic niche in this region. The soil type, prey species, and temperature and humidity are all important determinants in where we can expect to find Sungazers.

"The rich and arable Highveld grasslands that the Sungazers inhabit is, unfortunately for the species, also the perfect soil for crop production. This leaves the species prone to danger when humans plough the land for crops," says Parusnath.

Similarly, industrial and urban construction to produce mines, damns, roads, railway lines etc permanently destroy Sungazer habitat -- Sungazers have never been known to inhabit previously human-modified land.

Because of their specific climactic niche, it is also virtually impossible to breed Sungazers in captivity. "Unlike habitat generalists that can expand their distribution because they do not have very specific habitat requirements, Sungazers likely do not even enter the process of producing sperm and eggs without the correct cooling and warming periods that they experience seasonally in the wild," says Parusnath. "On top of that, Sungazers seem to have a very complex social structure, and so keeping them in random combinations in a 1 metre long glass tank is not going to be very productive in terms of getting them to reproduce."

Over the last decade about 80 Sungazers have been exported from South Africa with permits on an annual basis, even though it is highly unlikely that they were captive bred animals, says Parusnath.

"These are just the animals we know about, and the real number leaving the country annually might be much higher. There was recently a case of a suitcase from SA being intercepted in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam -- and this containing about 15 live Sungazers.

Parusnath, is currently using novel genetic techniques to understand the effects of habitat transformation on the population structure of the Sungazer. Funded by the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, Rufford's Small Grants for Nature, and the National Geographic Society, Parusnath is developing and testing microsatellite markers similar to those used in human parentage tests to establish the genetic relatedness of Sungazers in different populations across the species' distribution.

These markers can also be used to conduct parentage analysis on Sungazers in order to either verify or nullify claims that animals for sale in the pet trade were bred in captivity before trading permits are granted.

"This will make a huge difference to the illegal trade in the species, since there are strong suspicions that wild-caught Sungazers have been laundered and sold as captive-bred with permits for decades," says Parusnath. "This study can also serve as an example of how laundering of wild-caught animals can be stopped, as Sungazers are not the only species falling victim to this loophole in the pet trade."

Story Source:University of the Witwatersrand. "Popular sungazer lizards under threat from poaching: Poaching, habitat destruction put this unique and highly vulnerable species under pressure to survive." ScienceDaily. (accessed August 17, 2017).

Journal Reference:
Shivan Parusnath, Ian T. Little, Michael J. Cunningham, Raymond Jansen, Graham J. Alexander.The desolation of Smaug: The human-driven decline of the Sungazer lizard (Smaug giganteus).Journal for Nature Conservation, 2017; 36: 48 DOI: 10.1016/j.jnc.2017.02.002

The Sungazer (Smaug giganteus) is a threatened lizard species endemic to the Highveld grasslands of South Africa. The species faces risks from habitat loss and fragmentation, and illegal harvesting for traditional medicine and the pet trade. Despite these threats, the current conservation status of the species was poorly validated. We visited 79 Sungazer populations recorded in 1978 to assess population change since the initial surveys, and surveyed an additional 164 sites to better define the distribution and estimate the current population size. We interrogated all known historical trade data of the species. One-third of Sungazer populations have been extirpated over the past 37 years. The distribution includes two allopatric populations, with the smaller Mpumalanga population experiencing a significantly higher decline. The species has an extent of occurrence (EOO) of 34 500 km2, and an area of occupancy (AOO) of 1149 km2. The interpreted distribution is 17 978 km2, and just under 60% remains untransformed grassland. We estimate a population size of 677 000 mature individuals, down 48% from the estimated historical population, prior to commercial agricultural development. A total of 1194 live Sungazers were exported under permit from South Africa between 1985 and 2014, with a significant increase in numbers exported over the last decade. Without any evidence of captive breeding, we believe that these animals are all wild-caught. Based on the AOO, level of decline, fragmentation within the distribution and suspected level of exploitation, we recommend classification of the species as Vulnerable under IUCN Red List Criteria A2acd and B2ab(ii–v). The establishment of a protected area network, genetic research and further investigations into the pet and traditional medicine trades are urgently needed.

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