Encounter: Kashmir Rock Agama

At 6,000 feet oxygen isn’t as easy to aspire as I’d like. My lungs labour to adapt subcontinental lethargy to the punishing demands of altitude, and for a while I am oblivious to the spectacular Himalayan scenery drifting by in a sweat-soaked blur only furlongs away from my fumbling feet. As I acclimate, I feel the gentle breeze cool the sweat upon my skin, which tans slowly in the ultraviolet ray-laden sunlight.
Male (front) and female Kashmir Agamas soak up the sun

As the miasma clears, I am alerted to rustles in the grass that only reptiles can make. I hope for herpetologist’s luck to chance upon Himalayan Pit Vipers, but none come my way. Sahastra and I begin our slow ascent towards Deoriya Tal from the roadhead at Sari (a village mostly uncharted except by distributors of gutkha, bottled water and kurkure) in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. Minutes into our climb, we notice great fat lizards basking on the rough walls of gneiss. 

It is past nine on a warm day by Himalayan standards. But perhaps no other creature enjoys the sunshine more flamboyantly than the Kashmir Rock Agama (Laudakia tuberculata). As the rocks warm up and heat waves distort the horizon, they arrive like tourists to a beach, falling over each other as they squabble for the best spot to soak up the sun. Like all reptiles, they are “cold-blooded”, in that they have limited physiological resources to maintain a constant body temperature essential for metabolism. Therefore, they depend on external sources for warmth, and the sun (now available abundantly after a protracted and wayward monsoon) is the best source of it.  

A large male at the end of the breeding season shows only the bright blue limbs

Despite not being morning persons as such, their sluggishness evaporates as they bask. Drunk on sun, they grow perky and dart energetically among the stones. Their slate-grey bodies, which offer a fitting camouflage among the blue-green chips of rock, liven up with activated pigments. When young both sexes are stippled with bright blue spots, which are replaced with patches of pigmented skin as they age. The males’ forelimbs and hind-limbs darken from pale blue-gray to brilliant azure and breeding males can acquire vibrant shades of purple, yellow and orange on the flanks and throat patches. The markings on the smaller females also become accentuated during the breeding season, which lasts typically from May to August. 

Juvenile Kashmir Rock Agamas have spotted skin 

The Kashmir Rock Agama occurs commonly at lower elevations in the Western Himalayas, which includes mountainous regions in northern Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Kashmir. Outside of India, they occur in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

We were lucky to catch the lizards as they trooped out in large numbers from their hiding places in rock crevices to welcome the day. Some of them breakfasted on ants and small winged insects. Now and then an agama would choose a young bud or flower of the introduced Morning Glory, and make a quick meal of it. Some degree of vegetarianism has been widely documented in many agamid lizards, which are known to be omnivorous throughout the year. Breeding occurs in summer, when protein-rich insect food is widely available.

An adult makes a meal of a flower bud

As we ascended to the cool oak forest that skirts the beautiful lake of Deoriya Tal, we no longer saw the lizards. For the next two weeks our trek would take us to higher altitudes that were inhospitable for reptiles in late autumn. On our way through the foothills after our sojourn in the mountains, the Kashmir Rock Agamas were there to welcome us back. 

Text and photos by Beej

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