With movies, tv shows and stories ranging from Godzilla, Attack of Swamp Thing, Bujang Senang of Sarawak, the late Steve Irwin to Swamp People.. we seem to have a fixation to the many magnificent reptiles that we share our planet with. Whether you are on a boat in the Kinabatangan, Rejang, Setiu or Sg Linggi, there is mystic and ecotourism packages even, to spot a crocodile or large reptile in the wild.
Though far more frequent and even smaller in size to its crocodilian cousins, the report is about a beast, growing to around 7 feet in length and seen now more frequently in urban and sub urban areas – the monitor lizard. In Southeast Asia, there are about 5 species, 4 of which occur in Malaysia.
While visiting Kuala Selangor Nature Park (1 hr drive from Kuala Lumpur) a few months ago, a friend was amazed when I told him..”Welcome to the land of lizards”. There in front of us, barely 5 feet away was a motionless monitor lizard, about 2 1/2 feet in length, a young lizard by normal standards. Obviously sunning itself and very used to humans, it lazily crawled along the wooden plank and dived away in the canal below it, only to emerge 30 feet away! This was only the first of 5 other larger lizards that we observed around the park. The largest being over 7 feet in length!
Getting back to the car and reviewing the photos and checking thorough Indraneil Das’ “A Field Guide To The Reptiles of Southeast Asia”, we were happy to have learnt a bit more about the other varieties of monitor lizards and how the position and shape of the nostrils (among other obvious tell tale signs) help in the process of identification. The Water Monitor Lizard Varanus salvator or biawak air in Bahasa Malaysia is indeed something of a local marvel and never ceases to amaze.
Deriving its name Varanus from Arabic meaning “lizard” and with its popular posture to stand on its hind legs as if to “monitor” its surrounding, monitor lizards are generally large reptiles with long necks, powerful tails and claws, and well-developed limbs. Most species are terrestrial, arboreal , semiaquatic and very fast on land and in water, even climbing trees. Monitor lizards differ greatly from other lizards in several ways, possessing a relatively high metabolic rate for reptiles, and several sensory adaptations that benefit the hunting of live prey. Recent research indicates the some of these lizards may have some venom. This discovery of venom in monitor lizards, as well as in agamid lizards, led to the Toxicofera hypothesis: that all venomous lizards and snakes share a common venomous ancestor. Monitor lizards are known to give a nasty bite and people are advised to not approach and/or come into contact with this wildlife.