Nature photography, political rants, and Martyman laughs from the ten-time award-winning author of "Cool Creatures, Hot Planet," "Endangered Edens," and the "Time Is Irreverent" series.

Lizards think I’m ugly

Marty’s photo of the day #3528: The following excerpt from my newly published sixth book, Hits, Heathens, and Hippos: Stories from an Agent, Activist, and Adventurer, takes place in Australia:

I had decided to hike up every river within a ten-mile stretch of Queensland coast. Since all the rivers dropped down from the mountains, I only hiked partway up each one. Whenever a climb grew too steep, or some obstruction prevented me from going farther, I would retreat to a dirt road near the coast and proceed to the next river.

I reached Emmagen Creek late that afternoon. The twenty-five-foot-wide river was the largest in the area, and bordering it was a broad, hard dirt bank that gave way to thick rainforest. Before heading upriver, I hiked to the mouth to check for crocodiles. When none were in sight, I reversed course and strolled along the riverbank. I hadn’t gone far when I heard something large rustling across the leaf litter. It was heading toward me. A crocodile? The last place I wanted to be was between a croc and the river!

I froze and listened. Whatever it was, it was just inside the forest, low to the ground, and about fifty feet ahead of me. I could hear what sounded like a tail sweeping and see ferns moving, ever so slightly. Then I caught a glimpse of its tapered snout. It wasn’t a croc. But what was it?

When the five-foot-long animal stepped into the open, I could see dark-gray beady scales, cream-colored spots, and raptor-like claws. Folds in her thick skin gave her an armored dinosaur-like appearance. Now I recognized her. She was a lace monitor—a lizard closely related to the Komodo dragon.

Though I knew what she was, I knew nothing about her natural history or temperament. If I startled her, would she fight or flee? I got down on my hands and knees, so as not to appear threatening, and snapped some photos.

I expected her to turn away at any moment, but instead she continued toward me. Her movements were slow, and she stopped often to search for food in holes and hollow logs. I decided to mimic her movements and crawl toward her.

As the gap closed between us, our eyes met several times. Soon we were less than twenty feet apart. I was excited and a bit nervous. Never before had a wild animal reacted to me in such a way. At ten feet, I stopped crawling to let the monitor decide how close we’d get. I was too big for her to consider me prey. She wasn’t confusing me for another monitor, was she? If so, did she think of me as competition or a prospective mate? I quickly purged the last possibility from my mind. That a large lizard might consider me attractive wasn’t exactly an ego boost.

When only a few feet separated us, the monitor paused and flicked out her tongue as if she were saying, “You are the ugliest lizard I’ve ever seen!”

She turned and headed in the opposite direction.

Our encounter could have ended there, but when would I ever get the chance to be a giant lizard again? I decided to follow. For the next fifteen minutes or so, the monitor let me share her world as she continued searching for food.

Every once in a while I’d whistle to get her attention, and she’d look over her shoulder and flick out her tongue, as if saying, “Nah. . . . You’re still ugly!”

She had an aura of intelligence that I’d never sensed in a lizard before. In fact, if I were able to follow her long enough, I could have watched her do something truly amazing: manipulate another species into protecting her eggs.

She’d accomplish this by ripping open a termite mound with her claws and then depositing her eggs in the hole. When the termites repaired the damage, they’d seal her eggs inside, creating the perfect incubator. Later—and this part is speculative—she’d return to extract her hatchlings.

Some people may call the monitor’s maternal behavior “instinct,” but if humans could do something comparable—perhaps convince another species to provide free, reliable daycare for our children during the terrible twos stage—we’d think we were pretty smart.

Eventually the monitor had enough of me and jumped into the river.

At that point, I decided, “Nah. . . . I don’t want to be a giant lizard anymore!” and that was the end of our relationship.

***You can read the rest of the story in Hits, Heathens, and Hippos, available here:

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