Hues of a dragon's belly: morphological correlates of ventral coloration in water dragons


José Javier Cuervo, Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Calle General Segura 1, E-04001 Almería, Spain.


Sexual dichromatism is common in lizards, and may play an important role in sex recognition and mating systems. Nonetheless, relatively few published papers provide quantitative analyses of colour, deal with Australian taxa or are based on large-bodied species. Water dragons Physignathus lesueurii (Agamidae) from eastern Australia are very large (upto 1 m total length) and sexually dichromatic, with conspicuous red ventral coloration in adult males. We quantified coloration in three ventral regions (throat, chest and abdomen) of males and females using a spectroradiometer and looked for associations of colour with sex and with morphological traits predicted to correlate with fitness (body size, body condition, relative head size and asymmetry of femoral pores). Among adult males, larger individuals showed less red on the abdomen than did smaller animals, and males with relatively large heads had darker, less red abdomens than did males with smaller heads. Among adult females, larger animals had darker chests, and less red on the abdomen and chest, than did smaller females. The similarity in these trends between the sexes, and the location of the sexually dichromatic and size-sensitive colours in an area (under the abdomen) where they presumably are not visible to other lizards cast doubt on their utility as sexual or dominance signals. Hence, although we documented significant sex and body-size effects on ventral coloration, our results suggest that ventral colours in water dragons do not function in sex-specific displays.