On the trail of the little known lizards

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‘Chick…chick… chick….”

The cry of a gecko is enough to panic many Sri Lankans for it is widely believed that one should never start or continue an auspicious activity if you hear a gecko when beginning the task. Similarly, if a gecko falls on your body, according to where it falls, there can be different consequences.Lizards-of-Sri-Lanka

This belief is so widely embedded among our traditions that almost all almanacs in Sri Lanka, including the most popular Epa panchanga litha, which began publication in 1855 and continues to the present day, contains one section entitled ‘hunan enga vetimae palapala’ (predictions based on body area on which a gecko falls).

Yes, we encounter them in everyday life, but we know so little about these little creatures. For instance, that there are 42 geckos found to date and as much as 31 species among them are endemic to Sri Lanka. There is no way to identify the strange looking geckos you meet in rural areas.

Herpetologist Ruchira Somaweera is hoping to change this with his new book “Lizards of Sri Lanka – A Colour Guide with Field Keys” compiled together with his wife Nilusha Somaweera. ‘Lizards of Sri Lanka’ is an easy to use book with a set of illustrated keys that help to identify a species at a glance – the kind of field guide any wildlife enthusiast loves to carry with him. The book also provides up-to-date checklists and information on lizards, including their distribution patterns and behaviour. The illustrated key is the first for the region.

Talking to the Sunday Times, Ruchira recalled his early days as a reptile enthusiast. “I have been crazily passionate about reptiles since my early childhood. One of the main difficulties I faced at that time was the lack of a user-friendly guide book which would easily tell me what I’d got when I caught a strange skink or a gecko.” There was no field guide available for lizards at that time and also the books that were available (most produced over 50 years ago) were not so good since you had to go through pages of text to identify lizards, he said.Nilu

At present Ruchira is doing his PhD in Australia, on the impact of an invasive cane toads on the endemic freshwater crocodiles at the largest man-made lake in Australia.  This poisonous toad was introduced to Australia to control beetles in the sugar cane industry but is now killing everything that eats it, including crocodiles. Ruchira’s days are spent hunting for crocs (with cameras and GPS), mapping habitat characteristics and dissecting dead crocs.

Nilu, his wife and co-author of ‘Lizards of Sri Lanka’ is conducting laboratory feeding trials with lizards and snakes to understand which animals at which level are affected by the same toads. She’s also assisting an array of other projects with regard to cane toad research.

Sharing a love of reptiles, Ruchira and Nilu have been on the trail together since they were batch mates at the University of Peradeniya. Ruchira’s first book was about Snakes in Sri LankaRuchira (Srilankawe sarpayin)., Surprisingly this book had a good demand in Germany (though it was in Sinhala) and ended up in the hands of few leading publishers who were interested in doing an English translation. Instead Ruchira wanted to do something new – on lizards. It took almost one and half years to complete the book, and he thanks Nilu for sharing the burden.

“The Somaweeras have now set a high standard for field guides for an important component of herpetofauna, and one hopes this example will be emulated regionally and globally,” said Indraneil Das, a leading herpetologist.

Worried about the rate of habitat loss which threatens the lizards of Sri Lanka, Ruchira and Nilu’s hope is that there will be more and more reptile enthusiasts, appreciating our amazing reptile fauna. The book has over 600 colour illustrations of over 100 lizard species spread over 304 pages. It is available online in leading book portal Chimaira

http://www.chimaira.de/gp/products_new.php/language/en and will soon be available in local bookshops. Ruchira can be reached via email on ruchira.somaweera@gmail.com

This is published on SundayTimes 20.09.2009 http://sundaytimes.lk/090920/Plus/plus_16.html

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