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Lizard Kings

Wild Lizard Chase

Monitors are the most challenging animals I've filmed in 20 years of shooting in the field. My film crews and I have captured many elusive creatures on film, from sea snakes to tarantulas to cuttlefish, but the lizards of the Varanus genus were the wiliest of all. These highly alert creatures use every trick in the book to evade human observers and their cameras. In this slide show, get a taste of the challenges we faced in making this film, as well as why we call these ancient reptiles "lizard kings."—Gisela Kaufmann


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Standing tall
You might think it shouldn't be too difficult to film the biggest lizards still walking our planet, but rest assured, it is. This is probably why there are so few films to have ever featured them in detail. Here, the largest monitor in my native country of Australia, the perentie (Varanus gigantus), which can reach over six feet in length.



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Living dragon
You may be familiar with the biggest and most famous monitor, the Komodo dragon (V. komodoensis), which can grow up to a formidable 10 feet in length. This one is "Raja," who lives at the London Zoo. But you may be surprised to discover that there are more than 60 species of monitors, spanning a wide range of habitats and behaviors, shapes and sizes.



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Mini monitor
There are even pygmy monitors, which are not much longer than your finger. The smallest of all monitors is the one seen here, the short-tailed monitor (V. brevicauda), here held by our chief scientific advisor, Dr. Eric Pianka. All monitors, despite their size, show the same fierce attitude and cleverness.



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Lizard Man
Our advising scientists, including Dr. Pianka (seen here with a rusty desert monitor, V. eremius, his favorite lizard), warned us that it would be exceedingly difficult to observe their behavior in the wild. It was a warning that rang true on many occasions.



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Fleet of foot
The desert monitors in particular are a class vanishing act. They can literally disappear before your eyes—that's if you manage to get close enough to spot them in the first place. (Here, tracks leading to a perentie.) Monitors can sense you from hundreds of feet away and usually dive for cover before you know it. Or they simply "freeze" and blend in with surrounding logs and rocks. The camouflage of their beautiful skin patterns can make them invisible even from close range.



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Master of disguise
All told, the monitors evaded us for long stretches, and it took a couple of years and a huge amount of patience, planning, and advice from our experts to finally succeed in filming them in their natural homes. Here, Malcolm Ludgate, our director of photography, films undercover in Thailand.



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Telltale sign
The most important clue to an unseen monitor's whereabouts is the track it leaves behind, such as this one from a perentie. Only expert trackers like Dr. Pianka can reliably "read" a monitor's movements in the desert sand and anticipate the animal's next move. But following tracks can be frustrating. One minute you clearly see the footprints, and the next, around the next bush, they vanish on hard, shrubby ground. Or desert winds just wipe them from the sand.



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Easy going
With enough time, some monitors seemed to realize we posed no threat and accepted our quiet presence nearby. That's when we started getting the footage we wanted. In general, the water monitors, including this hefty specimen of V. salvator from Thailand, were less wary than the desert monitors. They're still highly alert and "switched on," but they also showed curiosity and seemed to get used to us with more ease, as long as we didn't move too much or too close.



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Cool customer
The mertens monitors (V. mertensi) even became cheeky on occasion, trying to get into our bags to snatch whatever treat they could smell. Their sense of smell is amazing—they can detect odors right through layers of sand and mud. And they're savvy. One morning while filming at a lake in Australia's tropical north, we were caught off-guard by a bush fire. With the fire closing in, the mertens, including this one, remained calm—they knew what lay in store. Insects fleeing the smoke and flames soon began landing on the lake, where the mertens were waiting for them.



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Back of beyond
The filming took us to three continents—Australia, Asia, and North America—and certain locations made "remote" seem too tame a word. We spent a month in Australia's deserts, most of the time at Dr. Pianka's research camp called Red Sands in Western Australia, which took three days of rattling along dirt roads just to reach from Alice Springs in Central Australia. The camp lies a full six hours from the nearest human outpost. This photo shows Dr. Christian Rutz (left) and Lucas Bluff of the "lizardcam" team (see later slide) working at the Red Sands camp.



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Land of sand
Keeping the team and the highly sensitive HD camera equipment going amidst the heat, flies, and wind-whipped sand was a challenge, but also fun—sort of. By the end of our stay we had red sand in every pore and in every bit of equipment, had swallowed more bush flies than we could count, and were hanging out for a really long shower. But it was a trip none of us will forget. Here, the red sand behaves for once as Dr. Pianka and his field assistant Stephen Goodyear check a pit trap.



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Head shot
We also managed to get the first, untested "lizardcam" system to work in the wild. Developed by scientists at Oxford University, this miniature camera system mounted on the bigger desert species enabled us to get some live footage of monitors going about their daily business. It was truly a thrill to see how the footage beamed back to us from unwitting participants like this perentie excited our expert, Dr. Pianka. After 50 years of watching lizards, the "Lizard Man" was discovering something new. You know you've contributed to science when that happens.



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King of the lizards
Experiencing these prehistoric creatures in an ancient land, far from civilization and guided by a witty and passionate expert, promised at the least to be a unique project, yet it turned out to be far more than that. These lizard kings are not only charismatic, they're smart, often surprising us with the way they handled tricky situations and came up with some unexpected solutions. Despite the hurdles involved in capturing them on film, the monitors, including this perentie, truly cast a spell over us.

Interactives

We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.

Gisela Kaufmann

Gisela Kaufmann is the producer of "Lizard Kings." She also produced NOVA's program on cuttlefish, Kings of Camouflage.


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