The Southern rock agama (Agama atra) / Bloukop Koggelmander

South Africa’s Southern rock agama is a family member of the Australian Bearded dragon. Although these two lizard species are about 10 000 km / 6 400 miles apart, there are a few interesting similarities between them.

Southern rock agamas (Agama atra) are described as rather sociable, diurnal, insectivorous lizards, growing up to about 25cm / 10″ in length. Hence the Afrikaans name ‘Bloukop koggelmander‘ (which directly translates to blue head lizard), the heads and upper bodies of the males become bright blue during the breeding season. In contrast with males, the colouration of females are dull which are mainly greyish-brown in colour.

Male Southern rock agama (Agama atra). Males are usually brighter in colour and have distinctive blue heads and upper bodies. Image Bernard DUPONT (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Just like Bearded dragons, Southern rock agamas are from the Family Agamidae. This Family, which is in the Order Squamata, includes all the Old world lizards. Agamidae consist of a very diverse family of, so-called, ‘dragons’, found in Asia, Africa, Europe, Middle East and Australia. All of the Agamidae have large mouths and distinctive shaped heads with spikes or thorn-like structures. When compared with the Inland Bearded dragon, Southern rock agamas are slightly smaller and less robust. Although their spikes are clearly visible, they are smaller when compared with the spikes of Bearded dragons. Although the spikes of agamas are smaller, the body texture is much more prickly to the touch.

Female Southern rock agama (Agama atra). When compared with males, females have smaller heads and are usually paler in colour. Image Sennahoj1 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unlike Bearded dragons, Southern rock agamas are quite agile and definitely not as docile. Although they are not protected by law in some South African provinces, they are generally not kept as lizard pets. These lizards are very fast runners and very skittish when approached, even from a distance. When approached, rock agamas will often run away and hide for the rest of the day.

Being the African counterpart of the Bearded dragon, Southern rock agamas are mainly distributed in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. During the day, rock agamas are usually seen basking on elevated rocks. Males are more frequently seen than juveniles and females. Although they have been observed in many environments, the Southern rock agama prefers dryer mountainous areas. In urban areas, they are often found sitting on brick walls and near building rubble.

This adult female Southern rock agama (Agama atra) was found wandering into a building. She was released in a safe place in the garden again.

Interestingly, Southern rock agamas have the ability to change their skin colour. This is not quite the same as with chameleons, but for example, the males can lose their intense blueish breeding colours in favour of brown and grey colours. For males, this allows them to be more visible to females in the breeding season, but less visible to predators during other times of the year. Southern rock agamas can also readily lighten and darken their skin colour. Darker colouration is often seen in stressful situations and during the cooler parts of the day.