The Armoured Tail-Eater

South Africa has an amazing diversity of reptile species and today we feature the awesome spiky critter known as the Armadillo Girdled Lizard Ouroborus cataphractus. Its scientific name means ‘armoured tail-eater’, but more about that later.  In Afrikaans we call it a ‘Blinkogie’ (little bright-eye).  They do have quite large and prominent eyes as far as lizards go. Most conspicuous of course are its ‘girdles’.  Its scales are modified into plates ending in sharp spines that are arranged in rings around its body and tail.

This feature is one it shares with other girdled lizards, once forming the genus Cordylus, which occurs mostly in South Africa. The genus has recently been split, with the Armadillo Girdled Lizard grouped in a genus of its own. They are part of the Armoured Lizard superfamily, the Cordyloidea, which includes several other genera in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

The Armadillo Girdled Lizard occurs in the Northern and Western Cape Provinces of South Africa. It inhabits rocky habitats where it uses narrow crevices for shelter. It ranges from the Richtersveld southward to Piketberg and eastward to the Tankwa Karoo. In general, this is a very dry region that can get extremely hot during summer months. It is the spikiest member of its family; the spikes offer excellent protection in more ways than one.  They protect its skin against bruises and cuts in the harsh rocky environment.  If a predator comes across one in a crevice, the lizard will expand its body; the spikes will then wedge against the walls of the crevice making it almost impossible to extricate.  But if it is caught off guard, it has another strategy – it rolls itself into a ball, grabbing its tail in its mouth like a real-world counterpart of the Ouroboros. The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Originating in ancient Egyptian iconography, the Ouroboros entered western tradition via Greek magical tradition and was adopted as a symbol in Gnosticism, Hermeticism and most notably in alchemy. It is a potent symbol: the dragon consumes but simultaneously reproduces itself.  It is unlikely that the Egyptians, Greeks or medieval Europeans ever saw the Armadillo Girdled Lizard; the resemblance may be said to be a coincidence, although such a powerful symbolic image was somehow bound to occur somewhere amidst the richness of nature!

Early alchemical ouroboros illustration with the words ἓν τὸ πᾶν (“The All is One”) from the work of Cleopatra the Alchemist in MS Marciana gr. Z. 299. (10th Century)

But short of constituting an alchemist symbol, the lizard rolling itself in a ball like this performs an excellent defensive measure. The spikes on its back all jut outward, making it a hard ‘pill’ to swallow. This posture inspired its common name, armadillos, of course, also roll themselves into a ball for protection – but their armour is not as spiky!  Birds of prey, however, with their strong bills and talons, are not always daunted by these spiky lizard-balls.

Luckily this lizard has yet another defense: biting. If a predator should still persist in trying to eat it, it will release its tail and bite its assailant instead. Its jaw muscles are so strong that it has been recorded breaking its own jaw bones while biting. And finally, like many other lizards it can shed its tail. The twitching tail could distract the predator while the lizard makes its getaway. It probably is not a very satisfactory consolation prize for the predator, with the tail being so spiny. The girdled lizard can regenerate its tail, but as with most tail-shedders, the new tail will be a somewhat poor copy of the original. Because its tail is quite important to it, it will only shed it as a last resort.

Armadillo Girdled Lizards are medium-sized, 16 to 21 cm in length, with sturdy bodies. They eat insects – mainly termites – and other invertebrates, as well as a small amount of plant material.  Their habitat, though arid and sparsely vegetated, is rich in flowering plant species, many being succulents. The rains in this region usually occur during winter when temperatures are milder.  Consequently, these lizards are more active during winter months, eating and putting on fat.  In the extremely hot and dry summer, they are far less active, hiding in the shade and shelter of the crevices for most of the day.

Photo by Tyrone Ping

They are unusual among reptiles in that they are social, living in groups of up to 60 animals, but usually fewer. These groups are often relatives, for instance an adult pair along with their offspring. There is a lot of interaction between different groups. Dominant males stake out and defend territories in which they will allow, under their rule, females and subordinate males or youngsters. Displays used for territorial defense and impressing females include bobbing the head, flicking the tongue and wagging the tail. The lizards also alert each other to the presence of predators.

Another unusual feature of these tiny dragons is that the female does not lay eggs, but instead gives birth to a single baby (very rarely two). In truth the baby hatches from an egg, but inside the female, so it’s not quite the same as live birth in mammals.  The gestation period is very long: six to eight months. The baby is quite large relative to its mother and born at the start of the rainy season. The parents do give some care to their offspring, protecting them and even bringing them food. Living in a group is beneficial to all members where foraging and safety is concerned.

Sadly, because of their striking appearance, these lizards are often kept as pets. There is significant stress on wild populations due to people collecting them for the exotic pet trade. Because of their social nature, their way of life cannot easily be replicated in captivity; consequently most, if not all, individuals that are sold as pets were probably collected illegally from the wild. There are laws and initiatives in South Africa to try and combat the illegal trade. Captive breeding projects, however, are a different matter; if done responsibly this species can certainly benefit from a number of breeding populations being maintained outside of its small native range. In captivity Armadillo Girdled Lizards can live for up to 25 years.

Willem van der Merwe and Megan Loftie-Eaton
Willem van der Merwe is an artist. His favourite medium is watercolours, and he is a member of the Watercolours Society of South Africa. He is passionate about nature conservation, so most of his art is of natural scenes, plant and animal life. He does commissions as well.