Desert agama (Trapelus mutabilis)

Also known as: changeable agama, pale agama, pallid agama
Synonyms: Agama agilis, Agama agnetae, Agama aspera, Agama deserti, Agama gularis, Agama inermis, Agama latastii, Agama leucostigma, Agama leucostygma, Agama loricata, Agama mutabilis, Agama nigrofasciata, Agama pallida, Trapelus aegyptius, Trapelus pallidus
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyAgamidae
GenusTrapelus (1)
SizeSnout-vent length: up to 9.4 cm (2)
Tail length: up to 11.9 cm (2)
Top facts

The desert agama has yet to be globally assessed, but is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Mediterranean Red List (3).

The desert agama (Trapelus mutabilis) is a small to medium-sized lizard with a rather flattened body and a short, thick head. As in other members of the genus Trapelus, a key characteristic of the desert agama is the small spines located around the openings of its ears (4) (5) (6). This species has long hind limbs, long digits with quite large claws, and a fairly stout, cylindrical tail which is only slightly longer than the body (4).

The colouration of the desert agama is usually grey-brown to sandy grey, with four to five brown stripes running along its back (4) (7). These stripes are difficult to define in the middle of its body (7), and are also harder to see on adult males in comparison to juveniles (2). The tail is horizontally striped with brown or dark grey (2) (4). In the breeding season, the male desert agama develops a violet-blue throat and flanks or a blue to light grey head (4) (7), while in the female the head becomes orange (7).

The taxonomy of the desert agama has been much debated (4) (6). Three subspecies are sometimes recognised (1), but of these Trapelus mutabilis pallidus has often been considered to be a separate species, the pale agama (Trapelus pallidus) (1) (4) (6). This form differs in having more uniformly sized, smooth scales on the back, and a blue head rather than a blue throat and flanks in breeding males (4). However, recent genetic and morphological studies have supported the classification of the pale agama as a subspecies of the desert agama (4).

The desert agama is widespread across northern Africa, occurring from Western Sahara, Mauritania and Morocco east to Egypt and Sudan. It may also potentially occur in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Iraq (1) (4).

The subspecies T. m. pallidus is reported to occur in northern Egypt, Djibouti, Syria, Jordan and Israel (1) (4) (5).

As its common name suggests, the desert agama inhabits deserts and semi-deserts, in areas with very little rainfall (8). The habitat of this species typically consists of stone plains, which have a covering of sparse vegetation and lots of gravel (7).

The desert agama is a diurnal lizard that sits and watches its surroundings for any prey that may cross its path. It avoids detection itself by blending in well with its stony background (7). The diet of the desert agama consists mainly of insects, including beetles, caterpillars and ants, and in some instances it has been known to eat large migratory locusts as they pass through its habitat (2). When it spots prey, the desert agama attacks it by quickly dashing out from its stationary watching position. This species may even jump up to an impressive ten centimetres to catch its next meal (2).

Living in such a harsh, arid environment can be a problem when trying to source water, and one way in which the desert agama overcomes this is by a behaviour known as ‘rain-harvesting’. If any water becomes available, the agama lowers its head to the ground, raises its tail up high and then splays its feet. This position creates a steep angle for any water collected in channels on the scales, which have an outer honeycomb-like structure, to run down into the corner of the mouth and onto the lizard’s outstretched tongue (8).

Potential predators of the desert agama include owls (9), jackals and shrikes (2). If confronted by a predator, the desert agama may defend itself by biting or by making itself appear as large as possible and moving backwards and forwards in an aggressive warning (2).

The male desert agama is territorial, and is generally found in the presence of a number of females (2). Male desert agamas warn off competitors by nodding the head, circling the competitor and performing a straight-legged, strutting walk. If the confrontation comes to a fight, biting is also used (2). Mating in this species takes place in late spring, up until June, after which the female desert agama lays a clutch of up to 12 eggs. Up to two clutches may be laid each year (2).

Although the conservation status of this species has not yet been globally assessed, it has been classified as Least Concern (LC) in the Mediterranean region, meaning that it is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction there (3).

The desert agama is sometimes sought after by animal collectors for a variety of purposes (7), but little else is currently known about potential threats to this desert reptile.

There are currently no known specific conservation measures in place for the protection of the desert agama.

Find out more about the desert agama and other reptile species:

More information on reptile conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. The Reptile Database (June, 2012)
    http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/search.php
  2. Schleich, H.H., Kästle, W. and Kabisch, K. (1995) Amphibians and Reptiles of North Africa. Koeltz Scientific Books, Koenigstein, Germany.
  3. Cox, N., Chanson, J. and Stuart, S. (2006) The Status and Distribution of Reptiles and Amphibians of the Mediterranean Basin. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2006-027.pdf
  4. Wagner, P., Melville, J., Wilms, T.M. and Schmitz, A. (2011) Opening a box of cryptic taxa - the first review of the North African desert lizards in the Trapelus mutabilis Merrem, 1820 complex (Squamata: Agamidae) with descriptions of new taxa. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 163: 884-912.
  5. Wagner, P. and Crochet, P.A.(2009) The status of the nomina Trapelus savignyi Audouin, 1827 and Agama savignii Duméril & Bibron, 1837 and the valid nomen of the Savigny’s agama (Sauria: Agamidae). Zootaxa, 2209: 57-64.
  6. Wagner, P. and Böhme, W. (2006) A new species of the genus Trapelus Cuvier, 1816 (Squamata: Agamidae) from arid central Africa. Bonner Zoologische Beiträge, 55(2): 81-87.
  7. Baha El Din, S. (2006) A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo.
  8. Vesleý, M. and Modry, D.(2002) Rain-harvesting behaviour in agamid lizards (Trapelus). Journal of Herpetology, 36: 311-314.
  9. Cunningham, P.L. and Aspinall, S.(2001) The diet of little owl Athene noctua in the UAE, with notes on barn owl Tyto alba & desert eagle owl Bubo (b.) ascalaphus. Tribulus, 11(2): 13-17.