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Chinese Water Dragons in Vietnam-
Natural Environment



      My husband and I attended the first Annual Toronto Reptile Symposium in April of 1997. We attended this symposium specifically because we wanted to attend Dr. Robert Murphy, of the Royal Ontario Museum, lecture "Biodiversity in Vietnam". Unfortunately Dr. Bob Murphy was called out of town at the last minute and the talk was given by one of his researchers - Amy Lathrop. She did a wonderful job as his replacement- It was a fact filled talk! Of course I took notes ... and I spoke with Amy after the lecture... read on for a surprise!

Economic conditions in Vietnam

      The country of Vietnam (North and South I presume), has a population of over 93 million people and an area of over 3000 square kilometres. The country is undergoing rapid deforestation, mostly due to the high population, and due to the large amount of unemployment in the country. Unemployment is over 40%. Inflation rates are 500 to 700%! The average income is $200 American per year.

      One half or more of the population is under the age of 17. There are literally children everywhere. There is a 2.3% population increase each year. Downtown Hanoi looks like a village when compared to the wealthy Downtown Hong Kong.

      Any hill that is climbable is bare! It is very common to see the women of each village go out daily to forage for firewood. They come back with large bundles of sticks, often trees are cut down for firewood.

      The forests are also being cut down at a rapid rate for the logging industry. They are losing one species of tree a day! Where forests have been cleared many Vietnamese have planted coffee fields.

      The Vietnam war likely played a large role in the countries economic status and the devastation that can still be found there today. It is easy to see areas that were bombed- large craters, or areas where no trees and barely any plant life are located there. Many rainforest areas were damaged or destroyed by chemicals like agent orange and napalm.

Biodiversity in Vietnam

      Vietnam is likely one of the largest areas of biodiversity in the world! It is quite possible that it would be even more diverse had not the Vietnam war taken place. The war likely wiped out many many species that depended upon one particular ecosystem to survive.

      79% of new medications are created from plants. 1 in 125 plants becomes a new medication. 1 in 100,000+ synthetic chemicals becomes a new medication. You can easily see from the above facts that preserving the rainforest in countries around the world is of extreme importance.

      In May of 1996, a team of 3 Canadian herpetologists, and one Russian herpetologist went to Vietnam as part of the Vietnam Biodiversity project at the Royal Ontario Museum. At the time of this writing, Feb. 1999, I believe several teams of herpetologists have made at least three trips to Vietnam to study species. The team was lead by Dr. Bob Murphy. This team is working with the Vietnamese government to educated them about the variety of species within their country, and to help them create legislation to protect the various species found there.

      Vietnam is part of C.I.T.E.S, but in name only. The country has no legislation in place to protect the various species from commercial trade, over collection (this could be very important as far as Physignathus (water dragons) are concerned). Other countries are trying very hard to help them develop legislation before it is too late.

      As for the amphibian and reptilian species - there are over 82 amphibian species in Vietnam, many of them newly discovered species. The researchers were discovering 6 to 8 new species of amphibian per site that they visited last year. Amy showed us slides of many of the new amphibian species that were discovered! Beautiful! :) They have also discovered many new species of lizards and snakes... unfortunately there weren't as many lizard and snake pictures as there were of amphibians. I'm not sure how many new reptilian species have been discovered in the last few years.

      In light of what you have read above and what you will read below ... Water dragons are also imported from Cambodia, Thailand and perhaps south China. The economy and conditions in Cambodia are similar to that of Vietnam, Thailand may be slightly better off, and I presume that of all 4 countries the South of China is probably in the best economic condition. Considering that there is high poverty, de-forestation, and likely over gathering of native species in these countries water dragons, for one, may (hopefully) become a protected species in the future. It seems that water dragons can still be found in high numbers, but if conditions remain as they are then Physignathus and many many other species and flora will need to be protected by adequate legislation soon.

Water Dragons in Vietnam!

      After the lecture was over my husband and I sat down and spoke with Amy Lathrop. The following information is assembled from various letters that Amy and I exchanged, and from our actual talk at the symposium.

      Most of the researchers work appears to have been done at night, so they weren't really observing the water dragons as much as WE would have liked. However I think you will find the following information enlightening.

      I'll start off by adding some of what Amy said to the letter I received a couple of months ago from one of the researchers - Raoul Bain:

      Raoul said: "Physignathus cocincinus is VERY common along rivers and streams of Vietnam (and all of southeast Asia). We saw them mainly at night (that's when we went out to do our field work)."

      Amy told us: Water dragons were found near moving water that was at least 1.5 feet deep. They did not find any in areas with still or stagnant water. There was also a lot of foliage over the water where dragons were found. Presumably so they could make quick get aways!

      Raoul said: "We found them sleeping on branches overhanging the water. The branches had to be big enough to support their weight, but thin enough to allow their arms and legs to grasp them. Some fell asleep with their limbs dangling."

      Amy told us: The trees that they were found in were of a thin barked kind- similar to poplar trees in appearance. The dragons were often seen on thin branches, just thick and large enough to hold their weight- barely. She thinks this was also a self defence mechanism. Amy will be getting back to me about the particular kinds of trees and foliage that dragons were found near.

      Raoul said: "They were always solitary. Even very young water dragons would sleep alone, on the edge of a small branch."

      Amy Told us: It would be interesting to study their population density, and how territorial they are in the wild. The dragons that they saw were usually quite far apart. It sounds like they were found 30 to 50 feet apart! This could be quite natural for them, or it could have to do with the time of year that they were there- May/June - breeding and egg laying time.

      Raoul said: "When agitated, they jumped immediately into the water and swam/ran very quickly. Most dragons went for land after the short trip in the water. In deep rivers, they were capable of swimming several metres before reappearing (almost always swimming with the current). On one occasion we tried to catch a Physignathus in knee-deep water and it swam for some distance and came back at us, swimming right through our legs, and up onto land. It then ran, semi-erect into the forest."

      "When very agitated, they hiss. Their bite is very strong, as one member of our crew found out. He got bitten on the inner thigh by a water dragon and it bruised very deeply for days."

      Amy Told us: She didn't really comment upon finding them awake and by the waters edge- except for what I have already told you. However she had more to add about the bite story: It was the Russian researcher that got bit. How did it happen? Why was he bit on the thigh? :) Well apparently when out on field trips and collecting animals many researchers have a technique of getting a hold of a snake... I don't really know how to describe it, but they whip the snake from behind them, between their legs and I suppose catch it near the head as it comes through the front of their legs. If done improperly many people get bit on the behind and the thighs... not to mention the privates! Anyway, this researcher was trying to do this with the large ticked off male dragon when the bite occurred. :) (I thought that tech. was only for snakes? :) ) Amy says it was a big male dragon- the head was huge. She held her hands apart and I think a medium sized grapefruit could have fit between them. So large adult males have big, big heads! And strong bites as Raoul and Amy have witnessed. :)

      Amy went on to tell us that many many water dragons were found in the Central Highlands area of Vietnam. They found them at 1000 metres of elevation. She doesn't know how warm the area was or what the humidity level there was, but she says it was quite humid.

      The highest elevation they found them at was in the area of Tam Dao. Tam Dao has an elevation of 2800 meters and it was quite cool. Remember they were there in May, June and July of '96. I wonder if water dragons migrate at all or if they stay pretty much in one area for their whole life span?

      Amy is going back to Vietnam around May 1st of 1997. She will be there for 5 months. She is willing to gather some information and even some pictures for us! :) Unfortunately I was unable to contact Amy when she returned from her trip in the fall of 1997. I hope to re-establish contact in the next little while, and with any luck I will have more information to share with you soon.

      In correspondence with Amy prior to her May 1997 trip I asked her several questions:

      There is a passage from a researcher that is often quoted in water dragon articles. " ... is a good swimmer and frequents forests in sandy places, living in burrows dug in the soft sand and hollows (Smith, 1935). From what we as a very large group have seen with our own dragons in captivity, water dragons seem to prefer to live and sleep in branches, are good swimmers, and are constantly in and out of water. Yes they do seem to prefer moving water over still water. However, very few people have mentioned that their dragons like to live and sleep on the ground or in burrows that they have dug. Since there seems to be so few cases of burrow dwelling dragons in captivity I have to wonder where the heat source is in these enclosures? Perhaps it is warmer at ground level in those enclosures at night and that is why these few dragons sleep on the ground? Anyway, I wonder what time of year Smith made his observation? Could he have been seeing gravid females digging nests and coming out of burrows after laying their eggs? Or perhaps he was observing Physignathus in a more northerly range who did in fact live in burrows or sleep in them at night because it was warmer there? Maybe Amy can shed some light on this for us.

      Amy Replied: "Regarding your questions - We can try to address as much as we can while we are over there. We will likely be running into at least 3 different populations of Physignathus cocincinus (Northern (cooler climate), Central Highland, Southern). As a result, since it does have such a large distribution, this may be very good since we will be getting data that would more broadly represent the ecology and environmental needs of Physignathus cocincinus. "

      "That passage which appears in Malcom Smiths (1935) Fauna of British India is actually a citation from another person (Tirant, 1885). Tirant's work (based only the title- Notes sur les reptiles et les batraciens de la cochinchine et du cambodege) is from Southern Vietnam and Cambodia. Because this is a publication out of Saigon, it could be very difficult to find. However, you can be certain that this observation is not coming from a cooler climate, the south is extremely hot and balmy. So, they may be able to live in burrows because temperature would not be a problem. So, in short, I am not really sure. Personally, I haven't seen Physignathus in burrows in the sand. However, I did chase a female into a 1 ft x 4ft x 3ft (wxdxh) cave, but I don't think this is where she lived. We will give this further consideration this year. I would have to admit, we haven't look for holes that may be occupied by Physignathus. But they do typically live by streams that have running water (deep enough to swim as a means to escape predators, or herpetologists) and the streams do have sandy banks. "

      So the quote that we keep seeing is really from 1885! It's amazing that there really has been no new information regarding their natural habitat in 112 years! I just cant believe that! There has to be more information about their natural history out there somewhere. :(

      As I stated above, I have lost touch with Amy but I will get in touch with Dr. Bob Murphy and also try to re-establish contact with Amy Lathrop and find out if they managed to gather more information for us in the past two years. :)

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Last updated
Mar, 19, 2010

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