When I was young, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. This didn’t change when I got older, but my passion found its place with living reptiles, particularly lizards. Since childhood, the Sungazer was always one of my favourites – with its archaic, dinosaur-like appearance (Ankylosaurus anyone?).
I realised later that its unique appearance also made it a very popular species in the pet trade, despite lack of evidence that the species breeds in captivity. Alongside poaching of wild populations to fuel this illegal trade, wide-spread habitat destruction presents a major threat to the species in the wild.
The Sungazer belongs to a family of lizard called the Cordylidae that is found only in Africa, and the species itself is a South African endemic. In 2011, a genetic study of the family found that the Sungazer, along with a few of its larger relatives were genetically distinct from other members of the genus Cordylus to which it had previously belonged, and was placed into a new genus: Smaug.
In 2011, I started a Masters research project at the University of the Witwatersrand to reassess the conservation status of the Sungazer . The aim of this project was to understand how Sungazer populations and their habitat have declined over time, so that we can plan conservation strategies for the species. I’ve since moved onto a PhD on the conservation genetics of the Sungazer, and over the past five years, I’ve had the rare opportunity to spend time with and photograph these elusive, charismatic lizards. Their thermoregulatory stance that is their namesake makes for exciting photographs, but because they are very skittish animals, photographing them also presents some challenges.
Long lenses (400-600mm)
*Note: 400mm – 600mm are the longest end of zoom lenses I’ve used (Sigma 120-400mm, Tamron 150-600mm), I’ve not yet had the pleasure of shooting Sungazers using a telephoto prime*
One of the first thing you learn about Sungazers is that every aspect of the species’ biology is linked to their burrows. Each lizard digs their own burrow, and from evidence so far, they appear to live in them for the duration of their adult life. The burrow plays a huge part in their thermoregulation, as they duck in and out of it throughout the day to maintain their optimal temperature. The burrow also represents their only safety – when approached, Sungazers rapidly retreat down the burrow and lock their large head spikes into the roof, making them difficult to dislodge. This also makes them difficult to photograph, since you have to approach without them noticing.
The obvious choice is to use a long telephoto lens in order to get close-up shots of the lizards while still maintaining a decent distance from them. The only problem here is that you have to be fairly low on the ground for the shot to really work. Here is a shot of a basking Sungazer taken from my car:
But get low on the ground, and the same lizard in the same position is transformed into this:
Starting off low on the ground at a safe distance, and slowly leopard crawling towards the lizards is the best to getting shots of them sungazing at their burrows. Here are some photos I took this summer of a pair of baby Sungazers that were occupying the same burrow:
Normal focal lengths (50-100mm)
On the rare occasions that I’ve been able to get very close to Sungazers at their burrows, a telephoto lens is too long. Here are some photos at “normal” focal lengths – anywhere between 50 and 100mm.
Wide Angles (15-20mm)
Normal and telephoto shots of Sungazers at their burrows succeed at giving us the separation of our subject from foreground and background, as is often desired in wildlife photography. However the bodies of the lizards are often covered by grass and so we don’t get to see the full, heavily-armoured bodies of these magnificient dragon lizards up close (Fun fact: Giant Dragon Lizard is the other recognised common name for the Sungazer).
In my opinion, the coolest photos that exist of this species are taken using a wide-angle lens. The thing is though, that getting close enough to a Sungazer to photograph it with a wide-angle lens without it being a small, distant speck, is near impossible. There are however two methods of doing this.
Firstly, by photographing captive animals, research animals, or habituated animals. Admittedly, this is an opportunity available almost exclusively to people doing in situ research, since handling Sungazers requires the appropriate permits and ethics approval from a University or other recognised research institute.
Secondly, using a motion trigger.
Fortunately throughout my research I’ve had the opportunity to photograph both wild animals, and habituated animals from wild colonies. The following photos are all taken from a bit of a closer distance than would normally be possible with wild Sungazers:
Here are some photos taken using the Venus 15mm 1:1 wide-angle macro lens. This unusual lens allows for some unusual perspectives.
These are photos I took using the Venus 15mm 1:1 wide-angle macro lens, and a Strikefinder Touch Motion Trigger. These are probably the first close-up photos that exist of Sungazers at their burrow. I look forward to having this awesome motion trigger up at more burrows this summer!
Finally, here is a photo that I took with my Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone in 2012.
This remains one of my favourite Sungazer photos, and I had the honour of it being used on the cover (well, back cover) of the Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. It helps remind me that a great photo can be taken at anytime, and the gear you use is less important than the thought you put into getting a shot.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this article. These are without a doubt some of my favourite photos of a very special species, and one that I hope to be involved with for the rest of my life.
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