Agamas are relatively large, big-headed lizards which are often fairly easy to see in Kenya as they are both active by day and not shy. They are fast movers, running swiftly on their long legs, the rock-dwelling species move across sheet rock like a stone across ice, and think nothing of jumping a half a metre or more. Visitors to the game lodges in Tsavo and the Mara cannot fail to see a few.

They are a widespread family, about 450 species are known. They occur in Australasia (where they are called dragons), Asia, Africa and southern Europe. About 80 species are known from Africa and until recently 10 were recorded from Kenya, belonging to two genera, Agama (large and small, with an enlarged occipital scale in the middle of the head) and Acanthocercus, (large but with no occipital scale). Some agamas are small ground-dwelling animals where the male is fairly similar to the female, and they usually live in pairs in a hole.

Agamas also have a limited ability to change colour, non-dominant males and those not holding territory usually show a much more subdued version of dominant male colours. A number of people in Kenya, especially in rural areas, mistakenly believe that agamas are venomous, although there are no venomous lizards in Africa. A territorial male, displaying to a female, bobs his head up and down, and some Muslims believe this is a disrespectful parody of prayer, so in some places agamas have the Swahili name ‘mjusi kaffiri’, i.e. the unbelieving lizard!

German herpetologist Philipp Wagner, based at the Alexander Koenig Research Natural history museum in Bonn, Germany, has spent a good deal of field time in Africa, concentrating on agamas. Wagner’s work, using a mixture of life colours, traditional scale counts and molecular taxonomy, is beginning to make sense of the agamas of Africa, and clarify where the species boundaries lie. He was a member of the team that recently described a new agama from western Kenya, Agama finchi, Finch’s agama, named after the eminent Kenya ornithologist Brian Finch (who has a regular column in SWARA). Interestingly, Finch noted the unknown species and brought it to the world’s attention in the January 2003 edition of SWARA magazine! Now Philipp Wagner has recently described a new species from southern Kenya, from the Ngong Hills, Olorgesaille and Kajiado;

Wagner has named the new species Agama hulbertorum, for the Hulbert family, the first specimens were collected by a zoologist called Alexander Burmann, on the lower southern slopes of the Ngong Hills; hence the species has received the popular name of the Ngong Agama.

Although related to the big red-headed rock agamas of northern and eastern Kenya (now called Agama lionotus), the Ngong agama is smaller, with a distinctive unpatterned red throat and a pale vertebral line and head scalation that differs significantly from the red-headed agama. The females do not have vividly coloured heads and look rather dull, in fact the females of all large Kenyan agamas look very similar, (something seen with other animals, for example female sunbirds) and hence can be hard to identify. The museum type specimens are from Elangata Wuas, near Kajiado, and the southern Ngong Hills, the species has also been observed and photographed at the Olorgesaille Prehistoric Site. It is probably more widespread but, as always, specimens are lacking.

So if you see one, photograph it, or if you find a dead one, Preserve it and take it to the Herpetology Section of the National Museum. The more data we have, the more accurately we can document our biodiversity.

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