War and peace: plasticity of aggression and the social context of displays in male Australian Water Dragons

  • Troy A. BairdEmail author
  • Teresa D. Baird
  • Richard Shine
Original Paper


Detailed behavioral observations of the same urban population of Water Dragons (Intellagama lesueurii) during two reproductive periods 7 years apart (2009 vs. 2016) revealed a dramatic change in aggression and the social context of male displays. Differences in the behavior of 2016 males may be a consequence of increased visibility of conspecifics due to anthropogenic removal of vegetation, however, the density of lizards was also lower in 2016 than in 2009. No males, and only 19.4% of females present in 2009 survived to 2016. Males present in 2016 tended to be smaller, and had significantly smaller heads relative to body size. They engaged in fewer aggressive contests but held larger territories. Responses to perturbation of social hierarchies (by experimental removal of rival territory owners and spontaneous take-overs by male challengers) were less intense than in 2009. Unlike 2009 males that gave more displays when contesting rivals, 2016 male territory owners gave proportionally more displays when interacting with females. We attribute these shifts in male aggression and display context to altered potential for long-range signaling. Our results reinforce the point that social behavior in lizards can be highly flexible, and that changes in environmental factors may elicit such shifts. Thus, short-term studies of social behavior—even if conducted in great detail—may fail to capture the full range of behavioral plasticity that can be exhibited over longer periods.


Behavioral plasticity Intraspecific communication Physignathus lesueurii 



Methods for capture, measurement, marking, temporary housing, and observation of Water Dragons were conducted in accordance with the guidelines of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (permit # S12905), and the Animal Ethics Committee, University of Sydney (L04/9—2009/1/5063). The Management of Flynn’s Beach Resort and the Blue Water Bar and Grill, Port Macquarie, NSW granted permission to study lizards on their property. We thank M. Elphick, M. Greenles, A. Haythornwaite, A. Krause, S. Lafave, C. McGill, D. Pike, T. Shine, and W. Unsell for valuable logistical support, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. We are very grateful to G. Hill, B. Jordan, and C. and D. Smith for access to the study site and their assistance. Special thanks to A. Greenway, M. Hainsworth, P. Kemsley, and D. Smith whose enthusiasm and keen appreciation of Water Dragons contributed greatly to this project.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Troy A. Baird
    • 1
    Email author
  • Teresa D. Baird
    • 1
  • Richard Shine
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of Central OklahomaEdmondUSA
  2. 2.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Biological SciencesMacquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia

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