How to survive in hostile environments: enduring lessons with the Australian Thorny Devil

How to survive in hostile environments: enduring lessons with the Australian Thorny Devil
Ouroboros cataphractus, ph. Matthijs Kuijpers

© Janelle Lugge

I guess you’ve heard about our latest campaign and if you haven’t already it’s time for you to go and check out our Cold Instinct project here. In the meantime let us share some interesting facts about a small reptile capable of doing big things.

A picture of Ouroboros cataphractus from © Matthijs Kuijpers, photographer of Cold Instinct.

A picture of Ouroboros cataphractus from © Matthijs Kuijpers, photographer of Cold Instinct.


In an arid desert, with venomous snakes and poisonous toads, lives a little thorny lizard: the Moloch horridus. Does he have a noxious bite? Is his skin covered with dangerous viscosity? The answer is no, he doesn’t. How can he survive burning temperatures, water shortage, and predators in the middle of a desert with no place to hide for miles?


A brief presentation of the Thorny Devil

In 1606 Willem Janszoon revealed Australia to Europeans and in 1770 James Cook claimed the territory to the Britannic Crown. The island was a bonanza for the illuministic scientists, which were hungry for the discovery of new species to catalog: this was the favorite biologists’ sport since Carl Nilsson Linnaeus first introduced binomial nomenclature. When they first met the Thorny Devil, he seemed for sure really dangerous and horrible: he’s military brown, with thorns and spikes all around the body, with a bizarre baggage behind his neck. Truly scary! When menaced this little thorny devil blows himself up like a blowfish becoming bigger and bigger. (the similitude is token from Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary.)… As a matter of fact he’s not a real life dragon, since he’s not bigger than a banana, but this didn’t stopped zoologist John Edward Gray from baptizing him as Moloch horridus.

Thorny Devil, false head, Moloch horridus, Cold Instict

A Thorny Devil. The bigger thorne is a false head. © Jules Farquhar


For those who don’t know Moloch, he is a biblical Canaanite god that loved to eat children; while horridus, well, that’s just an opinion about the lizards esthetics… Even Thorny Devil, his common name, isn’t so well suited, just like all the other nicknames humans gave him: mountain devil, thorny lizard, thorny dragon, or the ingrate moloch. If we were ants probably the nicknames would have been more appropriate because this tiny lizard eats lots of them continually! He spent most of his life searching and eating these small insects, while attempting to stay alive in the desert. Eating ants and resembling a thorny branch isn’t enough in a land so inhospitable like the Australian desert, since even scarier and more complex animals didn’t win the evolutionary survival contest a long time ago (but not so long on evolutionary scale). So how did he do it?


The Australian Extinction

50.000 years ago, Australia was really different from the Australia we know today, with vast forests and a lot of different animals hanging around. You could find a gigantic fowl along your way, the Genyornis newtoni, or a echidna the size of a sheep, the Zaglossus hacketti. What about the enormous Megalania prisca reptile? In the middle of this crazy party called megafauna, the thorny devil was already eating ants, breeding in the forest, and escaping from predators hiding under the cover of leaves. Unfortunately, the landscape changed so fast that most of these animals were finding it difficult to stay alive. In less than 5000 years the forest became a desert and all the inhabitants of the area had to adapt quickly, or perish.

There’s still no certain evidence about how it happened, but most experts suspect that the climate changed due to the arrival of humans. The dates of the desertification of the island and the first appearance of human beings in the area correspond, but how could men create such a huge change?

For researcher Gifford Miller the answer to this question is technology! Of course I’m not talking about big industries and small devices, but about one of the most astonishing and dangerous discoveries humanity managed: fire. Fifty millennia ago, we used fire not just to cook, but to farm and hunt. We burned down forests in order to cultivate edible vegetables and to scare animals away conducting them to their hunters. We did it so many times and in such a vast area that a lot of herbivore animals perished due to their natural food scarcity; then, carnivores followed. After a few thousands years, Australia was so burned down that more than 85% of local birds, reptiles and mammals became extinct!

A rappresentation of Megalania

A rappresentation of Megalania - © Vlad Konstantinov


The Powers of Moloch

Let’s return to our little thorny lizard, how could he survive this sudden change? 95% of reptiles species became extinct during the desertification, and being part of the 5% that survived is certainly a great achievement!

First we have to consider that he had to have some great skills in order to survive against his predators: the thorns and the inflating trick certainly make him hard to swallow (the snakes and birds usually swallow their prey entirely!) and the mimetic cover is also a good trait to have when saving your soul; he even walks very slowly, in a chameleon walking style, stopping every time he can, so detecting him from movement becomes difficult.


Another skill he has is the thorny baggage behind his neck that is a false head that he uses to avoid decapitation. He covers his real head between his front arms leaving to the predators the false one. It’s better to lose your false head than your real one! It’s a good thing that he can regrow it! He even has the capacity to eject blood from his eyes to scare enemies, that sounds creepy, but it does work, a little…

The most astonishing skill he has helps him in the arid desert, where it rains really hard but so rarely that water is one of the most precious treasures there. His skin has a lot of micro channels that converge water into his mouth thanks to capillarity. This allows him to drink by just walking on a humid surface, such as grass or a drying puddle.

Right now Australia is risking another big extinction caused by the introduction of invasive species like rabbits and cats that change the ambient. This is due to European colonization and the irresponsibility of human control over nature. What we should learn from the Thorny Lizard is that we have to adapt to the environment instead of changing it in order to survive. Adaptation and smart solutions are always better than irresponsible destruction!


  • Luca from Atellani Team

    Thank you @Justin, we really appreciate your support! We hope you’ll be interested in our new article about camouflage skills of some amphibians and reptiles that we’ll publish next week!

  • Justin

    Awesome article!

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