Life on a limb: Ecology of the tree agama (Acanthocercus a. atricollis) in southern Africa

Leeann T. Reaney, Martin J. Whiting*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


One hundred and sixty-four museum specimens of the tree agama Acanthocercus a. atricollis were measured and dissected to examine sexual size dimorphism, reproduction and diet. Foraging mode and behaviour were also quantified in a wild population to obtain a broader picture of their foraging ecology and to test the hypothesis that tree agamas are ambush foragers. Males and females did not differ significantly in snout-vent length (SVL) or tail length; however, mature males had larger heads than females of the same body size. The smallest female showing sexual maturity was 96 mm SVL and the smallest male was 82 mm SVL. Mean clutch size was 11.3 and was positively correlated with female body size. Reproduction was seasonal and male and female reproductive cycles were synchronous. Testicular volume was greatest during August-September and females contained enlarged follicles during August-December and showed no evidence of multiple clutching. Tree agamas fed on a broad spectrum of arthropods (10 orders), including millipedes, which other lizard taxa have been reported to avoid. Gut contents were dominated numerically by ants (92%), followed by beetles (4%). Volumetrically, orthopterans (26.8%) were most important, followed by beetles (26.3%) and ants (17.9%). Compared to adults, juvenile diet by volume was dominated by ants and consisted of fewer large prey items (e.g. beetles and orthopterans). Seasonal effects in both prey diversity and volume were evident. Tree agamas are classic ambush foragers. They spent only 4% of their time moving and made few movements per minute (mean = 0.4). When stationary, adult tree agamas positioned themselves on tree trunks (34.7%), on lateral branches (41.8%) and occasionally, on the ground (23.4%). No evidence of trophic partitioning (intraspecific niche divergence hypothesis) was found and field observations revealed that males defend territories and engage in combat. This supports the idea that selection may be favouring larger head size in males, as an outcome of male contest competition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)439-448
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Zoology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Acanthocercus a. atricollis
  • Diet
  • Foraging mode
  • Intraspecific niche divergence hypothesis
  • Male contest competition
  • Reproduction
  • Sexual size dimorphism


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