A team of South African and Australian researchers have discovered that some males of the Augrabies Flat Lizard species pretend to be female to get ahead in life.

According to the scientists, the male lizards mimic females during early maturity and thereby avoid the costs of broadcasting their masculinity.

As juveniles, all males look like females before gradually developing adult male coloration at the onset of sexual maturity. These extravagantly coloured lizards are most vulnerable to aggressive rivals when these first tell-tale signs of masculinity begin to develop and adults are quick to capitalise on a soft target by chasing and sometimes biting these young males.

Associate Professor Martin Whiting from Wits University explained:

“By delaying the onset of colour to a more convenient period, these males (termed she-males) are making the best of a bad situation. An immediate advantage is freedom of movement in the normally treacherous zones which make up the territories of highly aggressive males that already have extensive fighting experience. At the same time, these female mimics are able to court the myriad of females that share the territorial male’s residence.”

The authors of the study (Assoc. Prof. Martin Whiting of the University of the Witwatersrand; Dr. Jonathan Webb of the University of Sydney; and Assoc. Prof. Scott Keogh of the Australian National University) also tested whether she-males are able to mimic the chemical ‘signature’ of females.

The scientists discovered that in this department the lizards could not fool the other male lizards who use their tongues to sample chemical scent and in this way could recognise them as fellow males. The she-males make up for this by ensuring that they stay out of the smell and taste range of other males; a good 30 or 40 centimetres.

“Males are fooled by looks, but not by scent,” said Dr. Webb. She-males are able to maintain this deception by staying one step ahead of a prying male, and thereby avoiding a nosey tongue that might give the game away.”

Assoc. Prof. Keogh pointed out that “young transvestite males appear to have a dual advantage: the avoidance of potentially dangerous bouts with dominant males and access to normally inaccessible nubile females”.

The lizard, also known as Bradley’s Flat Lizard, is only found between the Augrabies Falls area and Pella, North Cape in South Africa.

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