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Sympathy for the devil

Published 14 Mar 2017 

When it comes to the Thorny Devil, names and appearances don’t do this harmless little creature justice. If there was ever a creature that could claim to have been cheated by binomial nomenclature, the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) might just have the strongest argument.

Bon Bon Station Field Officer Kate Taylor holding a Thorny Devil. Photo by Aaron Fenner.
Bon Bon Station Field Officer Kate Taylor holding a Thorny Devil. Photo by Aaron Fenner.

Named after a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice, and inspired by the ominous looking spikes and horns that adorn its body, the Thorny Devil is one of Australia’s most placid reptiles.

Measuring just 20cm, you’re likely to find the Thorny Devil in arid scrubland feasting on ants — a far cry from the stories told about its namesake.

In fact, eating ants was exactly what one particular Thorny Devil was doing when Bon Bon Field Officer Kate Taylor spotted it. It was the first recorded sighting of a Thorny Devil on Bon Bon Station Reserve, in central South Australia, a huge milestone for Bush Heritage, and for the species itself.

“The Latin name couldn't be further from a true reflection of this little lizard's personality,” says Kate.

“The Thorny Devil is actually one of the most placid reptiles you could encounter in the Australian outback.”

A Thorny Devil at Bon Bon. Photo Kate Taylor.
A Thorny Devil at Bon Bon. Photo Kate Taylor.

“The Thorny Devil is the sole species in its genus group. They also have a very unique way of drinking – they can absorb water using capillary action through their skin by simply standing in a puddle. Think of your skin being able to suck water into your body like a sponge.”

“Also, the spikes that give the Thorny Devil its scary appearance, and which were once thought to act only as a defence mechanism, actually help channel rain or condensation into its mouth – a useful adaptation for a desert living lizard.”

“Now that we know they are here, we hope to start seeing more of them around the reserve.”

Scientific name: Moloch horridus

Common name: Thorny Devil (also known as Mountain Devil, Thorny Lizard and Moloch)

Lifespan: 6-20 years

Diet: Ants — thousands of them every day!

Breeding: Thorny Devils attract mates through head-bobbing and leg-waving. Courtship complete, the female will then bury 3-10 eggs in a chamber about 30cm deep. Eggs generally hatch after three to four months.

Distribution: Their range covers most of arid Australia – large parts of Western Australia, the southern half of the Northern Territory, South Australia and western Queensland. They live in dry sand country, spinifex grasslands and scrub.

Status: Scientists are still unsure about the Thorny Devil’s distribution and population size. As such, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is yet to make an assessment about the conservation status of this extraordinary lizard.

Threats: Natural predators include Goannas and predatory birds like the Brown Falcon. Being entirely reliant on ant populations, the Thorny Devil is vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change.