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Absolutely everything you want to know about lizards

A brown Cuban anole flashes his dewlap. Is he looking for a fight?

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

A brown Cuban anole flashes his dewlap. Is he looking for a fight?

Editors note: This story originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on June 16, 1987. Some information may be outdated, but we figure most of it is timeless.

Lizard love. Lizard myth and lizard legend. People who snack on lizards. Lizards who snack on people. A lizard tamed by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Bossy lizards and the art of reptilian combat. Lusty lizards and the allure of the, uh, "doughnut posture." Tales from the town of Lizard Lick. A famous lizard escape. Infamous lizard launchings. The Lizard God. The whys and wherefores of lizard push-ups and headbobs. All this and more lizard lore. Read on.

A bulletin from the cliche police

The term "leapin' lizards" will not be used in this article, seeing as how it has been used in every other lizard article since the dawn of time.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a lizard?

What makes a lizard a lizard? That's a complicated question, since lizards are close relatives to snakes — so close that some lizards have no legs and are actually called snakes. When experts try to tell you the differences between the two, they get very expert-like and start talking about pectoral girdles and thymus bodies and movable eyelids and vertical interorbital septums.

We'll skip all that, though, and keep this simple: Lizards are cold-blooded creatures covered with dry, scaly skin. Many of them have four legs. Usually each leg has a foot and five toes.

Salamanders, which have smooth skin and never more than four toes on any given foot, don't qualify. Neither do alligators or crocodiles, because they have different skull structures, i.e., big ole snouts.

Yet horned toads, which aren't toads and which can squirt blood from their eyes for up to three feet, are lizards. So are chuckwallas, which have potbellies and like to inflate their lungs so they can wedge themselves between boulders. So are Gila monsters, which are one of the only two poisonous lizards in the world and which inject their venom by chewing on their prey. So are iguanas, geckos, basilisks, skinks, anoles, glass snakes, chameleons, monitors, whiptails, racerunners, jeweled lacertas, bearded dragons and thorny devils.

Altogether, there about 2,700 species around the world. The smallest are some geckos that grow to about three-quarters of an inch long. The biggest are the Komodo dragons, which reach up to 10 feet.

The king of herp humor

Scientists who study reptiles and amphibians are called herpetologists. Herpetologists, meanwhile, use the term "herp freaks" to describe amateurs who are also fascinated by such creatures. Perhaps the most famous herp freak in the world right now is Gary Larson, the cartoonist behind The Far Side.

Larson, who loved to hang out in swamps as a child, has been described as a frustrated zoologist. His cartoons show both an understanding of animal behavior and an appreciation for the unusual (some would say twisted) sense of humor often found among those who hang out with reptiles. Not surprisingly, his cartoons occupy a position of honor in many a herpetologist's office.

That's why they're more fun at dinner parties

"Lizards are somewhat social, more complicated," Dr. Dale Marcellini, curator of herpetology at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., once told the Washington Post. "They're the intellectuals of the reptile world."

The intellectuals bobbing in our own back yard

Florida is home to at least 29 species of lizards. Like the humans who live in this state, many of them came from somewhere else. They hitched rides on ships or were brought here as pets and escaped into the wild or were even let loose on purpose. Once they arrived, they stayed.

There's the Jungle Runner, which comes from South America and was introduced to Florida in Miami. It grows up to two feet long and likes to poke around the grass. There's the Mediterranean Gecko, which has found a new home in peninsular Florida. It's five inches long, has no eyelids and scurries along walls and ceilings in pursuit of insects.

Then there's the Brown Anole (pronounced a-NOLE, rhymes with pole), which comes from the Caribbean. Both of them, meanwhile, are studying and which you can probably see outside your window right now, catching some rays on the sidewalk. The browns, compact little fighters that grow to about nine inches long, are thought to have probably caught rides on ships traveling between Cuba and Key West in the early 1900s. Others followed in later decades and established more colonies around the state. Now they're all over the place.

The browns are so persistently pushy that in some areas they've taken over territories once held by the Green Anole, a native species of about the same size. Not that the greens, which are often misidentified as chameleons, are about to vanish. They're still Florida's most common lizard. Population estimates are hard to come by, but in some places you can find as many as 2,000 per acre.

Lizard wars

Lizards are a territorial bunch. Especially males, (why is that not surprising?) who often battle for turf.

Consider, for instance, green anoles. A male will stake a claim to a section of land and then engage in a series of complex strategies to hold onto that land. The resident, as he's called, patrols the boundaries of his territory and periodically plants himself in a prominent spot to advertise his presence.

When another male enters the territory, the resident bobs his head, performs push-ups and extends his dewlap, the bright pink fold of skin extending from his neck, - all in a display of strength and size. The invader, or the nonresident, may then answer with some headbobs and push-ups and dewlaps of his own.

Both of them, meanwhile, are studying each other, trying to assess how big or how aggressive the opponent may be.

If the new guy is about the same size or a little bigger than the squatter, the confrontation can get physical. The two males will circle, joust with open jaws, bite down on each other and try to fling each other away. Sort of like professional wrestling.

This may all sound horribly violent, but actually the green anoles have found a safe and controlled way to resolve disputes. One of them may get a bit scratched up, but rarely does anyone get killed. If there's any danger involved in such macho behavior, it's from other animals. With all their posturing and patrolling, males are much easier targets for predators — and tend to have higher mortality rates than females, who prefer to be more discreet and stay out of sight.

Clash o' the titans: Alexein vs. Xenos

HERPlab, the herpetology laboratory at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., has developed a board game called Territory that teaches children about lizard behavior. One player takes the role of a resident lizard defending his land; another player takes the role of an invader. A deck of shuffled cards moves them through the steps of a confrontation.

"You flag your dewlap, but the resident ignores it," says one card. "Better luck next time."

The lab also has a comic book in which two anoles, named Alexein and Xenos, fight for turf around an old log. The battle is intense — there's vigorous bobbing and strutting, and one combatant performs a hindleg stand — but in the end, Alexein triumphs.

Even as he retreats, though, Xenos keeps on bobbing, warning his nemesis they will meet again.

Are you bobbin' at me? I said, are you bobbin' at me? Then let's take our dewlaps and step outside, fella

For the record, anoles don't headbob and flash their dewlaps at random. There are patterns to these displays, and the patterns differ from one species to the next. Every species of anole, in other words, communicates with its own body language.

Dr. Tom Jenssen, a herpetologist at Virginia Tech who has studied anoles for more than 20 years, has identified several patterns used by green anoles during aggressive behavior. Jenssen isn't sure, but the patterns may also be used in approaching females for mating.

One pattern: Three headbobs. Pause. A dewlap along with a double-bob. Raise the head up, then commence with a series of small bobs.

Another: One large bob, performed slowly. Pause. Dewlap with a double-bob.

Raise the head, then a series of small bobs.

If the males are aroused, either with aggression or lust, they put more energy into the patterns, and the headbobs become push-ups.

Lizard roots

Laugh at their puny push-ups if you want, but lizards are believed to have been around for more than 100-million years before us.

Descended from the same family tree that gave rise to dinosaurs, they have lived on the Earth for close to 200-million years. For much of that time — until about 65-million years ago - reptiles dominated the planet on land, in the water and in the air. One lizard, the 30-foot mosasaur, swam the seas until extinction.

A grandmother muses about reptiles and other lifeforms

Lee Desmond, 84, was sitting on the couch in her St. Petersburg home. She was enjoying her evening glass of sherry as she watched the news on TV.

"There's so much trouble in this world," she said suddenly, addressing no one in particular. "We've got lizards, stinger bees and three- to four-pound toads."

Great moments in lizard culture

Nancy Waclawek, an editor at the St. Petersburg Times, reports that lizards love Bach. One day, Waclawek placed a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos on her stereo when a little anole appeared from some hiding place and approached the source of the music. The lizard, she says, climbed onto a leg of the table holding the stereo and perched there, almost motionless, while she played all six of the concertos. Waclawek had to change the record several times — it was a three-disc set — but the lizard stayed put until the music was over.

Expert disputes claim of St. Pete Times editor

A herpetologist with the Florida State Museum has cast severe doubts on recent reports about anoles loving the Brandenburg Concertos.

"It wouldn't be because of any love of Bach," says Dr. David Auth. "Bach is totally foreign to their evolutionary history."

Cool names of North American lizards

The Ruin Lizard. The Side-blotched Lizard. The Desert Night Lizard.

The Knight Anole. The Greater Earless Lizard. The Lesser Earless Lizard. The Keeled Earless Lizard. The Bleached Earless Lizard.

From the Department of Transportation

Some lizards can swim. Several slither. Many run like crazy — a racerunner has been clocked at 27 feet per second, or 18 miles an hour — and some can rear their bodies up and run on their two hindlegs. East Indian water lizards have fringed toes and can run across water.

Malayan flying dragons have winglike flaps of skin and can glide from tree to tree.

(Notice we did not discuss any leaping among the various species).

About those tourist-eating Komodo dragons

There are only an estimated 6,000 of them left in the world. Most of the dragons live on the 18-mile-long Komodo Island in Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Archipelago and on the nearby island of Flores. One of 42 species of monitor lizards, they're intelligent and are said to have distinctive personalities.

"Some of them are curious as cats," Gainesville herpetologist Dr. Walter Auffenberg has told the New York Times. "They wander into tents and explore everything in sight, feeling out their surroundings with their long, yellow, forked tongues."

The giant lizards, which can grow to 10 feet and weigh up to 300 pounds, often appear harmless — so harmless, in fact, that tourists feed them goat meat by hand. Yet this appearance is deceptive; on occasion, dragons will charge humans at high speed, kill them and devour them. They eat everything, clothes and all. The dragons also have been known to dig up fresh graves and eat corpses.

The dragon is the only predator that slices up its prey into pieces with its teeth before eating. Sort of julienne-style, if you will.

Their jaws are lined with razor-sharp teeth. Their thick hides are covered with ticks. Their breath is unbearable from eating rotten animal carcasses. Their teeth are covered with filthy bacteria, so much that when they bite someone, the victim is often left with a fatal infection.

At the moment, the dragons are considered an endangered species.

They also are difficult animals to keep in captivity. In fact, they are even rarer inhabitants of zoos than pandas. It's hard to get them to breed in such an environment, and they require large enclosures that must be kept at 100F. year-round and must be covered like greenhouses so they can soak up ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Though specimens of the dragons once graced several zoos around the country, they are all gone now. The last one in the United States was a female named Sweetheart. She was about five feet long, weighed 55 pounds, and lived at the San Diego Zoo. She died of old age, at about 18, earlier this year.

Adventures with Dr. Auffenberg, Part One

In 1969, Auffenberg took his family to Komodo Island so that he could live among the dragons and study their habits. In the course of their 18-month stay, Auffenberg captured and tagged 119 dragons on the island, painting the sides of their bodies with large white numbers for identification.

One seven-foot male, Number 34, was a menace. He once stalked Auffenberg's two young sons down a long stretch of beach to where they were building sand castles. Just as Number 34 was about to have one of the boys for lunch, Garth, age 9, looked up and saw the dragon. The boys began screaming and fled to safety. Auffenberg now feels quite sure that Number 34, who the islanders call "crazy lizard," is the same dragon that devoured two tourists and a couple of other natives.

Lizard worship

Several years ago, members of the Yungnara tribe of Australian aborigines tried to stop an oil company from drilling in what they believe is the sacred home of their lizard god, Great Goanna.

But, in 1980, the American-backed Amax Petroleum Australia Company began drilling beneath Pea Hill in a remote area of Western Australia.

The Yungnara tribe calls the area Goanna Dreaming Place and believes that Goanna lives under the hill. They feared that if the drilling continued the god would be disturbed and would tell his animal counterpart, a six-foot monitor lizard that the tribe eats, not to mate.

Though three tribesmen went before the U.N. to complain about the oil company, the drilling went on.

Yes, Virginia, there is a town called Lizard Lick

It's a rural community 16 miles west of Raleigh, N.C., and it got its name in the early 1800s from an unlikely marriage of lizards and liquor.

Back in those days, says Mayor Charles Wood, the federal government owned and operated a still near some crossroads in the area. The still was a favorite stomping ground for local fence lizards.

"People would say, 'Let's go down to Lizard Lick and fill up our jimmy-johns.' (Slang for jugs.) It was a tale told that the lizards used to like to smell the aroma of the mash," says Wood. "They stayed happy on it and lounged on a fence all day."

Folklore aside, Wood figures the lizards were actually drawn to the still because the sweet whiskey attracted insects. "They probably came over for the luncheon," he says.

Today, Lizard Lick (population 1,300) still remembers its reptile roots. Every year, the community puts on a two-day festival with gospel music, barbecue, bluegrass — and lizard races. The contests take place on a short strip of country road.

"We catch lizards each year for our festival," says Wood. "After the race, we put them back in the environment and hope they raise some racers for next year."

Lizard Lick is considered a lizard sanctuary, and newcomers are warned not to harm the local reptile residents. In fact, there's a special sign that hangs on the town hall building. It says: "Don't kiss our lizards — it makes them nervous on race day."

Sex among the scaly: Stories Mama never told you

Parental discretion is advised here. We're gonna get graphic.

First of all, when it comes to reproduction, lizards vary in style and technique. Some males will just run up and try to jump on a female.

Others show more tact. A male skink, for instance, often will follow a potential mate around for weeks in hopes of winning her over. To establish a feeling of intimacy, he'll actually cuddle with her — scrunching up close at night and falling asleep with one little arm draped over her body.

At least that's what Dr. Auffenberg tells us.

"The male," says the good doctor, "has to court in a real Victorian sense. He has to go about it slowly, getting rid of any of her hostility ... The second part of courtship is that he has to convince her that he's the man for her."

Things move a little faster with green anoles. The males act macho, bobbing and flashing their dewlaps. If a female isn't interested — and most of the time, she's not — she runs away. If she is interested, she walks out in the open.

Sometimes, a female will walk over the top of a male and wriggle under his chin, trying to get something started. Males generally don't respond to such aggressiveness. They'll ignore the female, walk away and flash their dewlaps somewhere else as if she didn't even exist.

If both parties are ready to mate, the male approaches, and the female lowers her head and exposes the back of her neck. The male then curls over her, slides his tail under hers and bites her neck, clamping down with his teeth, presumably to get a firm grip.

This position, sometimes called "the doughnut posture," is common among lizards. It's even used by desert grassland whiptail lizards, an all-female species. Even though they don't need males to reproduce, a couple of grassland whiptails will go through the motions of copulation. One acts like a male; the other the female. Every 10 to 14 days, as their hormone levels change, the couple switches roles. David Crews, a zoologist at the University of Texas, has found that such pseudosexual behavior maximizes the number of eggs the whiptails lay.

Getting in on the Space Race

In the summer of 1967, in a series of non-NASA-approved experiments, a group of boys in the Meadowland area of St. Petersburg tried launching lizards into space via 45 RPM records and later by electronic rocket launchers. In the name of boredom, not science, several of the lizards were killed and buried in graves marked with popsicle stick crosses. Those lizards that survived the launchings were extremely dizzy but free to go.

Night of the living earrings

For years now, a small but macabre trend — live lizard earrings — has occasionally kicked up in various parts of the country. Kids think that lizards will make swell earrings, so they let the reptiles bite down on their earlobes. The lizards cling there until they are pulled off.

Don't try these stunts at home

Judith White, a zoo educator at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., urges people against abusing lizards. "Let me put it this way," says White. "How would you like to be dangling from someone's ears? How would you like to put your dog in a bottle rocket?"

Kids, leave those lizards alone.

Adventures with Dr. Auffenberg, Part Two

At one time, Dr. Auffenberg kept 40 Bengal monitors in a greenhouse in his backyard in Gainesville. The monitors, which are from Southeast Asia, grow up to four feet long, have extremely sharp teeth, eat meat and can be aggressive toward humans. One man's nightmares, it seems, are another man's pets.

"These are the big fellas," Auffenberg says.

One night, he was chopping up the monitors' dinner — dead animals found on the road — when a piece of meat fell off the counter and dropped on his foot. One of the industrial-size lizards went straight for Auffenberg's foot, thought it was supper and chowed down on a toe. "I was wearing sandals at the time," says Auffenberg. He finally shook the monitor loose by whacking him with a board.

No jokes, please

Male lizards — like male snakes — have two reproductive organs.

They're called hemipenes, and a male uses only one at a time. Though it has been hypothesized that a second hemipenis evolved to provide the animals with a "spare," Dr. Crews suggests that both organs evolved at the same time. Generally, he says, a male will switch off, using the right one during one mating and the left one during the next.

Dance fever

A few years ago, the Japanese were crazy for the Australian frilled lizard — a creature that, when excited, leaps on its hind legs, runs around and extends its Elizabethan neck ruffles. The Japanese were so fascinated by these frilled lizards that they put them on TV commercials to perform. The fad ended when the lizards began keeling over on stage and dying from exhaustion.

Adventures with Dr. Auffenberg Part Three

Seventeen Bengal monitors escaped from Auffenberg's Gainesville greenhouse in August 1983 when a tree limb crashed through the roof, creating a gaping hole. By the time the hole was discovered, the giant lizards were all over the neighborhood.

Using traps he had seen tribesmen use in Southeast Asia, Auffenberg and his wife stalked the giant lizards. Neighbors, meanwhile, helped out with sightings.

"It sort of gave them something to do," says Auffenberg. "They sat around with binoculars and watched. Some of the retired folks sat around on our lawn chairs, sipping their coffee or whatever, watching out for the monitors."

Though 15 of the escapees were caught within a week, two four-footers remained on the prowl. Weeks passed, then Auffenberg got a call from the police saying they had a lizard at bay in a nearby neighborhood.

"When we got there, they had drawn guns," he remembers.

Two or three months later, the last of the fugitives turned up. An Alachua County farmer called to report a baby dinosaur in his front yard.

Gimme an iguana on rye, and throw in a couple of those love potion No. 9 eggs

To some Latin Americans, dining on a piece of stewed iguana meat is like biting into a little bit o' heaven. The meat supposedly tastes like chicken. The natives also are fond of slitting open the bellies of pregnant females for their eggs because they say eating boiled iguana eggs is supposed to improve sexual performance. Their popularity as a food source is one reason the iguanas are dying in huge numbers and face possible extinction. Scientists are currently working on ways to breed and harvest iguanas.

SOURCES The information used in this story was gathered from a variety of sources. Barbara Hijek, Times reference librarian, helped gather the material. The sources include: Dr. Walter Auffenberg, curator of reptiles at the Florida State Museum in Gainesville; Dr. Julian Lee, herpetologist in the biology department at the University of Miami;

Dr. David Auth, herpetologist at the Florida State Museum in Gainesville; Dr. Tom Jenssen, herpetologist at Virginia Tech; Judith White, zoo educator at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.; Charles Wood, mayor of Lizard Lick, N.C.; Jeff Jouett, spokesman for the San Diego Zoo and Dr. Dale Marcellini, curator of herpetology for the National Zoo.

Also used was information from St. Petersburg Times files and wire services, the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians, the Economist, Discover, Financial Times and various encyclopedias.

Absolutely everything you want to know about lizards 08/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2008 9:21am]

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