The Basilisk Lizard

Basilisk Lizard, Costa Rica

Gliding on a pontoon boat down the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica, we were literally focusing on birds when a unique lizard completely surprised us. I had never seen this phenomenon before, and I have never seen it since.


The lizard, the common basilisk, lives in the rainforests of Central and South America near rivers and streams.

Tarcoles River, cattle egret

Earlier, we had been hiking and birding the jungle of Carara National Park. The heat was extreme, humidity was high, and the mosquitoes were thick.


By late afternoon the earth had cooled down, wildlife were out, and we were quietly and slowly cruising through the mangrove swamp. The slight breeze produced by the boat was heavenly.

Boat-billed Heron

We came across nesting boat-billed herons, and a bountiful array of birds including macaws eating almonds and toucans hidden in the branches.


Birds and crocodiles continued with their endeavors as we peacefully floated by.


Suddenly there was a splashing commotion and in a flash this lizard skittered across the surface of the water.


How does a lizard run on top of water?


I had previously seen this trick of the “Jesus Lizard” on nature programs. They stand upright in the water on their two hind legs, and streak across the water’s surface.


A  small reptile with numerous predators, they turn on their racing legs when threatened. It wasn’t a busy river and our pontoon boat had scared him.

Basilisk lizard, Tarcoles River

Basiliscus basiliscus have wide-webbed feet with scaly fringes that expand when they hit the surface of the water. While the front legs remain upright and motionless, the back legs hit the water, creating a pocket of underwater air that supports the lightweight reptile. Simultaneously, their feet are essentially water-pedaling, pushing outward in a way that  balances the lizard.


The one we saw was about 12″ long (30 cm) with an additional 8″ (20 cm) of tail. That’s him in the first photo. Doesn’t look like he can fly across water, does he?


How far can they run on top of the water?


We were in a shallow river with natural sand bars, logs, and downed trees; he ran a distance of about 15 feet (4.5 m).

Basilisk Lizard in Belize

But they can go further. Wikipedia says the smaller basilisk lizards can run atop the water’s surface for about 32-64 feet (10-20m). It also says they can run up to 7 mph (11 km/h). Wikipedia info.


Short science video of running basilisk.


I love all lizards, but the basilisk is right there in my top five.


All photos:  Athena Alexander

Osprey with fish, Tarcoles River


Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Tarcoles River

Basalisk lizard in Belize

Location of Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Courtesy Wikipedia



78 thoughts on “The Basilisk Lizard

    • We had such a difficult time getting down there, it was winter and there were a lot of storms everywhere, flights were troubled, luggage was lost for two days. But once we were hiking in the rainforest, then boating on the river, everything changed into bliss. I love the basilisks and boat-billed herons too, Bill, I’m happy to share them with you.

  1. Jet that is one of the most fascinating things i have ever seen in nature. The video is great and i smiled when the narrator compared the lizard’s actions to cycling. Likely he didn’t have my speed of cycling in mind but I do get the analogy. Hard to believe they can be so fast from a dead stop. Hopefully they are good swimmers. Just in case.

    • Sue, what a pleasure to see you back here after your grand adventure. I enjoyed your comment, especially knowing you are an avid bicyclist and could relate. I find the basilisk fascinating too, such a wonder they are. And BTW they are good swimmers. 🙂

  2. That first Basilisk Lizard reminds me of the “giant” lizards that were encountered on the beach in the original 1959 “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” movie (it’s so bad its good). Fabulous captures and memories after what sounds like a chaotic start to your adventure!

    • You know how travel goes, Joanne, especially in winter, it can be chaotic. Although I didn’t wrote it in this post, when our luggage was lost, we had a curious adventure at a department store and got to know the driver so well that he then took us to a little park “on the way” and showed us rare owls and a sloth. This is why we travel, yes?

      • Definitely yes! Those cosmic encounters with random people which lead to something unexpectedly unique and wonderful make travel all the more intoxicating! Have yourselves a wonderful weekend.

  3. What a wonderful post, Jet. You had me smiling all the way through it. Okay, except for the crocodile.
    You’ve just recruited a new fan of the basilisk lizard. I’ve seen pictures of them with that wacky run on the water. Your photos really bring out their personality. Have a wonder-filled weekend. Mega hugs!

    • heh heh, glad to recruit a new basilisk lizard fan, Teagan. I enjoyed your fun comment, and am happy to have a smiley exchange today, thank you Teagan.

  4. This is one of your better posts. I love the images. The reptiles are all cool. The toucan is beautiful. The boat-billed heron is awesome and looks like he should be in a cartoon or something.

    • There were many more photos that went with this boat ride, and I had to narrow it down to some of the top picks, so I’m glad you enjoyed all my very cool friends here, Craig. Boat-billed herons are super skittish and we literally bent over backwards in those mangrove roots to get just a glimpse. You’re right they DO look like cartoon characters. And don’t get me going on the reptiles, Craig, oh how I love the reptiles. We ran around in the forest with teenage boys lifting up moldy logs to find reptiles and poison dart frogs. Many thanks for your kind comments.

  5. What an adventure! I love how you endure a bit to enjoy a lot (yes, I do mean mosquitos, I couldn’t bear it…)
    The basilisk lizard is a wonder, and what a treat for you both to see it in action. Loved the boat-billed heron, very handsome.
    Thanks for sharing this river adventure, and have a great weekend!

    • It is such a joy to share the Tarcoles River adventure with you, PC. Now that you’re hanging out in heronrys, I know you and Mrs. PC would have endured the mosquitoes and the heat to see what lurked in that mangrove swamp. My thanks to you for stopping by, always appreciated.

    • The great thing about Costa Rica is that it has the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, and there are mountains and volcanoes in between; so there are many different habitats, which yield many different types of wildlife. I would love to go back, as there was so much more there that we didn’t get to. Thanks very much, Belinda.

  6. I enjoyed your fascinating travels in Costa Rica and how wonderful that you were able to see the great collection of birds and the basilisk lizard run on water. The trip sounds amazing and that would be wild to actually see the lizard running. Thanks for sharing the video and the fantastic photos!

    • We did see a lot of wildlife on this trip, spent time in a biological station in the rainforest, also a deep mountain valley; it’s been fun to share today’s river adventure with you, ACI. With the big crocs swimming around you (and Gabby of course) wouldn’t want to be in your kayak, but a pontoon was great fun. Thank you for joining~~

  7. Costa Rica has a great deal of wildlife and each as amazing than the next. I haven’t seen a Basilik lizard in person, only in video. Interesting post my friend! 🙂

    • We were in a pretty remote section of the swamp, and I think the wildlife don’t have a lot of humans going through that way, spooked the basilisk. I’m happy you enjoyed the river ride, HJ, thank you so much.

  8. That Basilisk lizard is a fascinating creature. I love your post about it and the other treats form Costa Rica. Looks like the Boat-billed Heron put on a beak mask 🙂

    • I’m delighted you enjoyed the basilisk and the river adventure, Sherry. I like your word “treats” because that’s exactly what they all were. Chuckled at the beak mask on the boat-billed heron. What a bird!

  9. What a treat on seeing the lizard run on water, how cool is that?!!!! Thanks for sharing about them, they are quite interesting. Really liked the Boat-billed Heron capture, he looks odd yet cute with that huge beak to our U.S. herons. And just love you saw and shared an Osprey shot! 🙂

    • The jewel about this river adventure was that it wasn’t a popular recreation place (too shallow), so the wildlife was abundant. Boat-billed herons are really tricky to capture because they are not only skittish, but they nestle deep within the mangroves. And the osprey with the fish was a thrill. Athena was very busy, as you can imagine. My thanks Donna, a pleasure.

  10. Hi Dear Jet….I have missed your posts…..and yes how fascinating is this….a Lizard that run on water…amazing. I thought of you when I was in Portugal…as you know I went earlier then my group and had time on my own which gave me the opportunity to explore in ways that I am unable to do when I am tutoring. I took a six hour boat trip out the Barrier Islands and around fhe Ria Formosa National park…filled with birds and other species. You would love it.
    Anyway, I am slowly catching up, but have come to the realisation, that we never really catch up……and so will now look forward to reading more of your blogs and following your fascinating life. Hope you are enjoying a superb weekend and that the hummingbirds are weaving their magic around you. Janet 🙂

    • Oh Janet, what a joy to receive your visit and message, it filled me with smiles, thank you. I just looked up the Barrier islands of Ria Formosa NP, and they look so very lovely. I love visiting wetlands like this, I am glad you did too. I see they are a popular place for migrating birds, and with lots of tidal flats, marshes, and lagoons it looks heavenly. I find it a great honor that you thought of me while there. I’m glad you had a chance to visit before your teaching began. I have come to the same realization, espec. in regard to blogging, that there is no catching up; so we jump in when we can and enjoy the magic carpet ride. Re Hummingbirds. Ours are nesting here now, and are drinking up the nectar like crazy in their busy time of protecting and raising their very wee ones. We all have busy times, even the dazzling hummingbirds; it is a pleasure of life on earth, yes? Thanks so much for your visit here, Janet.

      • Good morning, Jet and thank you for this lovely comment….and yes we do all live busy lives….but aren’t we fortunate to be able to do so. Think of me when you observe your hummers…and I will think of you enjoying the natural world. Janet 🙂

  11. I have never seen a lizard that pretty! Basilisk Lizard reminds me of Indonesian Draco lizard – but Draco lizard is much smaller and I was not lucky enough to see it spreads its wing 🙂

    • I enjoyed hearing about the Draco lizard in Indonesia, Indah; and appreciate your comment and visit so much. I hope your trip to Hawaii was wonderful. 🌞

  12. Other than traveling Costa Rica myself your wonderful site will do nicely. The numerous
    colorful birds and unusual lizards of various kinds and types make travel in this exoitic land
    a sight to behold. Thanks for your great photos and story Jet.

  13. The video of the Basilisk lizard running so swiftly and magically across the surface of the water — then CRUNCHING the body of that beautiful blue butterfly — was amazing. You are, indeed, a treasure, Jet. Who else would have calculated their top 5 lizards? 😉

    • I was happy to find that You Tube video, I’m glad you enjoyed it Nan. As a young girl I never had a liking for lizards, probably part of the girl training that is a big part of our society. But living so close to lizards on our property, I became less fearful, and then traveling to tropical places I saw the great variety and each one so beautiful. Very cool creatures. Thanks for your very warm words, Nan, much appreciated.

  14. Amazing lizard… and I’d love to see the heron foraging. I have a feeling the technique must differ from the usual swift stab into the water of most herons. More of a scooping process, I guess. RH

    • Excellent point, RH. They are a nocturnal bird, oddly enough, so I have never seen them forage. But I read that they do scoop, as you surmised. They also stalk prey and “feel” them in the dark. A very unusual bird. Thanks for your visit, always a joy.

  15. Pingback: The Basilisk Lizard | Site Title

    • Isn’t that amazing, Bertie?? The nice thing about a video is you can see it in slow motion and play it repeatedly. The one we saw in real life was so incredibly quick (but splendid nevertheless). It’s great fun to share this delightful creature with you, Bertie — thanks for stopping by.

  16. what a wonderful float adventure, Jet!
    i’m amazed at all the detail captured
    along with the lizard walking on water.
    thank you for staying in the boat
    and bringing this all back so colorfully 🙂

    • This gave me a fun laugh, because yes, it was important, foremost, that we stay in the boat. So I’m glad about that too, and happy to bring back the adventure to share. I’m delighted you enjoyed it, David.

  17. I adore lizards! It’s so cute floating down the river, and that boat billed heron is stunning!
    An excellent post, and as usual, I’ve learned something! Thanks Jet!

  18. Wow, that’s quite the lizard! My parents have lots of little ones running around outside their house right now. The other day my mom said she put her hand in the mailbox and out came a lizard with the envelopes 😉

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