Lizard Land — Part 2 of 2

Green Iguana, Belize, native


Last week in Part 1 of this series we looked at lizards’ antipredator adaptations, camouflage, and size. Today we look at their skin, and various ways they move, sense, and communicate.


For starters, they are gloriously prehistoric. When you watch a lizard, especially the way it moves, it’s almost as if you are watching a dinosaur. The evolution of reptiles dates back 310-320 million years; more info here. 


Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands


Blue-tongued Lizard pair, entwined, Sydney, Australia


Spiny-tailed Lizard, Ambergris Caye, Belize


Skin. Lizard skin is covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, providing protection from the environment. Scales also help prevent water loss, especially important in hot, dry deserts.


This photo shows the textured scales.

Western Fence Lizard, California


Tough and leathery, lizard skin is shed as the animal grows; they usually eat it for the minerals.


Locomotion.  Lizards live on the ground, in trees, rocks, underground, and even water. Therefore, they move in many different ways.


Although there are some legless lizards, most lizards are quadrupedal. Their gait has alternating movement of the right and left limbs, requiring the body to bend–shown in this photo of the Nile monitor.


Nile Monitor, Botswana, Africa


One of my favorite lizards for their movement is the common basilisk. When alarmed, basilisks rear up on their two hind legs and skitter across the water, earning them the name Jesus Christ Lizard. I’ve seen them run bipedally on the ground as well.


This photo demonstrates the basilisk’s muscular hind legs, necessary for bipedal locomotion.


Basilisk Lizard, Belize


Many species of lizards can effortlessly leap two and three times their body length. Lizards with short legs, like the skink, undulate like a snake.


Skink, California


Some lizards are extremely fast, while others, especially larger ones, are more languid. In addition, how much sun they have stored in their body is directly relational to speed.


The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaurus similis) is known as the fastest lizard, clocked at 21 mph (34 kph).


Black Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ambergris Caye, Belize


Geckos get the prize for hanging upside down. Their adhesive toe pads allow them to adhere to most surfaces.


The Asian House Gecko has the broadest distribution of any lizard in the world.


Asian House Gecko on the ceiling, Kakadu NP, Australia


Senses. With over 6,000 species of lizards, there are many variations of how lizards sense their environment–here are a few notable ways.


Eyes. Many lizard species, especially iguanas, have a parietal eye, a third eye, on the back of their head. It is photoreceptive and regulates circadian rhythm and hormone production for thermoregulation. Although it does not form images, it is sensitive to light and movement, helpful for detecting predators. The eye is difficult for us to see.


A chameleon can steer each eye in opposite directions. Geckos do not have eyelids, so they lick their eyes to keep them clean and moist. Geckos, like monitors, have acute vision.


Ears. Instead of external ears, lizards have ear holes or openings. The eardrums, or tympanic membranes, are just below the surface of the skin. These two close-ups clearly show the “ears.”


Dragon Lizard, Australia. Ear hole is reddish-brown circle below and left of eye.



This frill-necked lizard’s ear opening is just right of center photo, in an almost straight line below the eye. Australia.


Nose. All lizards, like snakes, have a specialized olfactory system for detecting pheromones or chemical signals. They have a vomeronasal organ (VNO), located in the soft tissue of the nasal septum. When you see a lizard sticking out its forked tongue, as in the photo below, what you are witnessing is the transferring of scent information from the tip of its forked tongue to the VNO.


Golden Tegu Lizard with forked tongue out, Trinidad


Mouth. Most lizards are predatory and hunt small invertebrates and/or insects. We have lizards to thank for keeping the insect population in check.


This western fence lizard had a fruitful day in my backyard. As winged nuptial ants were streaming from a rock fissure, he gorged for at least an hour.


Western Fence Lizard, California, eating nuptial ants. Notice all the dead winged ants he hasn’t yet had the chance to consume.


Here in California we are lucky to have the western fence lizard, because ticks that feed on this lizard do not spread Lyme disease. This lizard’s blood kills off the Lyme bacteria.


The marine iguana, found only in the Galapagos Islands, forages on algae, kelp and other marine plants. They will dive up to 98 feet (30 m), and can stay submerged for an hour.


While underwater, marine iguanas ingest salt. The salt is filtered from the blood and then nasally excreted. We saw many of them squirt salt out their nostrils.


This photo shows the marine iguana’s lovable face encrusted with algae (green) and dried salt (white) on it.


Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands


As squamates, lizards have movable upper jaws, and some lizards, like the green iguana, have very sharp teeth capable of shredding leaves and even human skin. All lizards have teeth, dentition varies.


Communication. Lizards make sounds for courtship, territorial defense, and distress signals. Geckos are the most loquacious lizards, with chirps and squeaks that can be surprisingly loud. Sometimes you’ll hear a lizard hiss, a warning.


Other forms of communication include:  various body postures like push-ups and head-bobs, as well as the expansion of the dewlap. Tail-flicking is common in territorial disputes.


We found this dapper anole with a bright orange dewlap in a Texas swamp.


Green anole, Texas


This green iguana below, near a river in Costa Rica where it is native, was nearly five feet long (1.5 m) including the tail. An arboreal lizard, they hunt and bask in the trees and can easily break a fall with their hind legs.


This photo shows his crescent-shaped, uninflated dewlap under the neck. Dewlaps are muscle-controlled, and help regulate body temperature; also used in courtship and territorial displays.


Green Iguana, Costa Rica


Leaping Lizards Batman! They are the coolest animal on this planet!

Thanks for joining me in Lizard Land.


Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.


Great Basin Fence Lizard, Great Basin NP, Nevada


Lovable Lizards

Land Iguana, Isabela Isl., Galapagos

There are over 6,000 species of lizards on our planet, residing on all continents except Antarctica.  Here are some basic facts and photos of a few of my favorites.


One thing I love about lizards is their adaptability. Depending on the severity of danger, they can sacrifice their tail and grow a new one, change colors, and vanish in an instant.

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

Another thing I love is their solar power. Lizards are ectotherms, they require heat sources outside their body to function. Also known as cold-blooded (not technically accurate), lizards regulate their body temperature according to the sun.


Once in awhile I will find a lizard when the sun has been absent, like at dawn on a foggy day, and they are frozen in place. Immobile. I like this about lizards, too — their vulnerability. Of course, that’s not their favorite thing.


There are many remarkable features about lizards, read more here:

Lizard Wikipedia


Green Anole, Texas


Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

With six thousand lizard species, there are thousands of variations. I have watched lizards run across water, eat algae under water, flare out their neck to twice its size, and hang upside down for days.


Some lizards change colors to attract mates, some change colors to escape detection (camouflage), and others are bright their whole life.


Hawaiian Gecko


Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

I live in a hot, dry climate in California. In the spring and summer we have three regular lizard species, each is a home-time favorite and much revered.

Western Fence Lizard, California

The western fence lizard is the most prevalent, we see them every day from May through October. The male does push-ups and displays a brilliant blue belly during breeding season.

Western Fence Lizard, California, gorging on nuptial ants


Plus, this lizard has an astonishing feature. They have a protein in their blood that kills the bacterium in the tick that causes Lyme’s Disease.


Ticks often feed on lizards’ blood, including the deer tick that carries Lyme’s Disease. When the deer tick feeds on the western fence lizard, the bacterium is killed. My chances of getting Lyme’s Disease are considerably less because of this  lizard.


We also have the alligator lizard, named for their resemblance to alligators. They are skittish and infrequent, but when they appear, it is a highlight of the day.

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Our third reptile is the western skink. They are almost always hidden, their predator list is long. I’ve learned to recognize their sound when they rustle beneath leaves; so if I wait nearby, I sometimes see them.


Western skink, Calif.


Some lizards, like the skink, move like a snake. They have short legs and wiggle and slither. But most lizards are quadrupedal and move with an alternating gait. Another thing I love about lizards…watching them walk or run, a kind of reptilian sashay that says “attitude” to me.

Nile Monitor, Botswana


The marine iguana, the only underwater lizard in the world, lives on the Galapagos Islands. I’ve been snorkeling when they entered the water–that’s a strange thing, to be snorkeling with a large lizard. A true thrill. They sneeze out the sea salt when they return to land.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Lizards bask in the sun, leap through the air, let go of their tail if it’s in the jaws of a predator, and effortlessly change colors. I wouldn’t mind having all of these features, but since I cannot, I’m happy to watch…maybe I’ll learn something.

Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander


Frill-necked lizard, Australia


Golden Tegu Lizard, Trinidad


Jolted Into Journeys

What I most like about travel is it keeps me on my toes. No matter where you go, whether it’s two counties away to check out a local event, or two days away on a unique adventure, you always have new sensations to feel, new ideas to ponder, and new people to enjoy. In being human, many of us like to get comfortable, I know I sure do. I sleep best on my own mattress, feel better when I can cook my own delectable foods, and I savor the utter peace of my little home in the woods. But I can’t get too comfortable at home or I start to slide into ruts, complacency, and can tend toward being less tolerant. Traveling may not be for everyone, but it is definitely a joy for me. There is a whole world out there, after all, and it’s full of extraordinary wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating, diverse cultures.

I grew up in a household where we took road trips several times a year, so I absorbed some of the travel bug at a young age. Then in college I worked two jobs and saved up enough money to spend a semester in Austria. But here’s the real dirty secret that set my life on course:  I was jolted into journeys by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

It was a regular work day in downtown San Francisco, October 17, 1989. At that time I was a freelance writer in the mornings, and in the afternoons I had an administrative job in a big law firm downtown. I was in a high-rise building, in a room with six or seven other people when we were all literally knocked off our feet. I knew to go to the doorway and stand under the jamb where it was safest, but trying to get there was like walking on an airplane in extreme turbulence. The cubicle walls were swaying so savagely that I couldn’t grab onto anything to stay upright. The whole building jumped and jerked:  file cabinet drawers flew open, desks were dancing, and people were tumbling like dominoes. My co-workers and I huddled in the doorway watching out the window at the next door high-rise swaying dangerously close to us; we watched a Coke machine in their breakroom get flipped on its side.

After 15 seconds or so (it felt like a lifetime), the violent shaking stopped. We all knew that it wasn’t over, though, because aftershocks would inevitably follow. Attorneys and professionals in business suits were screaming and crying, many folks were huddled on the floor, and through it all an announcement on the public address system instructed us to leave the building immediately. I got to the appropriate stairwell but I smelled fire, and my instincts flared up a warning. I looked at the masses of people in that crowded stairwell and didn’t know what to do. Were we walking into a fire?  But elevators were out of service and the crowd seemed to be moving. I was also disheartened by a five foot concrete wall hanging that was on the ground in broken hunks crowding the stairs.

Eventually I got out of the building, found my girlfriend who had been working on the 21st floor. We got to the sidewalk but this was no safe place either. Bricks were popping off of buildings and plate glass windows were exploding. With the flying bricks and broken glass, the center of the streets started to fill with people emptying out of the buildings. We all walked, not exactly knowing where to go. It was 5:15 so fortunately it wasn’t yet dark. Traffic lights were not working, unattended alarms were screaming, buildings were in piles, people were stunned—some cut and bloody, some speechless, some sobbing uncontrollably.

As we walked along in the flustered crowd, we learned that the World Series baseball game, playing across the Bay that day, had experienced live coverage of the earthquake. The world had watched our earthquake. We also learned that the Bay Bridge, one of the two major bridge arteries to the City, had collapsed.

We kept walking. I remember one particularly busy intersection that was thrown into chaos without the traffic lights. Several homeless dudes had taken to directing traffic and restored some order. All the buses were filled to capacity and there was mayhem everywhere, so we just kept walking toward home, still miles away. The street was loaded with walking people. After awhile residents with pick-up trucks opened up their back tailgates and allowed whoever could fit onto the truck bed to hitch a ride down Market Street. We hopped on for the last mile or so.

After that day I started to eat dessert first. I decided to go for the gusto first, in case an aftershock took my life and I wouldn’t make it through the entire meal. I started to think differently. Some people had died that day; everyone had stories of friends or family who didn’t make it through that day. And I noticed a few people at work who had a difficult time recovering from the emotional trauma; some poor folks went out on permanent disability.

I glued myself back together, just like I glued broken items back together that I had found shattered on the floor of my apartment. With each new day I felt better, I survived the aftershocks, and although there was some looting, mostly the community did well and we helped each other. I did have to stop going to a certain Pier One store, though, because it happened to be located under a commercial gym. And the shaking of those walls when someone upstairs put down their barbells was entirely too unnerving for me to stay in the store. As long as the walls and floors didn’t shake I did okay, and fortunately there was never a really big earthquake like that again.

We all have these situations in our lives at one time or another, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Natural disasters that rip the roof of your house, ghastly terrorist nightmares, devastating experiences, accidents. They remind us that life is fleeting and there might not be a tomorrow. That can be a very humbling, but useful, reminder.

Usually, however, there is a tomorrow. Most of us cannot afford to stop working and just do fun things. Bills have to be paid, we have responsibilities and aspirations like education, career, dependent loved ones. It’s a difficult balance of immediate gratification vs. future goals, and a lifelong conundrum of how to manage our time and funds to embrace both.

In the decades that followed the devastating earthquake that rattled me into adulthood, I have found that if I am still yearning for something six months or a year after I started thinking about it, then it’s something I need to attend to. Travel, career change, relationship, whatever. Sometimes it’s a matter of researching it fully and discovering the truth about my dream before I actually embark. In regard to travel, for instance, if I realize that a place may be too touristy for me or what it would cost to get there is not worth it to me, I change the dream. Other times, the more I look into it, the more I realize that this is a place I really want to visit. Then I set down the plans for doing it and stay focused on my goal.

LandIguana.BTPhelanLike a trip to the Galapagos Islands. To be up close to something like this land iguana, well, that was a total thrill. That trip was something I had always wanted to do and it was really really fun. It had its moments of discomfort (like throwing up my dinner every night when we had to return to our rocky boat), but many more moments of wonderfully freaky creatures and crazy adventures. Right now I am working on a mystery novel that is set in Africa, but there is definitely a novel-in-waiting set in the Galapagos.

The world is a gigantic place. Sometimes it’s hard to get going on the specifics of just where to go first. But keep at it and it gets easier, because you become more familiar with what brings you the most joy.

Once when I was working at a shop on a busy street in Oakland, I was walking down the sidewalk to get something to eat for my break. It was a part-time evening job after a long day of working my “day job.”  I had started my own business and I wanted to keep it going but I couldn’t support myself with it entirely, so I worked this night job for the extra income.  That night I had my head down, deep in thought about something, and a homeless guy was spread out on the sidewalk. I had hardly noticed him. He said in a deep voice, and very clearly, “Keep your eye on the prize.”  I’ve been doing so ever since and I hope you are too.