The San Diego Zoo has had a variety of lizards for our guests to admire since our earliest days, when our collection included Gila monsters, iguanas, European legless lizards (sheltopusiks), and monitor lizards. Many of the exotic lizards we acquired in those early years were obtained by trading local specimens.
Oftentimes members of the military brought animals to the Zoo during their trips abroad. In 1930, we were thrilled to receive a shipment of six “beautiful iguanas, by far the handsomest and largest specimens of this creature that the Zoo has ever had” from a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. An Australian water dragon was the first lizard to make the cover of our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, back in 1931. Several of our iguanas have appeared in movies in the 1930s, making the jungle scenes in two Tarzan pictures and Treasure Island look tropical and dangerous.
Today, the Zoo is home to an amazing assortment of lizards, including red-headed and blue-headed agamas, bearded dragons, scheltopusiks, geckos, Gila monsters, skinks, caiman lizards, and Komodo dragons. We have had several breeding successes over the years, including the first captive hatching of Gila monster eggs in 1963, the first North American births of New Caledonian live-bearing geckos and emperor flat lizards in 2000, and the first successful breeding of Anegada Island iguanas in 2001. Also in 2000, the Zoo hatched our first-ever green tree monitor and has consistently hatched over 30 since then, making it the most successful green tree monitor program in the U.S.
A satanic leaf-tailed gecko made the local news in January 2011 as the first official San Diego Zoo baby of 2011. The hatchling was also notable because we are one of only two zoos to breed this unusual species. Gecko breeding takes place behind the scenes in one of the reptile buildings. Keepers watch the behavior of the female as a clue to when eggs might be found. The eggs are placed in a plastic container of moist vermiculite and kept in the gecko’s enclosure to keep an eye on them.
The Zoo's new Reptile Walk features lizard species native to southern California: the Panamint alligator lizard and giant horned lizard.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is home to a Nile monitor in our Animal Care Center. Named Obedass, this adult weighs nearly 40 pounds (18 kilograms). With his good looks and impressive size, he causes quite a stir among our guests! Obedass arrived at the Safari Park in 2004 from a zoo in Illinois. His diet consists of mice, crawfish, and meat “sausages” made for zoo carnivores. A humidifier in his enclosure keeps Obedass’ skin in good condition, and he has special heating and lighting to keep him comfortable. In the Park’s Hidden Jungle crevasse you’ll find the Mali uromastyx, banded velvet gecko, and giant leaf-tailed gecko.
Staff at San Diego Zoo Global’s state-of-the-art Kenneth C. and Anne D. Griffin Reptile Conservation Center have succeeded in breeding the most critically endangered iguanas in the world, the Caribbean rock iguanas. We have been involved with Caribbean iguana conservation and recovery programs for almost two decades, establishing captive breeding facilities for five of the most endangered species on their respective home islands. To date, more than 700 Caribbean iguanas have been raised in these facilities and released. An initiative is underway to establish a large, centralized, multi-species facility for endangered iguanas on Puerto Rico.
Closer to home, and in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, we have been monitoring the biological diversity of the Biodiversity Reserve at the Safari Park since 2002. This monitoring project provides significant insights into the population ecology of the native species living in the Reserve, including an abundance of native lizard species including whiptails, side-blotch lizards, western fence lizards, granite spiny lizards, western skinks, and Gilbert’s skinks. It is amazing how many lizard species are native to our own backyard here in southern California!
What can you do to help lizards in southern California? Be water wise! Over watering our yards in San Diego attracts nonnative Argentine ants, which then displace the native southern California ants, which then causes the now-endangered San Diego horned lizard to starve!