Range:

All continents except Antarctica

Habitat:

All habitats except extreme cold and deep oceans

What is a lizard?

Lizards are part of a group of animals known as reptiles. They are most closely related to snakes. In fact, some lizards, called sheltopusiks, look like snakes because they have no legs! Many lizards today resemble the ancient reptiles of the dinosaur era. Their ancestors appeared on Earth over 200 million years ago.

In general, lizards have a small head, short neck, and long body and tail. Unlike snakes, most lizards have moveable eyelids. There are currently over 4,675 lizard species, including iguanas, chameleons, geckos, Gila monsters, monitors, and skinks.

Lizard senses

Sight— Most lizards have eyelids, just like we do, that clean and protect their eyes when they blink. But some lizards, like geckos, can’t blink! Instead, they have a clear membrane that shields their eyes from dirt or bright sun and use their tongue to clean their eyes. Many lizards, such as iguanas, can see in color. Their colorful body parts allow them to communicate with each other and help them tell which are male and which are female.

Smell and Taste— Lizards smell stuff with their tongues! Just like snakes, a lizard sticks out its tongue to catch scent particles in the air and then pulls back its tongue and places those particles on the roof of its mouth, where there are special sensory cells. The lizard can use these scent “clues” to find food or a mate or to detect enemies.

Hearing— Lizards don’t have earflaps like mammals do. Instead, they have visible ear openings to catch sound, and their eardrums are just below the surface of their skin. Even so, lizards can’t hear as well as we do, but their hearing is better than that of snakes.

The dwarf gecko is so small it can fit on the tip of your finger.
Geckos are thought to be the only lizards that produce vocalizations.
The Madagascan chameleon has a sticky-tipped tongue that it can shoot out farther than the length of its body.
The 6-lined racerunner holds the record for the fastest speed reached by a reptile on land—18 miles per hour (29 kilometers per hour).
To protect its feet from the hot sand, the sand lizard “dances” by lifting its legs up quickly, one at a time, or by resting its belly on the sand and lifting up all four legs at once.
The secret of the gecko's sticky toes is inspiring new kinds of adhesives, including a biodegradable one for surgical use.
Some lizard species can store up to 60 percent of their body fat in their tail.
Unlike other lizards, alligator lizards shed their skin in one piece, as snakes do.
Thorny devil lizards can eat 24 to 45 ants per minute.

Early days

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.

At the Zoo

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.

At the Safari Park

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.

Reptile Conservation Center

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.

Biodiversity Reserve

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!

You can help!

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!