Scaly and colorful, many with amazing abilities (think: sleeping with their eyes open or growing back their tails), lizards are among the most fascinating reptiles on the planet. These cold-blooded creatures come in all proportions, from the smallest lizard—the Jaragua Dwarf gecko in the Dominican Republic, the size of a dime—to the largest—the Komodo Dragon, which is found in Indonesia and can reach lengths of 10 feet.
Today, an estimated 4,675 species of lizards exist in the world, from iguanas and chameleons to geckos and monitors. They’ve roamed the Earth for more than 200 million years. And while their range has drastically reduced, they can be found in all manner of habitats on all continents except Antarctica, from the Galapagos and Indonesia to the rain forests and deserts of Africa.
World Lizard Day is celebrated each year on August 14, mainly among reptile enthusiasts, in reptile parks and at schools. But truly appreciating these dinosaur-looking creatures means learning more and seeing them up close in the wild.
Lizards are part of the reptile family, which also includes snakes, tortoises and crocodiles. They are most closely related to snakes and can smell with their tongues, but unlike snakes, they have legs and moveable eyelids. Most lizards have a long body with a tail, a small head with a short neck, and bony plates and/or scales that they often shed to make room for new skin. They lay eggs, and their ability to see color led many male lizards to evolve brightly colored bodies.
Most lizard species live on the ground, while others dwell in trees, in water or underground. These lizards have developed special physical qualities that aid them in their habitats. For example, those that burrow have shorter legs, while those residing in trees feature sharp claws and a prehensile tail to hold onto branches. However, no matter where they live, lizards face threats from habitat loss, poaching for the exotic pet trade, and invasive species such as rats, feral cats and dogs.
Keep reading to learn about some of our favorite lizard species and where you can see them in the wild.
1. Lava Lizard
The Galapagos islands are full of interesting lizard species, including the lava lizard, which is found nearly everywhere throughout ten of the main islands. They can be seen scurrying along the shorelines or sunning themselves atop, you guessed it, cooled lava. When visiting the Enchanted Isles, you may even find them rapidly bobbing their heads and doing what looks like push-ups, a gesture performed to defend their territories.
Lava lizards have slim bodies and are around five to six inches long, with some reaching up to a foot in length. Males come in a mix of yellow, brown, gray, green and black coloring with gold specks and stripes, while females have distinctive red skin on their faces and necks. One of the most unique things about the lava lizard is its ability to camouflage and change color to suit its environment when threatened or during temperature fluctuations.
These petite reptiles subsist mainly on insects such as moths, flies and spiders and play a key role in controlling insect populations in their environment. In turn, lava lizards are food for snakes and birds such as herons and hawks. In addition to remaining still and camouflaging to protect themselves against predators, they have a special power to detach their tails when caught!
While these reptiles aren’t considered endangered, like all species inhabiting the Galapagos, they must contend with global warming, habitat destruction and climate patterns, such as El Niño.
2. Marine Iguana
Marine iguanas are the only seagoing lizards on the planet. These large-bodied reptiles, which resemble miniature dinosaurs, can reach lengths of up to four feet. They feature a row of spikes the entire length of their spine that helps intimidate predators, and their long flat tails assist them with swimming.
These lizards spend the majority of their time in the water, feeding on algae and seaweed, but come ashore to warm up and for breeding. Marine iguanas are endemic to the Galapagos and can be found swimming and basking in the sun on rocks along the shores on a Galapagos Hiking & Kayaking Adventure. As you pass by, you may even catch them sneezing out salt. These aquatic creatures consume a lot of salt while diving and have developed glands that remove it from their blood and through expulsion via the nose as a sneeze or snort.
Marine iguanas are typically black or gray in color, helping them blend in with rocks. But during the mating season in December and January, the scales on the male iguanas (especially on the island of Española) turn a vibrant red and green, earning them the nickname “Christmas iguanas.”
The biggest threats to marine iguanas are climate-related events, such as El Niño, which increases their stress levels, causing issues with reproduction. They also fall prey to predator birds such as owls, herons and hawks and introduced species like dogs, pigs and cats. Another threat is habitat loss due to development. Thanks to conservation efforts by World Wildlife Fund and the Charles Darwin Foundation, their nesting areas are receiving more protection. This includes a main nesting site on the popular tourist beach of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island.
3. Land Iguana
There are three species of land iguanas found in the Galapagos, with the Galapagos land iguana more prolific on many of the volcanic islands, including Isabela, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Fernandina, Hood and North Seymour. The other two are the Santa Fé land iguana, which is only found on Santa Fé, and the Galapagos pink land iguana, which is a near-extinct species that lives on the slopes of Wolf Volcano on Isabela.
The Galapagos land iguana is much larger than its marine cousin, weighing up to 175 pounds and reaching lengths of up to 39 inches. It has a short and blunt nose, sharp claws and is yellow in color with a pronounced spiky spine. These lizards inhabit the drier regions in small colonies on a few of the islands, living in burrows and feeding on the pads and flowers of the prickly pear cactus.
Their former range included many more islands, but introduced invasive species like goats that consumed their food and domestic and feral cats and dogs wiped out their populations, specifically on Santiago Island. The land iguana is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. In 2019, more than 2,000 land iguanas were reintroduced to Santiago Island by the Galapagos National Park and Island Conservation in an effort to help their survival and restore the island’s ecosystem.
4. Green Tree Iguana
The green tree iguana is an ancient relative of the iguanas found in the Galapagos. It is among the larger lizard species, weighing up to 17 pounds, growing to over six feet in length and featuring a long, spiky tail. Green tree iguanas are found in tropical rainforests of Central America, South America and eastern Caribbean islands, their sharp claws on their short legs helping them cling to the sides of trees.
As their name indicates, they are typically green in color, although they turn a dull green, olive and brown with age. Younger iguanas are stunning, with a bright green coloring. Adult males have a large throat fan or jowls, which occasionally turns orange. This feature, called a dewlap, helps them appear bigger, warn predators and also aids in regulating their body temperature.
Green tree iguanas live in shrubs and trees, feasting on flowers, fruit and leaves. They are slow creatures and tend to enjoy sunbathing, but also like to go for a swim. They tend to escape when threatened, so they are often found near bodies of water. In human areas, they can be found on sidewalks, docks, lawns and even golf courses. However, seeing them in their natural habitats, whether on a river boat cruise on the Amazon River or a trip to Peru’s Machu Picchu, is sure to make you a fan of these mini green Godzillas.
You’ve probably heard the term chameleon used for people who can morph their behaviors or beliefs to suit different situations. The inspiration behind this is, of course, the chameleon.
These fascinating arboreal lizards can change color to blend into their environment. This ability helps them cool down, warm up, attract potential mates and avoid predators. Each chameleon subspecies has a set of patterns they can display through their translucent outer layer of skin, which sits above a layer of special pigmented cells that can turn different colors based on brain signals.
In addition to their colorful camouflage, chameleons have other physical characteristics that make them adept at fending off predators. For instance, their ability to move their eyelids in two different directions gives them a 360-degree view, which comes in handy to literally keep an eye on any predators. Chameleons can lay perfectly still, their bulging eyes shielded by circular eyelids, scanning their surroundings and whipping out their long sticky tongues (which can stretch almost twice their body size) to seize insects.
The chameleon also has the ability to puff its body up with air to appear larger, another tactic to ward off danger!
There are about 150 species of chameleons living in the deserts, rain forests and lowlands of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. However, more than half of the planet’s chameleon population is endemic to Madagascar, an island off the southeastern coast of Africa. They range in size from that of a domestic cat to a tiny nano chameleon (the Brookesia nana chameleon of Madagascar) that can perch on a fingernail!
Chameleons are endangered due to loss of habitat for agricultural practices, construction and cattle grazing, as well as demand from the pet trade.
Geckos became popular thanks to a car insurance agency’s mascot. Around 1,500 species of geckos are found around the world, except in Antarctica. These small to medium-sized colorful lizards dwell in many environments, from deserts and rainforests to mountains. The title of smallest lizard goes to the dwarf gecko, which grows to about 1.6 centimeters long and weighs around 120 milligrams.
These critters are nocturnal, searching for fruit, insects and flower nectar at night. They are also known for their chirping and clicking vocalizations. Another unique trait of geckos is their lack of eyelids; they have a clear membrane that protects their eyelids, and they can be seen using their tongue to clean their eyes. The tail of a gecko helps it with survival, storing fat, camouflaging to blend into the environment and shedding when caught by a predator.
One of the most popular geckos is the Giant Day Gecko, a bright green lizard native to eastern Madagascar that blends in perfectly in its tropical surroundings. The leaf-tailed geckos, with their flat bodies and mottled patterns, are found on the island’s northeastern tip. Catch sightings of these geckos on night walks on a Madagascar Wildlife Adventure.
7. Monitor Lizard
The 80 species of monitor lizards are some of the largest lizards in the world, with the biggest one being the Komodo dragon, which can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh 300 lbs. Seeing them in the wild may take you back to a prehistoric time when giants walked the Earth. That’s because this lizard species started roaming the earth 65 million years ago, and they are now found in Africa, Asia and Australia.
Monitor lizards feature a long neck and tail, an elongated body and sturdy limbs with large claws. These terrestrial carnivores have a forked tongue similar to a snake that is used to sample the air to sniff out prey. They are among the few lizard species that are venomous. While their venom isn’t dangerous to humans, it can cause fatal damage to small animals. While they don’t have any natural predators, humans are their biggest threat, as they are poached for their skin and meat.
The Komodo dragon roams the tropical savanna forests of the Lesser Sunda group of islands of Indonesia, including the island of Komodo. These expert hunters have expandable stomachs that can easily take in nearly 80% of their body weight. Sadly, Komodo dragons are endangered, and it’s estimated the species only has about 1,400 members left in the wild. In addition to habitat loss, the biggest threat they face in the coming decades is climate change-related issues where their islands are predicted to submerge. The ideal place to witness these dragons in action is at the Komodo National Park, which encompasses the larger islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca.
In Nepal, visitors can see the Bengal monitor. This lizard is widely spread across Southern Asia and can live in various warm climate habitats. It can grow up to five feet and is known for its intelligence and tenacity in pursuing prey.
See lizards, turtles, tortoises, crocs and other fascinating reptiles on a Nat Hab adventure!