whiptail lizard
Whiptail lizard

There are nearly 5,000 scientifically descried species of lizards, all belonging to the same order as the snakes: Squamata. The lizard group is a highly diverse one since lizards have adapted to a wide range of habitats and inhabit all continents except Antarctica. The lizards do for instance vary greatly in size; the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) can reach a length of 313 cm (10.3 feet), while some of the smaller geckos and chameleons measure only a few centimetres as adults. A long time ago, even larger lizards roamed the earth; the now extinct aquatic Mosasaurs did for instance reach 17.5 metres (57.4 feet) in length.  

Lizards taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Superclass:    Tetrapoda
Class:            Reptilia
Order:           Squamata

Squamata is the largest recent order of reptiles and includes both lizards and snakes. Traditionally, the order has been divided into three suborders:

  • Serpentes (snakes)
  • Lacertilia (lizards)
  • Amphisbaenia (worm lizards)

New research has however shed more light on the evolutionary relationships within the order Squamata and a new classification divides Squamata into two suborders:

  • Suborder Iguania  (agamids, chameleons, iguanids, and other New World lizards)
  • Suborder Scleroglossa
    • Infraorder Anguimorpha (alligator lizards, monitors, galliwasps, Gila monster, slow-worms, and others)
    • Infraorder Amphisbaenia (worm lizards)
    • Infraorder Gekkota  (geckos)
    • Infraorder Scincomorpha (whiptail lizards, skinks, and common European lizards)
    • Infraorder Serpentes – (snakes)

The relationships between these suborders remain uncertain and more research is urgently needed.  

Lizard care

With over 5,000 different species of lizard, it is virtually impossible to provide any detailed guidelines that will be true for all sorts of pet lizards. It is very important to research your particular lizard to find out its care requirements before you bring it home. If you fail to find any information about that particular species, researching species from the same genus can provide you with valuable clues. Also keep in mind that you can learn a lot about a lizards care requirements by learning about how the species lives in the wild.

Lizards can be quite inexpensive to purchase, but they tend to require a lot of costly equipment. Before you decide to get a pet lizard, make sure you have the budget to properly care for it. Also make sure you know the maximal adult size of the species you pick. A six foot iguana might not be the right choice for your home.  

Feeding lizards

Always research your particular lizard species to find out its nutritional requirements. Some lizards are carnivore, some are herbivore, and some are omnivore. When we keep lizards in our homes, we take them away from their natural environment which means that their dietary needs might chance somewhat. A lizard that used to be able to produce a lot of vitamins by basking in real sunlight might for instance produce much lower amounts under the small UV-light in its terrarium and therefore need a diet more rich in vitamins than what it would require in the wild.

If you keep several lizards, it can be a good idea to set up several feeding stations to prevent fighting and to make sure that every lizard gets some food.

When feeding carnivore lizards, food presentation is important. Especially when first introduced to new food, the lizard relies on stimuli such as smell, sight and movement to perceive something as prey. Ideally place the food on a shallow dish where the lizard can inspect it. Do not place it on the substrate, since a lizard that ingests a lot of substrate while feeding may die from constipation. Placing the dish in a separate feeding area will make cleaning easier.

Most herbivore lizards will do best when kept on a diet consisting mainly of fruit and vegetables, with occasional treats in the form of grains (including rice). It is important to choose foods rich in nutrition. In some cases, a multi-vitamin supplement will be necessary.

Breeding lizards

N.B! If you don’t plan on breeding your lizards, many species will do best if spayed or neutered. This is especially true for large lizards. Egg laying and pregnancy is a common cause of death in lizard females. 

Within the order Squamata, you can find oviparous, viviparous and ovoviviparous species. Some species, including the iconic Komodo dragon, can reproduce asexually when necessary by undergoing parthenogenesis. There are also lizards, e.g. the Veiled Chameleons, which can store sperm inside the female for later fertilization. This can make it seem like the female is reproducing on her own when the offspring is actually the result of a mating that took place a long time ago.  

All male members of the order Squamata have paired reproductive organs called hemipenes (singular hemipenis). Only one hemipenis is used at a time. This type of reproductive organ is normally held inverted within the body and is everted only when its time to mate. Just like a human penis, the hemipenis is equipped with erectile tissue. Since the hemipenis must be capable of being inverted and everted, it does not have a completely enclosed channel for the conduction of sperm; it is instead fitted with a seminal groove which seals as the erectile tissue expand. When not in use, the inverted hemipenes form a distinct hemipenal bulge at the base of the tail which can be used to sex lizards and other members of Squamata.

The hemipenis comes in variety of shapes, depending on species, and it is common for it to have spines or hooks to make it possible for the male to anchor himself within the female during copulation. Some species have a forked hemipenis, i.e. each hemipenis ends in two tips.

Many species of lizard have a special breeding period and will only mate after being triggered by environmental factors, such as longer days or more humid air. During mating, the male lizard will approach the female from the side and bite her neck. When he gets close to her cloaca, the nearest hemipenis will become erect and the male will insert it into the female.

Many lizard breeders that keep egg-laying lizards use an incubation to make sure the eggs are kept in suitable conditions. The incubation time of lizard eggs vary greatly from species to species. The time from egg laying to hatching can be 50 days as well as 120 days, so researching your particular species is strongly recommended.   

Many lizard species eat their own offspring if they are kept together after hatching.

Lizard health

All species of lizards have different characteristics and habits, and learning to recognize normal behaviour in your pets will make it much easier for you to spot health problems at an early stage while they may still be comparatively easy to fix.

Stress, an improper diet and unsuitable environmental conditions can lead to a long row of health problems in lizards so researching the needs of your particular species is the best way of preventing health problems.  

As mentioned above, you can decrease the risk of poor health in many lizard species by having them spayed or neutered. This is especially true for large lizards.

Last but not least, it is important to remember that reptiles can be infected with Salmonella bacteria which can be transferred to their human keeper.  

Lizard facts

Lizard facts # 1
Most lizard species have highly developed eye-sight and can see a lot of different colours, and quite a lot of them can even see ultraviolet light.  

Lizard facts # 2
Lizards use body language and, in some cases, colour changes and colour displays to communicate with each other. Anole lizards are famous for their particularly brightly coloured dewlap, a patch of skin located on the throat where it stays hidden until the lizard decides to display it. By erecting the hyoid bone, the lizard will raise its dewlap which means that a large vertical flap of colourful skin will become visible beneath the head. In anole lizards, the dewlap colour varies from species to species and some lizards even have patterns that can only be seen under ultraviolet light.  

Lizard facts # 3
Most lizard species are harmless to humans and actually help us by keeping insect populations and other potential pests in check. Really large predatory lizards like the Komodo dragon can however stalk, attack and kill humans. Two species of lizard are known to have venomous bites: the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) and the Beaded lizard (Heloderma horridum), but there are no reports of their venom ever causing the death of a bitten human. Being bitten is however extremely painful and there is of course always the risk of infection.

Lizard fact # 4
Many lizard species can detach their tail to get away from predators.                    

Lizard fact # 5
Lizards are appreciated as food in many parts of the world, including Central America where iguana is traditionally served around Easter and northern Africa where Uromastyx lizards are eaten by nomadic desert tribes.   

Lizard lifespan

The average lifespan of lizards varies greatly from species to species.


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