It doesn’t take much to expose the limits of, and curious gaps within, my knowledge. This past week all it took was two tiny lizards on the wall of a friend’s house in Myrtle Beach.
Looking at the lizards, I realized that while I feel that I can recognize a lizard, I can’t describe or define one. That’s OK. The Oxford Languages dictionary is happy to oblige (although only in Google’s search results, not via direct access if you, like me, lack a subscription).
lizard (noun); a reptile that typically has a long body and tail, four legs, movable eyelids, and a rough, scaly, or spiny skin.
Thus armed, I checked my specimens or, more accurately, my phone photos thereof.
Long body and tail? Check. Four legs? Check. Movable eyelids? Can’t check. A rough, scaly, or spiny skin? You check first.
But what *kind* of lizard is it? Well, my default guess for the name of any small lizard is “gecko.” But geckos don’t change colour and it certainly appears that these little guys do.
Buddy on the left seems to be just starting on a brick-coloured tail, while buddy on the right has transitioned completely. So is it one of those colour-changing chameleons?
Nope. It turns out that a chameleon is a big (up to 27cm big) arboreal lizard. (Like, did you know that? Me neither. And I still don’t know how they’re different from iguanas, which are also big arboreal lizards of many colours.)
At this point I’ve about exhausted the lizard names I know, so I check to see how many kinds there are. Maybe something will stand out. I mean, how many can there be?
lizard, (suborder Sauria), any of more than 5,500 species of reptiles belonging in the order Squamata (which also includes snakes, suborder Serpentes).- Britannica
Oh. I didn’t think it would be that many, but what do I know? On the other hand, as of this month, one reptile database cites 7,176 lizardly species plus 3,971 snakely species, so the whole classification thing is a bit confusing. I mean, is it 5,500 species or pushing 7,200, and are snakes in or out?
Looking into it further, it seems that lizards and snakes aren’t always easy to tell apart. I did not know that either. Here’s Britannica again.
Lizards are scaly-skinned reptiles that are usually distinguished from snakes by the possession of legs, movable eyelids, and external ear openings. However, some traditional (that is, non-snake) lizards lack one or more of these features.
Now, although I can’t vouch for the movability of the eyelids of the wee lizards I saw, I definitely saw legs, so these are not snakes. So that’s something.
Let’s try this the other way around. Rather than checking on the characteristics of random lizard names that I happen to know, I can ask Google which lizards change colour. And here’s what happens when I do that (Britannica yet again. Hail, Britannica!).
Many lizards can change colour [Ed’s note: Not geckos, dagnab it.]. The most notable groups in this regard are the chameleons and the anoles.
Well, why didn’t you say so earlier? I already know they aren’t chameleons so I follow the anole link, which takes me to a drawing that looks *exactly* like the buddy I saw on our buddies’ wall, dewlap and all.
Wait, what‘s a dewlap?
The males have large throat fans, or dewlaps, that are often brightly coloured.
And what is this throat fan for?
The dewlap signals a male’s possession of a territory and also serves to attract females for mating.
And, I might add, also serves to attract female humans for photographing. (Did I get a shot of this dewlap? I did not. I remain in quest.)
Anyway, there you have it. Not two geckos but two anoles on a wall. Now we know.
Ah, so now I know how to distinguish the little green lizard who parks his little red sports car in a commercial every issue of Jeopardy from other little green lizards. The Jeopardy one doesn’t have a dewlap (must look that up too) but does have insurance.
Jim T – I saw a few tables comparing lizards by various characteristics (size, colour-changing, general habitat). Insurance did not number among them. 🙂
We have seen them with dewlaps, didn’t know that was what they were called. I’m not sure exactly what time of year, but have watched “Larry” blowing up his throat trying to attract another Larry, or should we call her Louise!
Hopefully next year you will see them.
Marilyn – I saw Larry’s dewlap momentarily but wasn’t anywhere near fast enough to capture it. Maybe next year, indeed.
Funny, informative, but missing those fascinating regrowable blue tails.
Laurna – I don’t think I’ve seen a lizard with a blue tail. Yet. 🙂
Isabel – I did NOT know that more than one brand of lizard could change colors! I learned something new today, so thank you for that.
I did know that some lizards can grow back their tails if they lose it to a predator.
John – And I hadn’t known that they *all* couldn’t do it! I guess in 5,500 (or maybe 7,200) species, there’s a fair bit of room for variation.
…. movable eyelids … uh, why would a creature have them if they weren’t moveable?
Barbara – Well, it’s a good point. Google tells me that lizards have movable eyelids while snakes (& birds) have nictitating membranes which slide across the eye. But apparently geckos have clear-membrane eyelids that don’t move. How did they decide that the clear membrane was on the eyeball and not part of it, I don’t know.