Lizards’ bodies are a miracle of evolution. These odd-looking and sometimes rather cute creatures comprise over 4,675 species, all descended from reptiles who lived on the planet over 200 million years ago. They can be as big as 10 feet long or as tiny as half an inch, with all different unique colors, features, and abilities. But lizards are often misunderstood, so read on to find out the fascinating true things these riveting reptiles can do.
They can see in different ways
The first of their awesome assets is their eyes, with different types of lizards sporting different peeper features. Chameleons can actually move their eyeballs independently in order to see in two different directions at the same time, which gives them a 360-degree view around themselves. Other lizards such as iguanas have a “third eye.” Called a pineal or parietal eye, it’s located in the middle of their forehead and is light sensitive so they can better navigate by the sun.
They can shoot blood out of their eyes
The horned lizard has developed a bunch of amazing adaptations to avoid becoming prey to the many creatures who like to feed on it, including coyotes, hawks, snakes, foxes, bobcats, and grasshopper mice. The coolest thing it can do, and one of the incredible animal facts you probably didn’t know before: This lizard can actually squirt blood out of its eyes, shooting it up to six feet. But, it usually waits until its closer to its attacker’s mouth, as the nasty taste causes a predator to back off. These lizards also alter their defenses depending on which animal is out to get them: They either sit totally still, run, puff up to avoid being swallowed whole, or even get stuck in a predator’s throat to take their attacker down with them.
They can lick their eyeballs
We’re not sure if the tongue or eyeball is the more interesting lizard body part! Geckos don’t have eyelids; instead, they have a protective membrane over their eyes. But even though they can’t blink, the membrane has to be cleaned somehow, so the lizards actually lick their eyeballs with their tongues. Some other cool things lizards can do with their tongues? Like snakes, they use them to smell, catching scents in the air and then tasting them in their mouth. The blue-tongued skink sticks out its brightly colored tongue to scare predators. Some lizards can also shoot out their tongue far and super-fast, according to National Geographic: Chameleons’ tongues, which are twice the length of their body, can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 1/100 of a second to catch prey.
They can detach their tails—and regrow them
Lizard tails are pretty cool too. The chameleon’s tail can wrap around branches to help with climbing. The shingle-backed skink has a wide, thick tail that looks like its head to confuse predators. But the most amazing thing some lizards can do with the appendage is detach it in order to get away from predators—and then regrow it. Scientists have learned lizard tails are “scored” (or perforated) to help in the detaching process, and they regenerate their tales by turning on certain genes for growth. But, research has found that the new tail isn’t quite the same: It’s made of cartilage instead of small bones.
They can swim in the ocean
Marine iguanas, which live in the Galapagos Islands, are the only ocean-going lizard in the world. They’re swimming for food—it’s not fish they’re after, but the algae growing on rocks. They use their sharp claws to hang on while they scrape it off with their razor-like teeth. They can hold their breath for half an hour, but need to resurface to get warm again. They even “sweat” salt through a gland near their nostrils, which creates a white mask on their head.
They can walk on water
Also called the “Jesus Christ lizard” for its ability to pull off this amazing feat, the basilisk lizard is actually one of the 8 animals you never knew could walk on water—or more accurately, run. When pursued by a predator in the rainforests of Central America, the lizard rears up and uses flaps of skin on the toes of its hind legs to give it more surface area. This also creates air pockets that keep it afloat as long as it stays up to speed, about 5 feet per second. These lizards can go for about 15 feet before heading underwater—because they can swim too.
They can “fly”
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you if you see a lizard flying through the air: The Draco lizard, also called the flying dragon, is the only reptile that glides, and it’s one of the cutest tiny animals from around the world. The eight-inch lizard has “wings,” folds of skin on elongated ribs, which the lizard grabs with its forelimbs. This allows it to fly up to 100 feet between trees, eluding predators on the ground. But, these lizards, which live in Southeast Asia, also glide to patrol their territory and use their wings, called patagia, to attract females.
They can reproduce by themselves
Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way” for lizards to reproduce in asexually—in other words, without a mate. The whiptail lizard has even evolved to produce no males at all: All the lizards are female. But some other lizard species, such as Komodo dragons and Asian water dragons (as was recently discovered at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo), can produce either with or without a male. In a process called parthenogenesis, these females can lay fertilized eggs if a male doesn’t happen to be around, giving them a huge advantage in the survival of their species.
They can form family ties
Although scientists have long known that lizards take care of themselves from birth—Mom just lays her eggs and leaves, about 20 percent of lizards have evolved to give birth to live young. (Only a couple of lizard species can do both.) But thinking of lizards as solitary creatures turns out to be one of the animal facts you have all wrong, at least for some species. Scientists have discovered the live young-birthing desert night lizard is more social than previously thought. These lizards actually form tight-knit family groups that huddle together each winter. Although the young still care for themselves—Mom and Dad don’t provide them with food—they stick around for reasons not yet completely understood.
They can express themselves with color
Jenna Lois Chamberlain/Shutterstock
You know chameleons change color, but we bet you don’t know the real reason why. Contrary to popular belief, a chameleon can’t change its appearance to match any pattern it’s up against; and actually, camouflage isn’t the only purpose for switching their hue. (But see if you can spot the lizards camouflaged in these photos.) They also use color swaps to regulate their body temperature, as some hues absorb more light. In addition, they use their skin like a big mood ring. Chameleons change their colors to communicate how they’re feeling, such as warning others to back off their territory or to attract a mate.
They can “talk”
Most people probably don’t think of lizards as big noisemakers, but these creatures are animals you didn’t know could talk, and can get chatty when they want to. Many types of geckos make chips and chirps, some inaudible to humans but others very pronounced. The tokay gecko got its name from the “to-kay” sound it makes to attract a mate; the New Caledonian gecko even growls. Like snakes, some lizards, like the gila monster, hiss to ward off enemies.
They can climb up vertical surfaces—without sticking
If you’ve ever seen a little lizard on the wall, you might wonder how it got there. Most people probably imagine a bit of stickiness on their feet that let them cling to vertical surfaces like Spider-Man—but instead, geckos are one of the animals that would make real superheroes jealous. The creatures have setae, tiny hairs that cause an electrical attraction between molecules called a van de Waals force, creating “dry adhesion.” It’s kind of like magnets on their feet. In addition, their foot tendons become stiff to better distribute the force, allowing them to hold on tight. New research has also shown that geckos can turn on and off their clinginess by changing the angle of their setae. That way, they’re not stuck for good.