Weird Creature Facts: The Jesus Lizard
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Weird Creature Facts: The Jesus Lizard

A fact-list on the common basilisk or "Jesus Christ lizard".

"So, why is it called the Jesus lizard? Does it walk on water?"

Yep.

The "Jesus lizard" or "Jesus Christ lizard" is a colloquial name for the common basilisk, a lizard native to South and Central America. When threatened, the basilisk will rear up on its hind legs and sprint to safety - sometimes across water. Its feet are equipped with flaps of skin that distribute the lizard's weight across the surface of the water. This, combined with its light weight, allows the lizard to run across the surface of water for up to 20 meters or over 60 feet. Like a human runner, the basilisk has a very limited amount of time during which it can sprint. When it becomes too tired, it will drop down on all fours and continue running across the surface until it begins to sink, at which point the lizard will swim until it reaches land.

Juvenile basilisks are the champion sprinters of the species. Weighing less than the adults, they can continue their sprints over the surface of water for an extended period of time. While the adult lizards do not move slowly, they are too heavy to run on the surface of water for very long before sinking, and must swim more often than their juvenile counterparts.

Interestingly, the basilisk tends to stay near water whenever it can. Not only is this convenient for the lizard whenever it needs something to drink, it provides the creature with a means of escape from terrestrial predators. Although running across the surface of water does provide the basilisk with a great advantage over said predators, the lizard does not often swim for very long. The reason for this is that the lizard's habitat in South and Central America is rife with aquatic predators, which have no qualms about eating a swimming lizard trying to escape a terrestrial pursuer.

The mechanism that allows the basilisk to execute its water-walking trick is very sophisticated. Each step on the surface of the water is divided into three phases called the slap, the stroke, and the recovery. During the slap phase, the basilisk pushes its webbed foot into the surface of the water, pushing the water back and away from its body. This creates a cushion of air under the lizard's foot that keeps it upright and out of the water. During the stroke phase, the lizard shoves its foot outward and away from its body in order to keep from falling to the left or right. The recovery phase is the time in which the basilisk pulls its foot back up to its body in preparation for the next slap. While recovering with one foot, the basilisk initiates the slap phase with the other to keep moving.

References:

National Geographic: The Jesus Lizard

National Geographic: Green Basilisk Lizards

The Lizard Lounge: The Common Basilisk

Rainforest picture courtesy of public-domain-image.com

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