Photograph by Nick Zantop

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A female brown basilisk lizard is seen here warming herself on a rock in Palm Beach County, Florida. While this species, often referred to as a Jesus Lizard because of its ability to run on the surface of water, is actually native to the coast and rainforests of Central and South America from central Mexico to northern Colombia, it has become an invasive species in South Florida. 

It’s unique, prehistoric body has made it a popular lizard species in the pet trade. Unfortunately, as is the case with many other non-native species in Florida, enough captive basilisk lizards escaped or were released by pet owners who no longer wanted to care for them. Able to run, swim, and climb well, the basilisk lizard is well-suited to the environment of South Florida, where it quickly established a breeding population, spreading in all directions from Broward County. Over the last few decades its range has been expanding and it is now a common sight along many canals and bodies of water on both the east and west coast of Florida.

In their native habitat of Central and South America, the brown basilisk can be found at altitudes of up to 1200 meters, but most prefer to live in the lowland areas, along riverbanks and at the beach. Most active during the morning and evening, the basilisk lizard is an incredibly fast species, capable of running on its hind legs, even across the water. The basilisk has feet that are large and feature flaps of skin along the toes that increase their surface area. It is able to dash at a speed of around 7 feet per second by slapping the water with its hind feet. It pushes off from a small air pocket around its foot created by a downward stroke that pushes the water away from the leg. The basilisk lizard must keep its legs moving fast enough to ensure that the air pocket doesn’t close around the foot, lest the lizard be dragged into the water. Young specimens can run 10 to 20 meters across the water, while large adults, able to reach two feet in length, are often only able to make it a few meters before sinking – often enough to cross from one side of a small stream to another to escape a predator.


3 Responses

    • Nick Zantop

      Nice! That one is a plumed basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons), a cousin of the one in my shot which is a brown basilisk. The plumed basilisk has been spotted in Florida too, but only in Dade County, but it’s not confirmed whether or not they’re actually breeding yet or if people just keep letting their pets go. Florida is pretty much the dumping ground for unwanted pets – we’ve got basilisk lizards, several iguana species, Cuban anoles, and even Nile Monitor lizards!

  1. Kevin

    Took photos of a nice specimen about 12 miles w. of West Palm Beach on 3/11/14 while attending a conference. Along a drainage ditch off hwy 98. Also spotted my first wild gators every in that area.

    Glad your photo popped up as I could not find the exact species, but knew it was a basilisk. Then I realized mine was a female due to smaller crest. Was probably 18-20″ total length.



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