Lizards are a widespread group of squamate reptiles, with over 6,000 species, ranging across all continents except Antarctica, as well as most oceanic island chains. The group is paraphyletic as it excludes the snakes and Amphisbaenia; some lizards are more closely related to these two excluded groups than they are to other lizards. Lizards range in size from chameleons and geckos a few centimeters long to the 3 meter long Komodo dragon.
Most lizards are quadrupedal, running with a strong side-to-side motion.
The adult length of species within the suborder ranges from a few centimeters for chameleons such as Brookesia micra and geckos such as Sphaerodactylus ariasae to nearly 3 m (10 ft) in the case of the largest living varanid lizard, the Komodo dragon. Most lizards are fairly small animals.
Lizards typically have rounded torsos, elevated heads on short necks, four limbs and long tails. Some are legless, including snakes.
As in other reptiles, the skin of lizards is covered in overlapping scales made of keratin. This provides protection from the environment and reduces water loss through evaporation. This adaptation enables lizards to thrive in some of the driest deserts on earth. The skin is tough and leathery, and is shed (sloughed) as the animal grows. Unlike snakes which shed the skin in a single piece, lizards slough their skin in several pieces. The scales may be modified into spines for display or protection, and some species have bone osteoderms underneath the scales.
The dentitions of lizards reflect their wide range of diets, including carnivorous, insectivorous, omnivorous, herbivorous, nectivorous, and molluscivorous.
The tongue can be extended outside the mouth, and is often long.
Three lineages, the geckos, anoles, and chameleons, have modified the scales under their toes to form adhesive pads, highly prominent in the first two groups. The pads are composed of millions of tiny setae (hair-like structures) which fit closely to the substrate to adhere using van der Waals forces; no liquid adhesive is needed. In addition, the toes of chameleons are divided into two opposed groups on each foot (zygodactyly), enabling them to perch on branches as birds do.
Aside from legless lizards, most lizards are quadrupedal and move using gaits with alternating movement of the right and left limbs with substantial body bending. This body bending prevents significant respiration during movement, limiting their endurance, in a mechanism called Carrier's constraint. Several species can run bipedally, and a few can prop themselves up on their hindlimbs and tail while stationary. Several small species such as those in the genus Draco can glide: some can attain a distance of 60 metres (200 feet), losing 10 metres (33 feet) in height. Some species, like geckos and chameleons, adhere to vertical surfaces including glass and ceilings. Some species, like the common basilisk, can run across water.
Lizards make use of their senses of sight, touch, olfaction and hearing like other vertebrates. The balance of these varies with the habitat of different species; for instance, skinks that live largely covered by loose soil rely heavily on olfaction and touch, while geckos depend largely on acute vision for their ability to hunt and to evaluate the distance to their prey before striking. Monitor lizards have acute vision, hearing, and olfactory senses. Some lizards make unusual use of their sense organs: chameleons can steer their eyes in different directions, sometimes providing non-overlapping fields of view, such as forwards and backwards at once. Lizards lack external ears, having instead a circular opening in which the tympanic membrane (eardrum) can be seen. Many species rely on hearing for early warning of predators, and flee at the slightest sound.
As in snakes and many mammals, all lizards have a specialised olfactory system, the vomeronasal organ, used to detect pheromones. Monitor lizards transfer scent from the tip of their tongue to the organ; the tongue is used only for this information-gathering purpose, and is not involved in manipulating food.
Some lizards, particularly iguanas, have retained a photosensory organ on the top of their heads called the parietal eye, a basal ("primitive") feature also present in the tuatara. This "eye" has only a rudimentary retina and lens and cannot form images, but is sensitive to changes in light and dark and can detect movement. This helps them detect predators stalking it from above.
Until 2006 it was thought that among lizards, only the Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard were venomous. However, several species of monitor lizards, including the Komodo dragon, produce powerful venom in their oral glands. Lace monitor venom, for instance, causes swift loss of consciousness and extensive bleeding through its pharmacological effects, both lowering blood pressure and preventing blood clotting. Nine classes of toxin known from snakes are produced by lizards. The range of actions provides the potential for new medicinal drugs based on lizard venom proteins.
Genes associated with venom toxins have been found in the salivary glands on a wide range of lizards, including species traditionally thought of as non-venomous, such as iguanas and bearded dragons.
Recent studies (2013 and 2014) on the lung anatomy of the savannah monitor and green iguana found them to have a unidirectional airflow system, which involves the air moving in a loop through the lungs when breathing. This was previously thought to only exist in the archosaurs (crocodilians and birds). This may be evidence that unidirectional airflow is an ancestral trait in diapsids.
As with all amniotes, lizards rely on internal fertilisation and copulation involves the male inserting one of his hemipenes into the female's cloaca. The majority of species are oviparous (egg laying). The female deposits the eggs in a protective structure like a nest or crevice or simply on the ground. Depending on the species, clutch size can vary from 4–5 percent of the females body weight to 40–50 percent and clutches range from one or a few large eggs to dozens of small ones.
In most lizards, the eggs have leathery shells to allow for the exchange of water, although more arid-living species have calcified shells to retain water.
Around 20 percent of lizard species reproduce via viviparity (live birth). This is particularly common in Anguimorphs. Viviparous species give birth to relatively developed young which look like miniature adults. Embryos are nourished via a placenta-like structure. A minority of lizards have parthenogenesis (reproduction from unfertilised eggs). These species consist of all females who reproduce asexually with no need for males. This is known in occur in various species of whiptail lizards. Parthenogenesis was also recorded in species that normally reproduce sexually. A captive female Komodo dragon produced a clutch of eggs, despite being separated from males for over two years.
Sex determination in lizards can be temperature-dependent. The temperature of the eggs' micro-environment can determine the sex of the hatched young: low temperature incubation produces more females while higher temperatures produce more males. However, some lizards have sex chromosomes and both male heterogamety (XY and XXY) and female heterogamety (ZW) occur.
The majority of lizard species are active during the day, though some are active at night, notably geckos. As ectotherms, lizards have a limited ability to regulate their body temperature, and must seek out and bask in sunlight to gain enough heat to become fully active.
Most social interactions among lizards are between breeding individuals. Territoriality is common and is correlated with species that use sit-and-wait hunting strategies. Males establish and maintain territories that contain resources which attract females and which they defend from other males. Important resources include basking, feeding, and nesting sites as well as refuges from predators. The habitat of a species affects the structure of territories, for example, rock lizards have territories atop rocky outcrops. Some species may aggregate in groups, enhancing vigilance and lessening the risk of predation for individuals, particularly for juveniles. Agonistic behaviour typically occurs between sexually mature males over territory or mates and may involve displays, posturing, chasing, grappling and biting.
Lizards signal both to attract mates and to intimidate rivals.
Several gecko species are brightly coloured; some species tilt their bodies to display their coloration.
Acoustic communication is less common in lizards.
Lizards are found worldwide, excluding the far north and Antarctica, and some islands.
The majority of lizard species are predatory and the most common prey items are small, terrestrial invertebrates, particularly insects. Many species are sit-and-wait predators though others may be more active foragers. Chameleons prey on numerous insect species, such as beetles, grasshoppers and winged termites as well as spiders. They rely on persistence and ambush to capture these prey. An individual perches on a branch and stays perfectly still, with only its eyes moving. When an insect lands, the chameleon focuses its eyes on the target and slowly moves towards it before projecting its long sticky tongue which, when hauled back, brings the attach prey with it. Geckos feed on crickets, beetles, termites and moths.
Termites are an important part of the diets of some species of Autarchoglossa, since, as social insects, they can be found in large numbers in one spot. Ants may form a prominent part of the diet of some lizards, particularly among the lacertas. Horned lizards are also well known for specializing on ants. Due to their small size and indigestible chitin, ants must be consumed in large amounts, and ant-eating lizards have larger stomachs than even herbivorous ones. Species of skink and alligator lizards eat snails and their power jaws and molar-like teeth are adapted for breaking the shells.
Larger species, such as monitor lizards, can feed on larger prey including fish, frogs, birds, mammals and other reptiles.
Around 2 percent of lizard species, including many iguanids, are herbivores.
Lizards exploit a variety of different camouflage methods. Many lizards are disruptively patterned. In some species, such as Aegean wall lizards, individuals vary in colour, and select rocks which best match their own colour to minimise the risk of being detected by predators. The Moorish gecko is able to change colour for camouflage: when a light-coloured gecko is placed on a dark surface, it darkens within an hour to match the environment. The chameleons in general use their ability to change their coloration for signalling rather than camouflage, but some species such as Smith's dwarf chameleon do use active colour change for camouflage purposes.
Many lizards, including geckos and skinks, are capable of shedding their tails (autotomy). The detached tail, sometimes brilliantly coloured, continues to writhe after detaching, distracting the predator's attention from the fleeing prey. Lizards partially regenerate their tails over a period of weeks. Some 326 genes are involved in regenerating lizard tails. The fish-scale gecko Geckolepis megalepis sheds patches of skin and scales if grabbed.
Many lizards attempt to escape from danger by running to a place of safety; for example, wall lizards can run up walls and hide in holes or cracks. Horned lizards adopt differing defences for specific predators. They may play dead to deceive a predator that has caught them; attempt to outrun the rattlesnake, which does not pursue prey; but stay still, relying on their cryptic coloration, for Masticophis whip snakes which can catch even swift prey. If caught, some species such as the greater short-horned lizard puff themselves up, making their bodies hard for a narrow-mouthed predator like a whip snake to swallow. Finally, horned lizards can squirt blood at cat and dog predators from a pouch beneath its eyes, to a distance of about two metres (6.6 feet); the blood tastes foul to these attackers.
The earliest known fossil remains of a lizard belong to the iguanian species Tikiguania estesi, found in the Tiki Formation of India, which dates to the Carnian stage of the Triassic period, about 220 million years ago. However, doubt has been raised over the age of Tikiguania because it is almost indistinguishable from modern agamid lizards. The Tikiguania remains may instead be late Tertiary or Quaternary in age, having been washed into much older Triassic sediments. Lizards are most closely related to the Rhynchocephalia, which appeared in the Late Triassic, so the earliest lizards probably appeared at that time. Mitochondrial phylogenetics suggest that the first lizards evolved in the late Permian. It had been thought on the basis of morphological data that iguanid lizards diverged from other squamates very early on, but molecular evidence contradicts this.
Mosasaurs probably evolved from an extinct group of aquatic lizards known as aigialosaurs in the Early Cretaceous. Dolichosauridae is a family of Late Cretaceous aquatic varanoid lizards closely related to the mosasaurs.
The position of the lizards and other Squamata among the reptiles was studied using fossil evidence by Rainer Schoch and Hans-Dieter Sues in 2015. Lizards form about 60% of the extant non-avian reptiles.
Both the snakes and the Amphisbaenia (worm lizards) are clades deep within the Squamata (the smallest clade that contains all the lizards), so "lizard" is paraphyletic. The cladogram is based on genomic analysis by Wiens and colleagues in 2012 and 2016. Excluded taxa are shown in upper case on the cladogram.
In the 13th century, lizards were recognized in Europe as part of a broad category of reptiles that consisted of a miscellany of egg-laying creatures, including "snakes, various fantastic monsters, […], assorted amphibians, and worms", as recorded by Vincent of Beauvais in his Mirror of Nature. The seventeenth century saw changes in this loose description. The name Sauria was coined by James Macartney (1802); it was the Latinisation of the French name Sauriens, coined by Alexandre Brongniart (1800) for an order of reptiles in the classification proposed by the author, containing lizards and crocodilians, later discovered not to be each other's closest relatives. Later authors used the term "Sauria" in a more restricted sense, i.e. as a synonym of Lacertilia, a suborder of Squamata that includes all lizards but excludes snakes. This classification is rarely used today because Sauria so-defined is a paraphyletic group. It was defined as a clade by Jacques Gauthier, Arnold G. Kluge and Timothy Rowe (1988) as the group containing the most recent common ancestor of archosaurs and lepidosaurs (the groups containing crocodiles and lizards, as per Mcartney's original definition) and all its descendants. A different definition was formulated by Michael deBraga and Olivier Rieppel (1997), who defined Sauria as the clade containing the most recent common ancestor of Choristodera, Archosauromorpha, Lepidosauromorpha and all their descendants. However, these uses have not gained wide acceptance among specialists.
Suborder Lacertilia (Sauria) – (lizards)
- Family †Bavarisauridae
- Family †Eichstaettisauridae
- Infraorder Iguania Family †Arretosauridae Family †Euposauridae Family Corytophanidae (casquehead lizards) Family Iguanidae (iguanas and spinytail iguanas) Family Phrynosomatidae (earless, spiny, tree, side-blotched and horned lizards) Family Polychrotidae (anoles) Family Leiosauridae (see Polychrotinae) Family Tropiduridae (neotropical ground lizards) Family Liolaemidae (see Tropidurinae) Family Leiocephalidae (see Tropidurinae) Family Crotaphytidae (collared and leopard lizards) Family Opluridae (Madagascar iguanids) Family Hoplocercidae (wood lizards, clubtails) Family †Priscagamidae Family †Isodontosauridae Family Agamidae (agamas, frilled lizards) Family Chamaeleonidae (chameleons)
- Infraorder Gekkota Family Gekkonidae (geckos) Family Pygopodidae (legless geckos) Family Dibamidae (blind lizards)
- Infraorder Scincomorpha Family †Paramacellodidae Family †Slavoiidae Family Scincidae (skinks) Family Cordylidae (spinytail lizards) Family Gerrhosauridae (plated lizards) Family Xantusiidae (night lizards) Family Lacertidae (wall lizards or true lizards) Family †Mongolochamopidae Family †Adamisauridae Family Teiidae (tegus and whiptails) Family Gymnophthalmidae (spectacled lizards)
- Infraorder Diploglossa Family Anguidae (slowworms, glass lizards) Family Anniellidae (American legless lizards) Family Xenosauridae (knob-scaled lizards)
- Infraorder Platynota (Varanoidea) Family Varanidae (monitor lizards) Family Lanthanotidae (earless monitor lizards) Family Helodermatidae (Gila monsters and beaded lizards) Family †Mosasauridae (marine lizards)
Lizards have frequently evolved convergently, with multiple groups independently developing similar morphology and ecological niches. Anolis ecomorphs have become a model system in evolutionary biology for studying convergence. Limbs have been lost or reduced independently over two dozen times across lizard evolution, including in the Anniellidae, Anguidae, Cordylidae, Dibamidae, Gymnophthalmidae, Pygopodidae, and Scincidae; snakes are just the most famous and species-rich group of Squamata to have followed this path.
Relationship with humans
Most lizard species are harmless to humans.
Lizards appear in myths and folktales around the world.
Green iguanas are eaten in Central America, where they are sometimes referred to as "chicken of the tree" after their habit of resting in trees and their supposedly chicken-like taste, while spiny-tailed lizards are eaten in Africa. In North Africa, Uromastyx species are considered dhaab or 'fish of the desert' and eaten by nomadic tribes.
Lizards such as the Gila monster produce toxins with medical applications.
Lizards in many cultures share the symbolism of snakes, especially as an emblem of resurrection.