In the zoo profession, we have what are called charismatic mega-fauna species. These are the big animal's everyone loves to see and watch. The black rhino, giraffe, lion, and sloth bear, to name a few. Quite often, the animals that do not quickly catch your eye, or first come to mind, are overlooked. Us zoo folk and reptile lovers like to get an extra shout out to reptiles when we can.

A few of these sometimes under-recognized species are Leopard Gecko’s, basilisk lizards, and bearded dragons. Each of these species holds a special place for us at Lee Richardson Zoo so let’s learn a bit more about them. We have an amazing leopard gecko, Rupert, who is one of our ambassador animals. You may have met Rupert if you have ever been to one of our outreach programs.

In the wild, you will find leopard geckos in southern Asia where they live in rocky deserts and sparse grasslands. They are crepuscular (they are most active at dawn and dusk), hiding from fierce daytime heat in burrows and under rocks. In human care, they will burrow still when overheated and sometimes shy away from bright lights. Geckos are also carnivorous, and stalk/hunt their prey like cats. Leopard geckos can grow up to 10 inches long with half of that length being their tail.

Like most lizards, leopard geckos can regrow their tails after they lose them, usually due to poor handling, fighting with other geckos, or autotomy due to predation, but they can only regrow them so many times. The tails will grow back, but they will be shorter, thicker, smoother, and less colorful.

Geckos’ tails are very important as they store fat and metabolic water in them, and some research suggests a male’s tail is vital to his breeding success. The theory is that a male with a nice well-developed tail is a signal to females that he will produce strong and healthy offspring. The temperature of their eggs determines the gender of the hatchlings. At 80 degrees, most will be females; at 91 degrees, most will be males, and at 86 degrees Fahrenheit, there will be an even mix.

Not to be outdone by the remarkable adaptations of the leopard gecko, we have a lizard that can walk on water: the green basilisk lizard. Abundant in the tropical rain forests of Central America, from southern Mexico to Panama, green basilisks spend much of their time in the trees and are never far from a body of water. When threatened, they can drop from a tree into the water and sprint, upright, about 5 feet per second across the surface.

To accomplish this, they have long toes on their rear feet with fringes of skin that unfurl in the water, increasing surface area. As they rapidly churn their legs, they slap their splayed feet hard against the water, creating a tiny air pocket that keeps them from sinking, provided they maintain their speed. They can move along the surface like this for 15 feet or more. When gravity eventually does take over, the basilisk resorts to its excellent swimming skills to continue its flight. Now that is about as cool as it gets. You can see our green basilisk lizard in the indoor portion of our aviary, directly across from the Goeldi’s monkeys.

Another of our favorite reptiles you might have seen during one of our outreach programs is the bearded dragon. Bearded dragons are native to the dry arid deserts of Australia. Bearded dragons live in very hot and very dry climates. Most of their hydration comes from the plants and vegetables that they consume.

Adult bearded dragons are very territorial. Males are known to bob their head up and down to impress females while females are known to display their beards in aggressive stances. Bearded dragons are also known as beardies, and the beard under their chin darkens or turns black when they are excited. Beardies will use this darkening display to show aggression or territoriality to other males and for mating purposes. Darkening and expanding their beard serves as a form of communication to other beardies of both genders in the vicinity to let them know their mood and intentions.

So the next time you visit the zoo, don’t forget to stop by and say hello to our reptile friends. You will find many of our reptiles in the Finnup Center for Conservation Education, the Marie Osterbuhr Aviary building, and our Nocturnal building in the Wild Asia area.


Max Lakes is a curator of conservation education at Lee Richardson Zoo.