Jan 092010
photo provided courtesy of wwarby on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeCentral America
Habitattropical forest
NicheArboreal omnivore
Favorite Foodanything it can fit in its mouth
Lengthup to 30 inches
Weighta few pounds
StatusLocally Common
Threatshabitat destruction

When it comes to walking on water, there are a few animals that carry on the miracle’s legacy. One is the plumed basilisk, a bright green lizard of Central America that grows to over two feet in length. Because of their unique ability to evade predators by traversing the surface of a pool of water, these tropical reptiles have earned the nickname “Jesus Christ lizard.”

The secret to the Jesus walk is in the plumed basilisk’s feet. The lizard will slap the water with a hind foot with enough force to create a pocket of air between the foot and the surrounding water. Then, with lightning speed, it will pull the foot up before the air pocket fills with water. Using this method, the plumed basilisk can scamper across the surface of several feet of water in order to evade predators that can’t follow.

Basilisks are the ultimate omnivores in the tropical forests of Central America, feeding on insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians, and even certain flowers and fruits. They are active by night and day in tree branches, waiting for prey to come within range. These lizards choose their perches over water so that they can drop in and escape if the need arises. In addition to their ability to run across the surface, plumed basilisks are also excellent swimmers. The raised crests on the head, back, and tail allow propulsion through the water for a quick getaway.

Male plumed basilisks are fiercely territorial during the mating season and will defend their turf with gusto if challenged by another male. The dominant males earn the right to mate with several females in their range, increasing the chance their genes will be passed on to the next generation. Females will lay a clutch of around 20 eggs several weeks after mating. As with all reptiles, the chance of youngsters reaching adulthood is low due to predation, so laying many eggs increases the chance that at least one will survive.

Plumed basilisks are still common in the forests of Central America due to their adaptability and unspecialized diet. However, they can’t live without trees, and as logging continues to clear habitat in the land bridge between the Americas, the Jesus Christ lizard might find that its tricks are not enough to overcome.

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