Frilled or Fiction?

The movie and television industry has been around for decades, showing many sides of fiction, non-fiction, documentaries, etc., to the public. Many movies use animals of all kinds for references, ideas for creatures, and to enhance entertainment. For example, Jurassic Park is a well-known movie that helped increase the popularity of dinosaurs for about 30 years. In this movie, we see a dilophosaurus which was a genus of Theropod dinosaurs that lived in North America during the Early Jurassic, about 193 million years ago.  For the Hollywood version of this creature, the frilled lizard was used as an inspiration to embellish the Jurassic Park dilophosaurus which had extra skin that flared out as it does in the picture to the right. In the movie, this dinosaur was large, scary, and could spit out venom to attack its predators and prey and was also one of the dinosaurs that could roam freely around the park. This adaptation of spitting venom out came in handy later in the movie!

Another example of frilled lizards being used as an inspiration can be seen in the early 2000s movie Holes. In Holes, this lizard was known as the “Yellow Spotted Lizard,” a venomous creature inhabiting the arid wasteland of Green Lake and terrifying the campers. The Yellow Spotted Lizard had yellow eyes, red eyelids, and 11 yellow spots on its back… the legend said that if you got close enough to count the spots, you could get bitten and die. Campers at camp Green Lake were quite scared of these reptiles, but at the end of the movie, when Stanley and his pal Zero find the buried treasure, they are covered head to toe with the Yellow Spotted Lizards, yet unharmed

In both of these movies, the frilled lizard (aka frilled dragon) was used as inspiration, but it was portrayed as a scary venomous creature.

So what are the REAL facts about this influential creature?

The frilled lizard can reach lengths of 2-3 feet with a weight of 1-2 pounds. And while the frilled lizard is non-venomous and may not seem nearly as intimidating as what we see in Jurassic Park, the frilled lizard actually has one of the most creative defense mechanisms. This lizard will open a frill around its neck, reaching 12 inches in diameter to make itself look big and scary, it might even open its mouth and hiss. If these defenses fail the lizard runs to safety, moving its legs in a wide circular motion and not looking back until they reach a tree. This peculiar motion landed them the nickname of “Bicycle Lizard”. 

The frilled lizard is an impressive and eye-catching reptile to observe, and did you know we have one at the Nature Center right now? If you’d like to see a frilled lizard in real life make sure to check out our visiting exhibit Here Be Dragons: From Lizards to Legends. This exhibit will only be here until February 11, 2023 so stop by soon!

Lizards and Tail-loss and Regeneration, oh my!

Can you imagine all the things we could do if we had a tail? Well, we once did have a tail. In utero, babies start with a tail; tails get smaller and fuse into our vertebrae, creating our “tail-bone” around eight weeks. We miss out on some extraordinary abilities once we no longer have a tail. For animals, having a tail can provide balance, navigation, communication, mating rituals, marking territory, and defense. 

Let’s talk about defense.  Some lizards are notorious for losing their tails (autotomy) when humans or other animals attempt to catch them.  I remember catching a green anole in my backyard as a kid. I was so excited to catch it but saw its tail come off as I grabbed it. The tail was then on the ground, still kind of wiggling around. As a child, that can seem pretty scary or even creepy, but it’s interesting that the lizard has this ability. Lizards have learned that they can save themselves from predators through the art of distraction. 

When predators chase lizards, their tails can detach from their bodies; as the tail wiggles around on the ground, it directs the predator’s attention to the tail instead of them. Juvenile skinks (as pictured on the left) have a bright blue tail that is easily noticeable to predators. Although that might sound counteractive, luckily for skinks, their tail is expendable, and the skink can walk away unharmed. Once the tail has dropped, the lizard can regenerate its tail. However, the regenerated tail isn’t a replica of the original. 

Now, if lizards can release their tails when faced with a predator, what happens when they encounter another one? How many times can a lizard release and regenerate its tail? Regeneration requires cells that will develop into tissues that become new muscles, cartilage, tendons, and eventually a regrown tail. Most lizards can live about 4 years or so, depending on the food, water, shelter, and predators. Depending on how big the lizard is and how healthy they are, it can take anywhere from a month to over a year to have a tail regenerate. So, if the lizard survives those months without a tail as it goes through the regeneration process, one single lizard can potentially drop and regenerate a few tails in its lifetime. 

Next time you visit the River Legacy Nature Center and walk the trails, look for lizards like the ones in the images below. If you notice a brown patchy tail that doesn’t seem to match the rest of the body, or just looks like they’re missing a tail, they are in the regeneration process, and a new tail is on the way. 

There is so much more to learn about lizards! Our upcoming visiting exhibit Here Be Dragons: From Lizards to Legends will feature 6 live lizards so visitors can learn about these legendary creatures up close and personal. Mark your calendars for November 19th and get ready to explore different realms, encounter living legends, and discover unique artifacts at the River Legacy Nature Center.

Visit our website for more details

Written by Sarah Morris, Naturalist.