8 min read

What's Really Going On In All Those Adorable Lizard Videos

<p><em>Wikimedia Commons/Nitot</em></p>

More than a million lizards are kept as pets in the United States, yet reptile emotions and behaviors are not very well understood. Lizards can be tough to read unless you know to look for certain behavioral signals - but not to worry. Here's a breakdown of lizard responses and emotions, thanks to the help of herpetologist Dr. Greg Pauly from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Read on, lizard lovers!

"Hello, I see you!"


These bearded dragon babies are waving slowly in tandem as they bask together in the lamplight. Waving from bearded dragons can be a sign of submission or acknowledgment, which in this case seems to be directed toward the camera or the person holding it. Waving hello is pretty widely observed in bearded dragons, but, Pauly comments, "How widespread this behavior is in other lizards remains to be studied."

"I'm the alpha here."


Many lizard species do "push-ups" that are thought to be territorial displays, usually to attract potential mates or to scare away trespassers. This lizard looks like it's trying to show this little chipmunk who's boss, or perhaps shoo the chipmunk away from its sunning spot. Pauly notes that "the lizard does push ups at the chipmunk all while being laterally compressed so that from a side view, the lizard looks even bigger to this intruder."

"I'm scared..."


This baby bearded dragon is clearly stressed out by the cat's presence. He makes a show of dominance and claims his territory by looking at her sideways and bobbing his head rapidly up and down. As Pauly points out, even the most gentle of cats can create a highly negative response in lizards (especially tiny ones): "Cats are predators, so a lizard isn't thinking 'Oh, look at the friendly cat.' The lizard has millions of years of evolution telling it, 'Oh no, a predator, my life might be in danger.'"


"Leave me alone ASAP!"

(YouTube/Melinda Western)

This iguana's raised posture and flared dewlap (the pouch under his chin) indicate that he is feeling threatened by the presence of a potential predator. He maximizes his size and tenses to attack or run in order to send the message that he is not a lizard to be messed with. Despite this iguana's relatively large size, he is still exhibiting a stress response because the cat is an unknown critter. Pauly observes, "Neither the cat nor the iguana seems particularly thrilled with the situation and the homeowner seems a little stressed about it too."

"I like this."


Mos the bearded dragon certainly seems to be enjoying his facial massage. Notes Pauly, "I wouldn't interpret this gape as a submissive gesture. It is really challenging to understand behaviors in an environment so far removed from what they would experience in nature (a giant mammal giving them a massage). My guess is that the lizard likes having the region around its mouth massaged and opening the mouth just directs the massage to the right area." While Mos loves this head massage, your lizard companions may not - find out what works for you both to keep your lizards feeling safe and happy.

Some final words of wisdom from Pauly: "There is not a lizard equivalent to a dog's tail wag or a cat's purr." Since lizards are prey for so many animals, Pauly adds that their responses tend to focus on defensive strategies, so, "the most widespread 'positive behavior' would simply be that a lizard appears calm. If an animal is resting, not breathing rapidly, and not engaging in any defensive behaviors then this is all positive."

Additionally, Pauly recommends keeping your lizard companions separate from your furrier four-footed ones. "What is the goal of introducing a pet lizard to a pet cat or pet dog? Maybe it makes for a cute video, but maybe it makes for stress or carnage," he says, adding, "even when it is cute, is this really something that is likely to improve the day-to-day well-being of both animals? For cats and lizards, or dogs and lizards, my guess is that in all or nearly all cases it does not." Lizards' behaviors and responses aren't as easy for humans to decipher as those of dogs and cats, but you can still learn how to "read" your scalier friends by paying attention to the above signs.

Check out the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Herpetology Department (and learn more about Pauly's work) at their website here and "like" their Facebook page here to get updates!