What to Know About Basilisks

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 21, 2022

Living in the rainforests of South America, there lives a lizard that can walk on water. Called the basilisk lizard, this tropical reptile makes a great pet for an experienced caretaker, and people come from all over the world to watch it defy gravity in its native habitat. 

Named from the Greek word, "basiliskos," -- roughly translated as "little king" -- for the way their head shape appears crown-like, basilisk lizards are a fairly common, relatively harmless reptile.

There are four known species of the basilisk lizard, with colors ranging from brown or olive to bright green or bronze. They typically have dark rings along the length of their tails. The males also have feather-like spines running down the middle of their backs. They can grow quite large, with lengths ranging from around 16-31 inches from tail to snout, with an average length of about 20 inches. Males are typically larger than females.

Known colloquially as the “Jesus Christ Lizard,” this reptile is most well-known for its ability to walk on water. When chasing prey, it can stand upright on its hind legs and run across the tops of still bodies of water for up to 20 meters before sinking and being forced to swim or dive. The smaller the lizard, the easier it does this, with larger basilisks typically sinking sooner. This ability comes from their large, flat feet and toes, as well as scales on the backs of their feet which are pushed up when they strike the water’s surface.

They reproduce by laying clutches of 2-18 eggs, typically in the early spring, although they are capable of laying eggs year round. Females reach sexual maturity much faster than males, who may delay breeding until up to four years old, especially if they are smaller. Breeding can be competitive, with larger males attacking the smaller ones to prevent them from reproducing. For this reason, captive males should be kept separate from one another, although they can be kept with any number of females.

The basilisk lizard is most commonly found in Central America, with a preference for forested areas near rivers, lakes, or other small bodies of water. They use the trees at night to avoid predators while sleeping, and catch food in or near the water during the day. They are especially prominent in Costa Rica, but can be found as far south as Nicaragua and Columbia.

Wild basilisks typically have a lifespan of around 2-6 years, with the males typically living slightly longer than the females. In captivity, basilisks have been known to live as long as nine years, although most don’t make it quite so long.

Captive basilisks have been known to make great pets, although they can be somewhat high-maintenance, so they may not be the best pet for a young or inexperienced owner.

Basilisk lizards can be kept in a standard glass tank with a locking cover or screen. They require a certain level of humidity, usually around 60%, which can be achieved by manually misting them or installing a humidity control on the tank that automatically mists throughout the day.

They should be given branches or small plants to climb on or hide in, and the temperature should be kept around 70-80 degrees, with heating elements and shade spots to provide warmer and cooler areas to allow the lizards to regulate their own temperatures. It’s also important for basilisk lizards to get a certain amount of natural light to aid in vitamin D and calcium absorption, so they should be placed in a sunny area or given time outside in a screened enclosure.

Health Issues. Like all pets, basilisks are susceptible to certain health concerns in captivity. One of the most common health issues is sores on their snout from rubbing against their enclosure. These sores are easily treatable, but if they are allowed to become severe, they can get infected and cause illness or death.

Captive reptiles also commonly suffer from mouth rot, known as stomatitis, where oral bacteria cause spongy masses or sores inside their mouths. This causes them to stop eating and become dangerously malnourished. It is treatable by a veterinarian using antibiotics.

Basilisks are also at risk of both internal and external parasites, including protozoa and nematodes, or mites and ticks, respectively. External parasites can be carefully removed with tweezers, while internal parasites will require veterinarian intervention. Signs of parasitic infections include unexpected weight loss and diarrhea or loose stools.

Known as omnivores, basilisks eat both plants and small animals. Their typical diet consists of fish or shrimp, insects, birds, and smaller lizards, snakes, or even frogs. They also eat flowers or fruit, but the majority of their diet seems to be live prey.

In captivity, the easiest way to feed your basilisk is with live bugs such as crickets, mealworms, spiders, or grasshoppers. They may also enjoy the occasional mouse. If feeding a captive basilisk, it’s important to ensure they’re getting enough vitamins. This can easily be accomplished by dusting their food with a vitamin supplement before feeding them. Vitamins can also be transferred to the lizard through crickets fed with vitamin-rich foods such as fruit or vegetable peels or oats.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
Animal Diversity Web: “Basiliscus basiliscus: Common Basilisk.”
Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection: “Basilisks: Captive Care and Breeding.”
The Reptile Database: "Basiliscus basiliscus."

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