Planet Earth

The Lizard That Walks on Air on Water

How the Central American "Jesus lizard" makes its awe-inspiring aquatic dash.


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The common basilisk lizard is known as the Jesus Christ lizard for its astounding ability to literally run on water.

Found mostly in Central American rainforests, the lizards bask in the trees to warm up their cold blood, which leaves them open to predators like birds. When startled by its enemies, the Jesus lizard will often jump down on to a stream or river and make its speedy escape across the water.

The Jesus lizard is just one of the amazing species profiled in BBC Earth's series, LIFE. Get more information on the series' Facebook page and website.

Young and strong Jesus lizards can run from 30 to 60 feet across water, but the old-timers can only manage to go about 10 feet. These lizards run upright on their hind legs at a speed of around five feet per second--almost as fast as they travel on four legs on land.

Fringes of skin unfurl from the long toes on their back feet, increasing surface area and slapping against the water to create the tiny air pockets that stop them sinking. You might say that they walk on air.

The multi-talented Jesus lizards are also brilliant swimmers and can survive for 30 minutes underwater. They swim as fast as they run on water.

Basilisk lizards got their names from the mythological animal with the body of a lizard, the head of a cock, and a snake's tail and fangs. The legendary animal was considered king of the lizards, and was thought to have a lethal gaze that could turn people to stone.

The real common basilisk lizard (Basiliscus basiliscus) is an omnivore, and has an extraordinarily varied diet consisting of insects, snakes, birds, eggs, fish, and flowers.

Studies of how the Jesus lizard walks on water by scientists at Harvard University have improved our understanding of the physics of walking, and may have practical applications in robot technology.

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