Walking on Water: The Jesus Lizard

When you talk about walking on water, you’re in the territory of myth, magic and religious miracles, right? Wrong. What’s more, it’s not just little critters like pond skaters that can perform this amazing exploit; an animal as large as two feet long also has the dancing feet to pull off the incredible feat too. Dim the lights please as we introduce the basilisk lizard – aka the Jesus Lizard. Real rock n’ roll.

Are you talkin’ to me? Male green basilisk
Photo: Edgley Cesar

John Lennon famously got swamped in controversy when he was quoted saying the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, but this superstar of an animal lets its actions do the talking. Named after Christianity’s central figure because of a shared reputation for being able to do what others need yachts and jet skis to do, the Jesus Lizard can more accurately be said to run across the water’s surface layer.

Got to get to the tree, got to get to the tree: Miracle in motion
Photo via silberman

Rather than scaring disciples with this singular talent, the Jesus Lizard uses it to flee from predators – and at some speed, sprinting at about 5 feet per second, before gravity kicks in and it turns to its none too shoddy swimming skills. It can skim along on top for distances of 15 feet or more, despite having a weight greater than the water’s surface tension can support. But how, we hear you gasp in wonder?

…Well, I’m the only one here: Female green basilisk
Photo: Stevenj

The secret of the Jesus Lizard’s trick are its large hind feet, with flaps of skin between each toe similar to the webbed tootsies of a frog. These help support the basilisk, increasing its surface area and creating a tiny air pocket that stops it from sinking as long as it maintains its momentum. Running upright, often using only its back legs, the basilisk might be dubbed the Michael Johnson lizard.

Found throughout the tropical rainforests of Central America wherever there is water nearby, the Jesus Lizard is actually at least three species of lizard: the common, green, and brown basilisk. All have an omnivorous diet that includes plants, fruit, insects and small animals like rodents, lizards and fish, and all must be wary of predators such as snakes, birds of prey and larger reptiles and mammals.

Just can’t reach… A basilisk at the end of a run
Photo: Richard Sprague

When the basilisk senses danger, its water-walking instinct takes over and it plops into the water…

Anyone who has seen a show by the band The Jesus Lizard will know it’s a minor miracle how singer David Yow manages to keep yowling as he repeatedly stage dives and surfs over the sea of people in the crowd. But this phenomenon falls flat in comparison with the living miracle that is the real Jesus lizard – and that’s gospel truth.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6