Lizards In Southwest Florida

Question: I have recently moved into the area and am unfamiliar with lizards (being the city girl that I am). Should I be concerned that they are abundant around my home?

Answer: Lizards make up one of the most diverse and successful groups of modern reptiles. Many people fear lizards out of misunderstanding. Too often lizards have been overlooked as valuable contributors to the environment. Do not be afraid or concerned about their abundance. The lizards of South Florida feed mostly on insects and other small invertebrates, making them economically important to man as natural pest controls. More important still is their ecological role as predators and prey. The survival of many larger lizards, birds, mammals, and snakes is dependent on the availability of lizards as food. They are an essential element in the balance of nature. Let me acquaint you with a few of the native lizards so you can enjoy watching them.

Anoles are the most commonly seen lizard in Florida. Most people call anoles "chameleons" due to the green anole’s ability to change color. In fact, anoles are only distantly related to the chameleon, and are more closely related to the iguana. Anoles are small lizards that are adapted for climbing trees, shrubs, fences, and walls. They are frequently seen basking in the sun or hunting insects around homes. Male anoles have a large throat fan that is often displayed, along with "push-ups" and head bobbing behaviors when they court or defend territories. The only Florida native anole is the green anole. It is five to eight inches long and can change from green to brown. It can be distinguished from exotic anoles by its long pointed snout and the pinkish throat fan (on males).

Spiny lizards are members of the same family as anoles. These lizards are distinct, with pointed scales on their backs. This rough appearance helps these arboreal lizards blend in with tree bark. While they eat mostly insects, they are also known to feed on smaller lizards, spiders, and other invertebrates. South Florida has only one species, the Florida scrub lizard. This rare lizard only reaches a length of three to five inches. It usually is a pale or grayish brown, and has a dark band on each side running from its neck to the base of its tail. This species is mostly terrestrial unlike those that frequent trees.

Skinks are smooth, shiny, active lizards that may be seen scurrying quickly along the ground in search for insects. At first glance they may resemble small snakes due to their tiny limbs and cylindrical bodies. To escape from predators, skinks have tails that easily break off. The tail continues to move as an additional distraction. South Florida has three native skink species, the ground skink, the peninsular mole skink, and the southeastern five-lined skink. The one most often seen in urban settings is the ground skink. This skink may get to be five inches in length and is light brown with a wide dark stripe along its sides. It has a bluish belly with a yellow center. The ground skink is found in all habitats that have ground cover such as grass or leaves.

Whiptails can be recognized by their long tails and active, nervous prowling. Their tails are rough to the touch. The six-lined racerunner is the only native species of whiptail in South Florida. It can get to be nine and a half inches and has a wedged-shaped head. The body is brown with six yellow stripes running down the back. Its hind legs are much larger than the front. This lizard is most active in the heat of the day when it hunts for insects in dry habitats with open ground.

Other native species include glass lizards that have no legs, and geckos, which are more nocturnal. The remaining lizards are non-native species that have become well adapted to development.

Shannon L. Ruby is the Natural Resources/Agriculture Agent with the University of Florida/IFAS and Lee County Extension Service. To submit questions, call 338-3232 between 9am and 4pm or send questions to 3406 Palm Beach Blvd. Fort Myers, FL 33916-3736 or via e-mail at rubys@leegov.com.