All around the Lowcountry, especially in the summer, trees, bushes, and shrubs are filled with little green and brown lizards scampering around. Although mistakenly called chameleons, it’s actually closer to being an iguana than a chameleon. The Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis), is a small lizard, ranging from 2 inches up to about 6 inches, including a tail that can be as long as the body or longer. Like chameleons, they can change their color from brownish olive to bright green, but, unlike true chameleons that can change multiple colors and patterns, our little lizard is limited in his coloration repertoire. They also differ from chameleons in that chameleons have their toes fused together in pairs on their feet, giving them “zygodactyl” feet similar to parrots. This helps them cling to branches as they slowly move around the trees and vegetation in which they live. The chameleon also has a prehensile tail or a tail that acts like a fifth limb. This tail can wrap around a branch, stabilizing the lizard on precarious perches. Although the anole doesn’t have a prehensile tail, he does have the ability to snap off its tail and regenerate another one. This tactic is a great adaptation to help him escape from predators. When grabbed by the tail, the tail snaps off at the base and begins to wiggle erratically. The potential predator, thinking it got the best end of the bargain, runs off with its prize. And of the anole? He runs for cover, alive and well, to live another day!
Both feed on insects, but the anole has a sticky tongue that allows him to grab his prey, but he mostly uses his mouth for catching bugs, beetles, moths, ants, and other insects. The chameleon also eats insects, but he has an incredibly long and sticky tongue, shooting it out like a long, sticky wad of gum to grab an insect and then pull it back into his mouth!
One behavior you may have seen displayed by our little Lowcountry lizards is a courtship and territorial display. Anoles have a fold of skin under his chin on his throat called a dewlap or gular flap. This flap can be extended out and retracted for courtship and for territory defense. Here’s how if often unfolds:
The anole is seen creeping up a tree trunk or walking along a deck, pausing for a moment, and, in what looks like a painful contortion, does a few pushups and unfolds a pinkish red flap under its chin. After flashing his flap, the lizard moves a short distance and then does it again. This flap is intended to let the females in the area know he is single and looking, but it is also sending a message to rival males that they need to stay out of his territory! Usually, they can be green or brown and blend in with their surroundings, but when he’s extending his flap, he turns as bright green as he can, making him stand out as much as possible.
Keep an eye out for these little lizards. They are fun to watch and beneficial to have in and around your lawns and gardens. Although they can bite when handled, they are harmless, but just like all other critters, it’s best to just observe them in their native habitats.
Nature Notes by Marvin Bouknight
Nature Nook Photography