Featured here are a few of the many brown basilisks (Basiliscus vittatus) living and breeding at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables, Florida (photographed 02 September 2011). Brown basilisks are brilliantly fast and agile lizards originally hailing from Latin America. As summarily reported by Walter Meshaka (2011), brown basilisks have been established in southern Florida since the 1970s.
An opportunist, brown basilisks will eat a variety of fruit in addition to their mainstay diet of small insects. Kenneth Krysko (2006) reports of at least one observation of two brown basilisks fighting over a (likely surprised and frantic) Cuban brown anole, Anolis sagrei. The idea of seeing a brown basilisk taking down a much-smaller brown anole wouldn’t surprise me one bit in a location such as Matheson Hammock. Along the mangrove shoreline, where the brown basilisks bask and forage in the thick foliage, the trunk-ground area is seething with young Cuban brown anoles — and there’s no shortage of animals preying on insects there. More on that in a minute.
The basilisks at Matheson Hammock can easily be found along the shore of the mangrove pond at the main park. I see the younger individuals closer to the ground-level, whereas older, larger individuals tend to be in the branches overhanging the waterline. They are, of course, incredibly fast lizards — but not just on the ground. Basilisks are amazing climbers and remarkable swimmers. Quick on their feet and sharp with their vision, basilisks will often beat a hasty retreat whenever a perceived threat (like, say, a large bald guy with a Nikon) approaches too quickly. In a second, they can take to ground, to tree, or to water like a flash of lightning. Generally speaking, they are faster than you. At least they’re faster than me. Much, much faster.
With thanks to webbing between their toes, they can even (briefly) run on water… Thus the nickname “The Jesus Christ Lizard.” Get it? They can walk on water. Like Jesus. Who walked on water, and stuff. Alternatively, I like to think the nickname comes from people repeatedly saying, “Jesus Christ! That lizard’s friggin’ fast!” Take your pick. (My own pet name for brown basilisks is the “Chance the Gardener” lizard. Look it up. That movie rocks.)
At Matheson Hammock, the brown basilisks share the wooded mangrove tangles with Cuban knight anoles (Anolis equestris) and Green iguanas (Iguana iguana). Red-headed agamas (Agama agama africana), Cuban brown anoles, Bark anoles (Anolis distichus), and Puerto Rican crested anoles (Anolis cristatellus) are also present and established in the immediate area (among others), though not necessarily on the mangrove waterline.
Try to picture it: all these species –most of them non-native– coexisting in the same little area with a generalized division of preferred habitats wrapping around one another. Along the mangrove pond shoreline, the knight anoles are up high in the trunk-crowns, the younger green iguanas and brown basilisks are lower, the former farther out above the water, the latter closer to the shoreline. The ground-level itself is peppered with young and juvenile Cuban brown anoles, while the older Cuban browns are on the low trunks of shoreline trees. Puerto Rican crested anoles dominate the trunks farther from shore, accompanied by the less-common (read: “less obvious”) bark anoles. The red-headed agamas own the assorted rocks around the parking area between Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. Finally, the occasional Carolina green anole (Anolis carolinensis) just tries to hang on for dear life.
What a tangle of biodiversity, right? Lizards from the Greater Antilles, from Latin America, from South America, from Africa –and one lone Anolis species, the Carolina green anole, native to Florida– all rolling around the same little chunk of real estate, trying to carve out a living in the south Florida heat and humidity.
And this is just one tiny little area of south Florida. One little spot with its own unique and evolving ecological matrix — a matrix within which all these introduced lizards are working out a balance in response to one another for survival and success. Pretty remarkable.
REFERENCES AND LINKS:
Basiliscus vittatus (n.d.). Encyclopedia of Life. http://eol.org/pages/795608/overview.
Krysko, K. L., J. C. Seitz, J. H. Townsend, K. M. Enge. 2006. The introduced brown basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus) in Florida. Iguana 13(1):24-30. http://www.naherpetology.org/pdf_files/543.pdf.
Meshanka, W. E., Jr. 2011. A Runaway Train in the Making: The Exotic Amphibians, Reptiles, Turtles, and Crocodilians of Florida. Monograph 1. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 6:1-101. http://www.herpconbio.org/Volume_6/Monograph_1/Meshaka_2011.pdf.
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