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Country Matters: A miraculous Florida lizard called Jesus walks on water

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Basilisk lizards can flit 10m to 20m without sinking, holding their bodies above water

Basilisk lizards can flit 10m to 20m without sinking, holding their bodies above water

Joe Kennedy talking to Jack Newman over breakfast in the RDS in Dublin

Joe Kennedy talking to Jack Newman over breakfast in the RDS in Dublin

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Basilisk lizards can flit 10m to 20m without sinking, holding their bodies above water

There’s a species of lizard in Florida called Jesus. Don’t be startled. In some cultures the Lord’s good name springs up regularly, sometimes in unexpected circumstances. In Portugal there’s a soccer club manager called Jorge Jesus, according to a Sporting CP supporting friend, Jose Britto.

Jesus may be found regularly both as a first name and a surname in Iberia. In Spanish the pronunciation is ‘Haysoos’; in Portuguese it is as it sounds in English. Anyhow, there is a simple reason the ‘Jesus Lizard’, (also called JC) is so named among all God’s creatures and that is because it can walk and run on water when it needs to.

I had been watching these fascinating lizards in a video shown to me by a man from Florida named Jack Newman whom I met for a belated 90th birthday breakfast in the RDS in Dublin — he beats me by a couple of years— in a touch of countryside grandeur, if you wish, in post-Horse Show and imminent Ploughing Championships mood. (I didn’t turn up in muddy boots but a willow wand with a horse’s head was perfectly acceptable. Jack’s ‘bata’ was collapsible for bringing on airplanes.)

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Joe Kennedy talking to Jack Newman over breakfast in the RDS in Dublin

Joe Kennedy talking to Jack Newman over breakfast in the RDS in Dublin

Joe Kennedy talking to Jack Newman over breakfast in the RDS in Dublin

These lizards, or iguanas, can behave like water boatmen insects writ large and look like miniature dinosaurs of millions of years past. They are properly called basilisk, a species in the family corytophanidae, found in South and Central America, and named ‘lagarto de Jesus,’ which drifted up to the US via watercourses. Some squamates have crests like iguanas and they have spread throughout Florida via that state’s unique water systems emanating from the Everglades.

The reptiles may turn up anywhere there, chasing spiders, small mammals, crawfish, small snakes and smaller lizards. They don’t cause any harm to humans and are not poisonous. As to their amphibious activity they hold their bodies out of the water using their large hind feet with scaly fringes on the sides of their toes. These are compressed on land but on jumping into water, sensing danger, the fringe will open to enlarge the surface area of the foot altering it to run short distances. 

The lizards can flit 10m to 20m without sinking, holding their bodies above water but may not so easily escape some larger reptiles such as snakes or some hunting birds. When not active, the creatures hide under leaves remaining motionless for long periods.  As well as water skating, they can swim strongly above and under water, chasing about swimming pools and also getting into households seeking insects.

Global warming may be bringing some newcomers and change to our green and misty isle but this active creature might not be a welcome visitor to inland waterways, especially to our lone viviparous lizard, a scarce creature of old countryside stone walls. Green basilisks are not easy to keep as pets, needing a spacious, amphibious enclosure but I am told they make a wonderful display and have lifespans of up to 15 years. And their long tails don’t fall off; they are needed for balance for running on land, climbing trees and walking on water.

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