For many people, their main exposure to lizards is watching the clever television commercials featuring the Geico Gecko. A cartoon character that talks, he is consistent with real geckos, the only lizards with vocal cords. If that isn't enough, this captivating book offers considerable information about other unique features of geckos, which can scale vertical surfaces and walk upside down with no form of adhesive or suction cups.
Though lizards are considered reptiles, it is difficult to come up with a perfect definition of a reptile. Reptile taxonomy is constantly changing, and the author admits that there is not complete agreement among taxonomists as to how they are classified. Some even include crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and tuataras as lizards. Found on all continents except Antarctica, lizards are the largest group of reptiles at about 6000 species. Most are small slender animals, but Central America's green iguana can grow to 2m in length, and Indonesia's Komodo dragon checks in at about 3m in length. Lizards come in a variety of textures, colors, and patterns, and a number of them are able to change colors in certain circumstances. Some even cast off their tails, which continue to writhe, distracting their predators.
One of the most appealing features of this book is that it is packed with thought-provoking information on the adaptations and behaviors of selected reptile species. The frilled lizard of Australia frightens predators by expanding the size of ruffled skin around its head; the Asian flying dragon can spread out its skin and glide from tree to tree; shingleback skinks are viviparous, and the female abandons her offspring right after birth; the short-horned toad, actually a lizard, only consumes ants and distracts predators by squirting blood from its eyes; a few lizard species are capable of reproducing by parthenogenesis; and the eyes of a chameleon rotate and focus independently, enabling it to see almost everything in a 360° arc.
Lizards are compared with mythological species such as dragons and with extinct species such as dinosaurs. Dragons appear in the folklore of many human cultures, with the most significant mythological animal being the Asian dragon, depictions of which go back more than 3000 years. The oldest identifiable dragons are found in artifacts exhibiting demons and deities of ancient Mesopotamia. In some Western cultures, dragons are lizard-like creatures adorned with other animal features such as feathers, wings, and beards, and they often appear in a variety of colors. Mythological stories of many lizard-like creatures provide fascinating insight into ancient and some contemporary human cultures.
Dinosaurs, of course, were real creatures, their fossils not having been discovered until long after dragons had become a part of human folklore. As these enormous reptile fossils became better known in the 1800s, they were given the name “dinosaurs,” meaning terrible lizards. Today, dinosaurs are no longer a recognized category, and many of those we acknowledge today were not necessarily closely related.
This colorful and lavishly illustrated book, while providing considerable information on the biology of lizards, is enriched with many connections to human culture—its art, religious practices, folklore, mythology, astrology, literature, history—and comparisons between reptile and human characteristics and behavior. Poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, looked at dinosaurs as a “mirror image of humanity, with a blend of horror and sympathy.” The extinct megalania, an Australian lizard larger than the Komodo dragon, is thought to have eaten human beings. The Japanese motion picture's Godzilla is a giant lizard modeled after Tyrannosaurus rex. Expanding on a concept of Carl Gustav Jung, Carl Sagan had the idea that our “fear of lizards might be part of our ‘collective unconscious.’” Commenting on the many aspects of lizards discussed in this book, the author still asks, “What is a lizard?” His answer: “it may be best just to say, ‘a lizard is a lizard.’”
Part of Reaktion Books’ ambitious Animal series, which presents various animals from a natural and cultural history perspective, this exhaustively researched volume is appropriate for college or advanced high school readers. It would be a valuable addition to a classroom library. It is profusely illustrated with captivating photographs and also includes a timeline of lizards, extensive end note documentation of the text, a bibliography, a list of associations and websites, and an index.