Basilisks - unique, fascinating and extremely showy lizards
Updated: Feb 5
Basilisks, are truly amazing lizards. Their popularity is not as high as some other lizards, either because of availability or from fact that they require large cages. One thing is certain, if you want to display an amazing lizard it will be hard to find something more magnificent than Male Green Plume Basilisk.
Now, when I got your attention a quick overview of the group. Basilisks belong to family Corytophanidae - Helmeted Lizards and in fact males showcase beautiful skin flaps on their heads.
Females have them as well, although reduced in size.
All Basilisks are found in Neotropics and they are limited to parts of North, Central and South America. The group includes medium to large lizards, leaving close to body of water. They are good climbers and are often found on branches overhanging banks of rivers or lakes. They are very timid, alert and nervous reptiles. There are many predators on the ground and in the air that target them as prey. One common name they have is "Jesus Christ Lizard" for their ability to walk on water. They are not the only lizards that can do that, but they are certainly most often observed applying this escape technique. Toes on their hind legs have specifically formulated scales that double the surface of the foot. Relatively light lizard can run fast on the surface of water before gravity pulls it down. Increased surface of the feet , long legs , light weight and amazing speed allows this lizard to achieve nearly impossible feat.
Another feature that makes that group of lizard so interesting is a crest or a sail spread that is present with males of two out of four known species from genus Basiliscus. Dorsal and caudal sail spreads over spikes protruding from the back and tail make those lizards truly impressive.
Basilisks are omnivorous lizards that feed on variety of plants, invertebrates, smaller lizards, frogs and small mammals. In captivity they can be fed flowers, fruits and insects. more various diet, the better. Lizards require large terraria that have many climbing branches. Despite their size, they are quite skittish and shy. They are very wary of their surroundings and will often not move towards food until they are sure, no one is watching. I found them always more tense and nervous than Water Dragons, very similar lizard living in near identical environment on Asian continent. Even specimens raised or born in captivity are nervous and ready to bolt at a short notice. That lizard to be properly cared for, requires larger cages. While not particularly challenging, I would not call them beginners species. Smaller species are easier to care for mainly due to their size. Adult male Plum Basilisk can deliver nasty bite and very deep scratch if mishandled, so naturally smaller the lizard, easier is to control it.
Mature Basilisk males are very territorial and would not tolerate another male in enclosure. Their territory can be significant and several females may be found within area controlled by a male.
In captivity, same can be reproduced, however, given size of those lizards, enclosure must be of significant size. Male basilisk grow much larger than females and they can be very rough pursuing females during breeding season. It is recommended that during that time either large number of females is maintained in single enclosure of appropriate size, or that breeding encounters are supervised and females removed from males cages shortly after breeding.
Juveniles can be kept in groups until males start getting mature and start establishing dominance and pursuit females.
In Pet Trade, Adult field collected animals rarely are available. Adults are strong lizards they can be very nervous and are ready to bolt at slightest annoyance are very difficult to acclimate. Being omnivorous and feeding on a large variety of food items , they usually harbor high level of internal parasites that under stress of captivity pose significant thread to the lizard.
If you dream of that spectacular male Basilisk, you need to grow one from a baby or juvenile.
We currently breed with certain regularity two species of Basilisks. First is Common Brown or Striped Basilisk native to the USA. We have brought few adult animals, set them up in big arboreal cage and they started reproducing shortly after acclimation. We were quite successful with this project to the point, we had to separate males as we were producing more than we could sell. Females would lay 8 -12 eggs in moist sand and coconut fiber mix placed in their enclosure. Eggs were hatched in 28-29C and hatched within 8 weeks.
Babies were started on small crickets and moved gradually to other insects commonly available in the trade. Animals reach maturity within a year. Currently we have our 2nd generation breeding. This species is the smallest of all basilisks and is probably a best entry level species. Its size, relative low cost and captive bred status make it a good choice for someone starting their adventure with this fascinating group of lizards.
Juveniles, like one pictured here, are a perfect starter if you want to grow a magnificent, show animal. Initial tank of 18x18x 24 is good for first few months. Eventually animal would need something bigger. Diagonally positioned branches under heat and UVB source, would allow lizard to bask in a similar way as they do it in natural environment.
This lizard will not hide in the ground hide, but still needs security and ability to disappear. That can be achieved by providing good coverage with artificial or natural foliage.
Important part is water basin. It is essential part of furnishing of the cage. It provides source of water for drinking, humidity to make environment suitable and also often is being used as a toilet. For that reason cleanliness and frequent water changes are a must. Basilisk would feed on most feeder insects available in pet trade. They will also hunt for fish if they are present in the water section. Basilisk will try to eat anything they can overpower. For that reason they are best to be kept alone or with cage mates of similar size. They will kill and eat other smaller lizards and frogs if any are kept in the same enclosure.
In addition to insects and small vertebrates, they will snack on soft fruits. Raspberries, Papaya, Watermelons are accepted. It is believed Basilisks see in colour and are attracted to bright orange, yellow and red.
Care for juveniles of other species is pretty much the same. Other species grow larger, so terraria that house adults need to be bigger.
Two most commonly bred species are, previously mentioned Common Brown or Stripped Basilisk
(Basiliscus vittatus), and Green Plume Basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons). Insert here shows a juvenile male of Common Brown Basilisk.
Green Plum Basilisk grow bigger and can reach over 30 inches for males and slightly less for females. Males heads sport beautiful flap, female have , just a tiny one. In addition to head flap, adult males have huge crests on back and tail. The colour of both genders is bright green with white spots. Pattern on sails may have black inclusions. Eyes are bright yellow. This is truly a magnificent lizard.
Remaining two species are Double Crested Brown Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus) and Red Headed or Western Basilisk (Basiliskcus galeritus)
Both are either rare or very rare in a pet trade. Double Crested Basilisk grows to similar size as Green but has a colours of Common Stripe. Males Double Crested , similar to males of Green Plume have a flap of skin on the head and two crests - one on the back and one on the tail.
Pictured on the left is a male of Double Crested Brown Basilisk.
Limited amount of Double Crested Basilisks have recently been imported by us and we make an effort to establish a small group for breeding. Hopes are high as we already breed other two species regularly. See below juvenile Green Plume
In captivity Green Green Plume Basilisk attain blueish colour, that is quite distinct from field collected animals , that are usually green. Captive diet, that is low in carotenoids is responsible for this interesting hue. Increased supplementation can correct the colour of the animals.
Overall, Basilisks are very interesting group of lizards, that display plenty of unique behaviors. When kept in well planted terraria, they are one of the most magnificent lizards. Though bit skittish, deserve our attention and effort to establish in herpetoculture.