Bring On The Basilisk Lizards!

The attractive green, or plumed, basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons).

Let me give you an example of why this blog is titled, “Random Neural Firings of a REPTILES Editor.” While stuck in traffic on my way to work this morning, as I fumed at the lack of forward motion, I began mulling over some possible blog topics (how’s that for multi-tasking?). As it’s still December, I was considering whether I could work another holiday-themed blog in, last week’s being about whether giving live reptiles as gifts is a good idea or not. This led to thoughts of Christmas, at which point Jesus popped into my head (not literally), and hot on the heels of Jesus came the Jesus Lizard, otherwise known as the basilisk. Voila – I had my topic! I hope you can now appreciate the complicated process that is used to come up with topics for my blog.

In the pet trade, when you’re considering basilisks, you’ve basically got two choices: the brown one and the green one. The brown basilisk, also known as the common or striped basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus) is less expensive, but nowhere nearly as attractive as the green, or plumed, basilisk (B. plumifrons). For this reason, plumed basilisks generally get most of the attention. They’ve been on the cover of REPTILES magazine more than once, while the common basilisk, I’m guilty to admit, has yet to grace even one cover. This alone is testament to the beauty of B. plumifrons, which gets it’s common name from the beautiful crests that run along the entire length of the lizard’s back, from head to tail. Both sexes of both species actually have crests, but those of the males are larger and more impressive, running the entire length of the adult lizards’ bodies. Female basilisks have a head crest only.

Both B. basiliscus and B. plumifrons hail from Central and South America. The plumed gets a lot larger than the brown, up to about 27 inches in length, which is about 10 inches larger than an adult brown basilisk. Both types can be active as well as skittish, so captives should be kept in ample-sized enclosures. They like to climb, so include sturdy branches and other décor that will allow them to do so. Leafy plants make a nice addition to a basilisk enclosure, though because the lizards can run around, especially if alarmed, the plants might end up getting trashed. Perhaps artificial plants could be used instead, or as a back-up depending on whether or not your basilisk spends much time wrecking plants by climbing and jumping on them. Expert lizard breeder Bert Langerwerf, who bred both of these species, recommended large enclosures measuring 4 feet by 6 feet tall, though hobbyists have been known to keep them successfully in smaller enclosures, too. A brown basilisk, for instance, could likely do fine in a terrarium with floor space equivalent to a 60-gallon terrarium. Of course, larger is better. You should always provide as large an enclosure as possible for any pet reptiles. They need UV, so full-spectrum lights, as well as a heat lamp, are in order. Temperatures in the 80s with a hotspot in the 90s will work fine for them. Consider placing a thick climbing branch beneath the heat lamp, which will make a good hotspot.

Basilisks like water, and make good candidates for a beautiful naturalistic vivarium that contains a waterfall or pool. If this is beyond your means or desires, at least be sure to provide them with a large water bowl. This will also help with humidity, and you may find that they defecate in it, as well. That makes cleaning up after them easier, though of course you should regularly inspect the entire enclosure and spot-clean as necessary. A humidity-maintaining substrate such as moss, peat, soil or a combination of these would be appropriate for use with basilisks. Replace the entire substrate every few months or as necessary.

As mentioned, basilisks can be jumpy. While some are bred in captivity, and if you buy a baby you’ve got a better chance that it’s captive born, wild-caught specimens are also available for sale. Wild-caught basilisks can be especially skittish, so be aware of this if you’re purchasing an adult lizard. They may calm down in captivity, or maybe not. To ensure their continued health, provide plenty of hiding places for security, and try to refrain from suddenly appearing in front of the cage or reaching into it. Approach slowly so the lizard has a chance to see you coming. Basilisks are not usually the best lizards to handle. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, especially with regard for captive-bred lizards, but for the most part basilisks should be considered display animals. Of course, now that I’ve written this, I’ll expect a comment from a reader who says he has a plumed basilisk that free roams the house and acts like a dog.

Basilisks can be voracious as long as they’re not stressed out. Stressed lizards, as you may know, may refuse to eat. If yours isn’t eating, re-examine the environment. Offer them the usual insect fare. Dust insects with a vitamin/calcium supplement, or gut-load them on nutritious vegetables before offering them to your basilisk. These lizards, especially the plumed basilisk, will also eat appropriately sized rodents. Basilisks may eat smaller lizards, too, so beware if you’re considering adding some cagemates to their enclosures.

Literature has not been kind to the humble basilisk. From medieval times to the present, in everything from ancient European bestiaries to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk is invoked as a monster to be feared, one that can kill you with a single glance. As a matter of fact, the first definition for “basilisk” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary is, “a mythical lizardlike monster with supposedly fatal breath and glance, fabled to have been hatched by a serpent from a cock’s egg.” The lizard definition comes second. Because the definitions are presented in order according to history, this means the basilisk was known as a monster before it was known as an actual lizard that people sometimes like to keep as a pet. The lizard was, indeed, named after the monster.

As for the “Jesus Lizard” moniker: The reason why basilisks are known by that name is because they can run across water. This is accomplished because of their large hind feet and fringes along some of the toes, and the speed at which they can run once they build up a good head of steam. Be sure to watch the cool video below for footage of a basilisk running across water. As a kid, I decided to test their running-on-water ability. I had a common basilisk, and having heard that they could run on water, I figured the bathtub would be the perfect spot to find out for sure. So I filled the bathtub half way with lukewarm water, went and got my basilisk and dropped him in. No running took place, just sinking followed by frantic swimming and thrashing. Disappointed, I removed my bewildered and soggy basilisk from the bathtub and returned him to his cage. Apparently the bathtub didn’t allow the necessary head of steam to build up.

I wouldn’t recommend you try your own bathtub experiment, but if you want an interesting reptile, perhaps to display in a large, naturalistic vivarium, I would recommend a basilisk. Personally, I’d opt for plumifrons. This is a lizard that turns heads, and one of those heads just might be yours.

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