Lizards are cold-blooded and their skin is unique in the animal kingdom. They have some unusual habits, including doing push-ups on rocks, trees, or walls. Why do lizards do push ups?
Lizards do push-ups as a mating display so the males can show the females that they are healthy and ready to mate. But both male and female lizards do them to claim their territory, cool down, and remove dead and shedding skin. Push-ups are an important part of a lizard’s mating ritual.
While we now know why lizards do those crazy push-ups, it is still necessary to understand what they do for the lizard and to go into more detail about the other two reasons as well.
In our travels, we’ve seen green iguanas in Guayaquil Ecuador and Aruba. We’ve seen lava lizards, land iguanas, and marine iguanas in the Galapagos. And they have lizard push-ups in common.
The first time a lizard did push-ups directed to us, was at a resort in Aruba. It was about 3 feet long and came right to the edge of the pool and effectively established its territory. We stayed on the other end of the pool after its convincing display of dominance.
Keep reading to learn more about this odd behavior!
Spotting Lizard Pushups
Before we get to the details of lizards’ push-ups, we are going to explain what they look like for anyone that is unfamiliar with this habit. Like how people do push-ups, lizards follow a similar motion with a few little differences.
A lizard can be seen on many surfaces, typically higher up, vigorously pushing its whole body up and down with all four legs. These push-ups are often accompanied by head bobbing and in some species, flapping of the colorful skin on their necks.
4 Reasons for Lizard Push Ups
Here are four reasons you might see a lizard doing push-ups. The first two are the most common. The last two are less likely but still possible.
1. Push Ups for Mating
Lizard push ups send the message that they are in top condition and are ready to mate. It is a show by the males of health, strength, and desirability to female lizards.
Western fence lizards, or “blue bellies”, use this maneuver to show off their bright blue bellies as a show of health. Like in many animals, color in fur, scales, or skin fades when they are unhealthy, so a bright underside is attractive to females.
In addition to showing females that they are ready to mate, the push-ups of a male during mating season are also a challenge to other males. They show the other males that they are the strongest contender for the females’ attention and any weaker males will go looking for a different spot to do push-ups.
If a stronger male comes along, they will often fight until the weaker one runs away or is eaten by the bigger one. It is quite the contest of champions for a lizard to get a mate!
Lizards cannot communicate audibly with potential mates.
“Some lizards, such as tropical iguanas or American fence lizards, instead do pushups. This behavior conveys information about that individual, like how strong and fit they are, as both a warning to potential competitors and to attract potential mates.”Dr. James Stroud, Postdoctoral Researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Newsweek interview
Here’s a great video of a Draco lizard using pushups to attract a mate.
2. Territorial Push Ups
While it is much more common for male lizards of any species to do push-ups for the attention of a mate than it is for females, these next two reasons are done by both male and female lizards.
The first reason is that lizards do push-ups to ward off other lizards from their territory. Like many other animals, lizards are very territorial, both male and female, so they do push-ups to let other lizards know that they are trespassing and to leave or fight.
Lizards do not stay together after mating, and most female lizards leave their eggs forever after laying them.
Lizards are very solitary animals and prefer to fend for themselves. This means that they each have their own separate territory that they need to defend, not a male defending a female and/or babies. This is why female lizards also do territorial push-ups.
In addition, to warning other lizards that they are in the wrong place, these push-ups also sent a similar message that mating push-ups send, and that is that the lizard is strong, healthy, and will defend itself if it needs to.
Lizards need to protect their territories as they lay claim to the food and resources in them and can’t let other lizards take that. It is survival of the fittest and they need to eat and be healthy to survive.
Watch the blue-headed agama (blue-headed lizard) do pushups until its head turns blue.
While exploring the Galapagos Islands, we saw this behavior with both Galapagos land iguanas and marine iguanas. Here’s more about the animals of the Galapagos.
3. Cooling down with Push Ups
Lizards are reptiles and reptiles are cold-blooded. This is an incredibly interesting feature that many animals have, but it contributes to the impromptu workouts of lizards as well.
The cold-blooded nature of lizards means that, like other cold-blooded reptiles, they can not produce very much, if any, body heat by themselves so they have trouble maintaining a warm or cool body temperature. Their body temperature changes based on the temperature of their surroundings.
When a lizard gets too cold, they become sluggish and vulnerable to predators. This is why lizards often hide away in the winter and cold weather. It is also not good for a lizard to overheat as they have no internal way of cooling themselves down.
Besides finding shade or going underground, lizards use push-ups to regulate their temperature.
When the lizard moves up and down, they get an airflow under their belly which helps cool them down a lot. They often do this in the hottest parts of the day which is when they need it most. This helps differentiate between mating push-ups and cooling push-ups.
Mating push-ups are typically performed at dawn and dusk each day during mating season, not in the middle of the day. Females are not likely to mistake these push-ups as a mating call when it is the wrong time of day.
In order to avoid sending the wrong message to potential mates or intruders, these cooling push-ups look much less aggressive than territorial push-ups.
- Territorial push-ups are meant to be aggressive and are accompanied by head bobbing and skin flapping.
- Cooling push-ups are a slower version of push-ups to allow as much airflow underneath without tiring from holding themselves up.
4. Lizard Skin Shedding with Pushups
This fourth reason is dead skin removal. I didn’t find many sources for this, but it seems that at least a few species that do this.
Lizards do push-ups to shed their skin because they can’t just peel it off like we can’t.Kidadl
More reading: Which land animal has the longest tail?
Now that you know all of the reasons that a lizard might be doing push-ups, you can recognize this behavior, and maybe you can try and tell the difference between the different messages!
- About the Author
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Hi, I’m Bryan Haines. And I’m a co-founder of Storyteller.Travel. I’m a traveler and photographer.
I also blog about photography on Storyteller Tech.