I chose to write about the basilisk today because my roommates and I decided to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. You may not know that there is an actual, real-life animal called the basilisk. It is not a giant snake that kills people with its stare and scares spiders. Nope, real basilisks are small genus of lizards. Maybe the real basilisks don’t have the same lethal, awe-inducing presence of the Harry Potter monster, but the lizards are definitely pretty cool.

A brown basilisk lazing in the sun, preparing for some sprints across a pond.
Image by Benjamint444, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

There are four species of basilisk, all of which live in Central and South America. There is also an introduced population of basilisks in Florida, where the animals survive the colder winters by hiding under leaf litter. The rest of the basilisk population lives in lovely warm tropical rainforests where winter isn’t really an issue. They spend their days on the ground, sticking close to sources of water, but climb trees at night to sleep, sometimes finding perches up to 20 meters high.

Basilisks range in size from around two to three feet, depending on the species. Different species also vary in colouration, from brown to bright green. They are quite pretty lizards, with interesting markings and crests on the head, back and tail, which are more prominent in males. One notable feature of basilisks is large feet, equipped with sharp claws and webbed toes.

Look at that pretty face. Image by Esteban Alzate, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The claws make basilisks great climbers, while the webbed toes mean that basilisks are excellent swimmers. Oh yeah, they can also walk on water. Well, not walk so much as run very fast. When threatened, basilisks rise up on their hind legs and sprint across nearby water, sometimes reaching distances of twenty or more meters before sinking into the water and swimming. The toe webbing creates a larger surface area and air pockets that help basilisks run on water. This famous behaviour of basilisks has earned the lizards the nickname ‘Jesus Christ lizard’. If no water is nearby and a basilisk is threatened, it will bury itself in sand or dirt. They have specialized muscles around their noses that prevent any grains from entering.

So even though basilisks can’t kill people with a glance, they can run on water, which the monster definitely couldn’t do. I don’t know which skill is more impressive, but I do know I won’t get any nightmares from real basilisks.

Cover image by Ltshears, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons