The first reptiles appeared back in the Carboniferous period – around 250 million years ago – and in the intervening time, they have experimented with some truly bizarre modifications of what you might call the typical lizard shape. Inevitably, most of the truly spectacular examples occurred during the Great Age of Reptiles – a time which saw dinosaurs in particular flourish into a whole range of unusual-looking forms, equipped with horns, frills, spines and plates a-plenty.
While their descendants today are nowhere near so outlandish, some of them do, never-the-less, have some pretty bizarre bodies.
Chameleons – a Study in Bizarre
Chameleons are arguably one of the best examples – and not just because some of them sport the sort of horns that even a Triceratops might envy. Although they largely keep to the ‘traditional’ reptile body design of four legs, a head and a tail, they have packed a whole host of bizarre and unique features into it – and that’s on top of their remarkable colour changing abilities too.
The chameleon’s feet, for example, are quite unlike anything possessed by other lizards; in truth, they have more in common with a parrot’s foot. They’ve taken the basic original five toes and evolved them into pincer-like grips by placing two toes on one side, and three on the other, to produce a foot that is ideally shaped to grasp the thin branches which form their natural home. It accounts for their rather laboured and slightly comical ‘waddle’ on the ground, but makes them perfectly adapted to their life in the trees.
Their eyes are another feature that marks them out as bizarrely unique. Mounted on independently moveable cones to the side of the animal’s head, one can look backwards, while the other looks forwards – and somehow the lizard’s brain manages to make sense of it! As a means of spotting potential threats and keeping out of trouble, it has a lot going for it, and when it comes to detecting prey, any suitably sized bug the chameleon spots with one eye will soon be scrutinised by both as it judges the direction and distance before striking.
Catching that meal brings us to yet another of the chameleon’s remarkable body parts – its tongue. For a start, it is very long – longer than the animal itself in some species of chameleon – and is made up of a complicated articulating arrangement of muscle, sinew and bone which allows it to be fired at enormous speed towards an item of prey. At the end of this rapidly extending organ, there lies a club-shaped tip, covered in thick, sticky mucus; a bug struck squarely by this sticks tight, and is destined to be returned into the lizard’s waiting mouth almost as quickly.
Best Foot Forward
Simply getting around has led to a number of bizarre reptile bodies too. The clever little adhesive pads on geckoes’ feet that allow them to run up polished glass, for instance, rely on a network of tiny hairs – as many as 2 million per toe – to produce tiny electrical forces which literally stick them to the surface.
Staying with remarkable feet, there’s the flaps of skin along the length of the basilisk’s toes that allow it to sprint upright for short distances across the surface of water – an ability that has earned it the nick-name of Jesus Christ lizard. The larger surface area that these flaps create, coupled with a splashy sort of a running action traps air between its feet and the water, so provided the lizard keeps sprinting, it doesn’t sink.
Reptiles have taken to the air too, and following after their ancient pterodactyl cousins has involved them in a few new bizarre bodily changes of their own. The flying dragons (Draco spp.) of south eastern Asia, for instance have developed a membrane of skin attached to moveable extensions of their ribs, which can be unfurled and stretched to make a ‘wing’ along their sides, allowing them to glide from tree to tree. Flying geckoes ( Ptychozoon spp.) have solved the problem in another way, growing a web of skin along their bodies and legs which catches the air and slows them down as they parachute between the branches.
The desire to defy gravity isn’t only limited to the lizards; snakes have also gone airborne and the aptly named flying snake (Chrysopelea) has a particularly unusual way of doing it, involving changing its whole body shape. When it decides to take off, the snake flares its ribs sideways, making its belly concave and producing a long, thin wing along the length of its body. Then, once in flight, it controls its flight by ‘slithering’ in the air, ensuring that it keeps travelling in the right direction.
There are, of course, many other examples of bizarre modifications amongst modern reptiles – the frill of the Frilled Dragon (Chlamydosaurus kingie), the unique arrangement of ribs in turtles and tortoises or the crown of spines adorning the thorny Mountain Devil (Moloch horridus) to name but three. As every enthusiast knows, there really is something quite uniquely different about reptiles.