Last updated 24 March 2009: added an Update section on the latest suggested classification of the Lacertidae, as well as making a few slight amendments and updating the Links section.

A Guide To

LACERTID LIZARDS

and other members of the family Lacertidae


Introduction

Lacertids is a term that is more or less synonymous with the lizards of the family Lacertidae, particularly the Lacerta species themselves. Most Europeans will probably unconsciously think of a lacertid if the word "lizard" is mentioned, and indeed Lacertids are very much an Old World family, centred in Europe (not a continent renowned for its reptiles) but also with species in Africa and Asia. Many make good pet lizards, but there is still no single popular English language book dedicated to them, unlike the more widely kept Leopard Geckos, Blue-Tongued Skinks and Bearded Dragons, for example.

What follows is a rough guide to the Lacertidae family, its genera and species, with a special emphasis on the Lacerta and Podarcis species. The data herein has been compiled from several sources, and also from a bit of personal experience with these marvellous lizards.

The family Lacertidae

Lizard taxonomy (classification) is in a state of flux at the moment, and a number of traditional designations have been overthrown in the last few years, both by fairly certain methods (eg mitochondrial DNA testing) and the more controversial "splitting", whereby established groupings are broken up into smaller units and further subspecies are added, often on the basis of unsure characteristics such as colouring. This guide will try to give both the long-established species names and the new ones.

The Lacertidae are members of the infraorder Scincomorpha, a group that also includes the skinks (Scincidae), cordylids or sungazers (Cordylidae), plated lizards, zonosaurs and relatives (Gerrhosauridae) and tegus and racerunners (Teiidae), plus the lesser known night lizards (Xantusiidae) and dibamids (Dibamidae). As the name "scincomorph" implies, most of these lizards have similar shaped bodies, ie skink-like, although the night lizards outwardly might seem to resemble geckos. Unlike skinks, however, lacertids are fairly conservative in structure, with little or no limb reduction and a fairly similar body design throughout the different genera: pointed snout, long whiplike tail and sexual differentiation through colour and pores, and often jowls in older males. Most are egg layers.

The table further down should, strictly speaking, be divided into two subfamilies, the Gallotiinae (Gallotia and Psammodromus) and Lacertinae (all the rest) (see also 2009 Update further down).

Characteristics of the family

Lacertids are characterised by the following traits:

A smaller lower eyelid window is found in L. perspicillata and in the genera Philochortus, Latastia and Holaspis. Ophisops has an entirely transparent eyelid.

Distribution of the family

Lacertidae are most often associated with Europe (at least in the minds of Europeans!), but it remains true that seven genera in the family are found on that continent if one takes Turkey as part of Europe. Lacerta are found in every part of the continent, including the fairly reptile-free areas such as Ireland and Scandinavia, and Podarcis is a large European genus whose species furthermore have in some cases a very high number of subspecies.

There is a surprisingly large number of little-known Lacertidae genera in Africa. Most of these seem to be based in East Africa, but some have spread as far as North, West and Central Africa. There is little information commonly available on these interesting lizards, partly no doubt due to the difficult climatic, geographical and political conditions of the continent, but also due to the shy or secretive nature of many of these species. It is an interesting anomaly that in southern Africa, separated from their European, North African and Asian brethren, exist eight genera of the Lacertidae. How this separation came about is still uncertain. Nor have these lizards greatly diverged in form from their more northerly relatives.

Asia is somewhat underrepresented since - depending on one's definition of Asia - there are really only two or three genera of Asian lacertids, of which only Takydromus, the Grass Lizards, can be considered tropical. Nevertheless these are widespread and found as far afield as Indonesia. Eremias has a wide distribution in the colder parts of Asia, being found in the steppes from its most westerly point in SE Europe as far east as Mongolia and China. The genus Timon is placed here also since it is little known and two of its three species occur in Turkey, which might just qualify as Asia. This would be less anomalous if the genus did not also include (according to some authorities, including EMBL) the Ocellated Lizard Timon lepidus (formerly known as Lacerta lepida) of southern France, northern Spain and northern Italy.

For those wishing to consider the lacertids by rough area of distribution and/or genus size, I offer the following table:

The archetypal lacertid lizards Lacerta
The "new" lacertids (formerly Lacerta species) Darevskia, Timon
The wall lizards Podarcis
The lacertids of the Canary Islands Gallotia
The lesser-known European lacertids Algyroides, Psammodromus
The African lacertids I: non-South African genera Adolfus, Gastropholis, Heliobolus, Holaspis, Latastia, Philochortus, Poromera, Pseuderemias
The African lacertids II: South African genera Austrolacerta, Ichnotropis, Meroles, Nucras, Pedioplanis, Tropidosaurus
North African, Middle Eastern and Central Asian lacertids Acanthodactylus, Eremias, Mesalina, Ophisops
The tropical Asian lacertids Takydromus

Availability and Breeding

Time was when virtually all European hobbyists started in their youth by keeping one of the European Lacerta or Podarcis species. The change of political and ecological climate have however caused a complete alteration of the situation, so that nowadays aspiring lizard keepers are far more likely to keep admittedly non-difficult species from Central Asia or Australia, while lacertids are now seen as a specialisation rather than a stepping stone. At present members of the Lacerta and Podarcis genera are still seen in the pet trade, albeit infrequently, along with a number of Takydromus and a very much smaller number of Eremias (the latter being reportedly difficult to keep alive, being short-lived in the wild in any case). At the moment virtually all non-European individuals (South African species are all prohibited from export) are wild-caught, and while this does not seem to be placing a strain on the indigenous populations, in the interests of conservation we ought to be making every effort to produce more captive offspring. This is especially so as nearly all European lizards are now protected by law, while those in Africa and Asia are subject to ongoing environmental degradation of their habitats and political uncertainty.

  QUICK INDEX  
Acanthodactylus, Fringe-Fingered Lizards Adolfus, Forest Lizards Algyroides, Algyroides
Austrolacerta, Rock Lizards Darevskia, Rock Lizards Eremias, Steppe Runners
Gallotia, Canary Island Lizards Gastropholis, Keel-Bellied Ground Lizards Heliobolus, Bushveld Lizards
Holaspis, Blue-Tailed Tree Lizard Ichnotropis, Rough-Scaled Lizards Lacerta, Green Lizards
Latastia, Long-Tailed Lizards Meroles, Desert Lizards Mesalina, Tiger Lizards
Nucras, Sandveld Lizards Ophisops, Snake-Eyed Lizards Pedioplanis, Sand Lizards
Philochortus, Orange-Tailed Lizards Podarcis, Wall Lizards Poromera, Striped Lizard
Pseuderemias, Greater Racerunners Psammodromus, Psammodromus Takydromus, Asian Grass Lizards
Timon, Jewelled Lizards Tropidosaurus, Mountain Lizards  

Genus Common Name Distribution No. of Species Notes
Family Lacertidae
Acanthodactylus Fringe-Fingered Lizards Europe, Mediterranean, C Asia and Middle East 37  
Adolfus Forest Lizards Africa  4  
Algyroides Algyroides Mediterranean basin 4  
Austrolacerta Rock Lizards South Africa 2  
Darevskia Rock Lizards Asia Minor, Caucasus and Middle East  22  
Eremias Steppe Runners Mediterranean basin, Middle East and Asia 28 Includes subgenera Ommateremias, Pareremias, Rhabderemias, Scapteira
Gallotia Canary Island Lizards Canary Islands 7  
Gastropholis Keel-Bellied Ground Lizards Africa  4  
Heliobolus Bushveld Lizards Africa  4  
Holaspis Blue-Tailed Tree Lizard Africa 2  
Ichnotropis Rough-Scaled Lizards Southern Africa 7  
Lacerta Green Lizards Europe and Mediterranean 38 Includes subgenera Apathya, Archaeolacerta, Omanosaura, Teira, Timon, Zootoca - some or all of these are now often considered as full genera
Latastia Long-Tailed Lizards Africa  10  
Meroles Desert Lizards Southern Africa  7  
Mesalina Tiger Lizards Africa  14  
Nucras Sandveld Lizards Southern Africa  8  
Ophisops Snake-Eyed Lizards Europe and Mediterranean  8  
Pedioplanis Sand Lizards Southern Africa  10  
Philochortus Orange-Tailed Lizards Africa  7  
Podarcis Wall Lizards Europe and Mediterranean  18  
Poromera Striped Lizard Africa  1  
Pseuderemias Greater Racerunners Africa  7  
Psammodromus Psammodromus Europe and Mediterranean  4  
Takydromus Asian Grass Lizards Asia  18  
Timon Jewelled Lizards Europe, Mediterranean basin, Asia Minor and Iran  3 Until recently treated as a subgenus
Tropidosaurus Mountain Lizards Southern Africa  4  
Zootoca Viviparous or Common Lizard Europe through to E Asia (not Japan) 1 Until recently treated as a subgenus

2009 Update

A search on Lacertidae in the JCVI Reptile Database in March 2009 shows the following amendments to the above table:

Of these changes, Archaeolacerta, Iberolacerta, Omanosaura and Teira have been around for a few years and appear to have gained acceptance. Some of the others are rather newer, and I take the view that it is worth waiting for a while to see whether they become set in stone, given the frenzy of reclassification in the world of zoology at the moment.

Bibliography

There does not seem to be a single contemporary English-language book devoted to the Lacertidae, either their care in captivity or their natural history in the wild. However, several books offer sections on their care or ecology, and the Internet has proven to be a useful source of taxonomic information, especially the ever-reliable TIGR Reptile Database, which has a slender but very useful reference at the end.

Collins Field Guide: Reptiles & Amphibians of Britain & Europe, E N Arnold, J A Burton and D W Ovenden, HarperCollins, 2nd edition 2002. Follows the fairly conservative approach I have adopted here, ie most of the lacertids are still Lacerta or Podarcis.

Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa, Bill Branch, Struik, Cape Town 1998.

PraxisRatgeber: Eidechsen, Manfred Rogner, Edition Chimaira 2002, Frankfurt am Main. This German-language book is so far the only one I know that is dedicated to the Lacertidae, including their husbandry and breeding. It covers all the genera, although some (notably the Africans) are discussed fairly generally and briefly. The major European species are well covered and a bonus is a listing of each genus and species at the back of the book. Hopefully the publishers will produce an English translation soon.


A-Z of Lizard Care
, Bartlett & Bartlett, Barrons, 1995. Good but brief sections on a few Lacerta lizards.


Keeping and Breeding Lizards, Mattison, Blandford 1996. A good chapter on the entire Lacertidae family that covers many of the lizards, even some not normally seen in captivity.


Echsen [Lizards] Vol 2, Rogner, Ullmer Verlag, 1992. Usually a very good source of information, although it has been pointed out to me by one source in at least one section there was a "theoretical" guess as to the captive requirements of a particular species that is in reality very hard to keep alive.


Animal Life Encyclopedia Volume 6: Reptiles, Grzimek,1975.

Links

www.lacerta.de is an excellent site, the chief drawback for English speakers being that it is in German.

The Lacertidae page of the JCVI reptile database contains a good summary, a phylogeny and a bibliography. I am indebted to the database for some of the information on this page concerning recent taxonomic changes.

 

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