Lizards (Suborder: Sauria)
Lizards are the largest group of reptiles in the world with more than 7000 known species found almost everywhere on the planet except the coldest parts. They vary in size from 1.5 centimetres (a gecko) to 3.2 meters (the Komodo dragon).
With snakes, they belong to the order Squamata (which means “endowed with scales”). Unlike snakes, most lizard species have limbs, external ears and mobile eyelids. However, evolution is tricky, since several clades (branches on the tree of evolution) of lizards reduced or lost their limbs, and even their eyes (see below) as an adaptation to the underground habitat, erasing main differences with snakes.
Lizards can be carnivores (mostly insectivores), herbivores and omnivores. Some species reproduce by laying eggs – they are oviparous, while others give birth to live young – they are viviparous.
Lizards of Lebanon
Due to its unique variety of habitats within a small region, and its warm Mediterranean climate, Lebanon is home to 22 recorded species of lizards until this day (with a few more, unclear records, still to be confirmed). Five of them are considered threatened on the IUCN Red List. Lebanese lizards belong to eight different families: mainly Lacertidae and Scincidae, but also Gekkonidae and Phyllodactylidae, Agamidae, Chamaeleonidae, Anguidae, and Blanidae. All of the lizards in Lebanon are diurnal (active during the day) except the Geckos (Family: Gekkonidae and Phyllodactylidae) which are nocturnal.
This is the family of “true lizards,” the paradigmatic ones. To this family belong the lizards that adapted to the human habitat and can be easily observed. Seven species are found in Lebanon, three of which are endangered (including one endemic).
The Lacertidae family includes three common widely distributed species: Lebanon Lizard (Phoenicolacerta laevis), Snake-eyed Lizard (Ophisops elegans) and the biggest local species of the family, the Levant Green Lizard (Lacerta media).
The Small-scaled Desert Lizard (Mesalina microlepis) is a semi-desert restricted species.
© Ramy Khashab
One of the endangered species is the Schreiber Fringe-fingered Lizard (Acanthodactylus schreiberi) that inhabits sandy beaches and is threatened by habitat loss.
© Ramy Khashab
The other two endangered lacertids are the Kulzer’s Lizard (Phoenicolacerta kulzeri) and the endemic (found only in Lebanon) Fraa’s Lizard (Parvilacerta fraasi) both of which inhabit rocky habitats in high altitudes.
The family of skinks is generally recognized by their very short neck, small limbs and smooth shiny scales (with some exceptions) that support their semi-fossorial lifestyle (they partially live underground). Six species of this family are currently recognized for Lebanon, one of which is threatened.
This family includes the smallest two reptile species of Lebanon, the Rueppel’s Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus rueppellii) and the Budak’s Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus budaki), both of which do not exceed 5 cm in length, with a long tail proportionally to the body.
The Scincidae family also includes one of the biggest, most vibrant lizard species in Lebanon, the Schneider’s Skink (Eumeces schneideri). It has specialized scales covering its ears to protect them from sand while burrowing.
© Ramy Khashab
The most common and widely spread reptile species, the Bridled Skink (Heremites vittatus / previously Trachylepsis vittata) belongs to the skink family. This skink is around 20 cm long. It can be observed as well on the sandy beaches of Tyr as on the upper mountains, like Mount Sannine or Barouk Mountain. Its reproduction cycle was surveyed by Fida Nassar and Souad Hraoui-Bloquet who monitored the male seasonal testicular cycle. They could observe that males emerge from hibernation in March, then their testes show active spermiogenesis in April, exactly when females emerge from hibernation, which results in synchronous active spermiogenesis and mating period. Then, males’ testes regress in volume beginning from July.
The remaining two species are the uncommon Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) and its limbless cousin species the Gunther’s Cylindrical Skink (Chalcides guentheri) which is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List.
Family: Gekkonidae and Phyllodactylidae
Geckos are mainly nocturnal species of relatively small lizards. Many of are capable of vocalization (squeaky sounds). Lebanon is home to four species of geckos belonging to two different families: Gekkonidae and Phyllodactylidae.
Among the Phyllodactylidae family, only one species is properly recorded locally until today, the Levant Fan-fingered Gecko (Ptyodactylus puiseuxi), which is the biggest gecko species in Lebanon easily recognizable by its adhesive fingertips.
© Ramy Khashab
The most common species of the Gekkonidae family is the Turkish House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) which often shares homes with humans and plays a great role as a natural pest control.
© Ramy Khashab
The remaining two species are the common Mediterranean Thin-toed Gecko (Mediodactylus orientalis), and the endangered Lebanese Thin-toed Gecko (Mediodactylus amictopholis) endemic to Mount Hermon and a few high localities in Mount Lebanon.
Agamidae are characterized by their tanky build, rough scales and relatively long legs. Lebanon is home to two species of this family.
The bigger, and the more common of both is the Egyptian Rock Agama (Laudakia vulgaris). It can be found in almost any type of habitats all over Lebanon and vary in colors from one locality to another.
Couple © Ramy Khashab
The second species, the Horny-scaled Ground Agama (Trapelus ruderatus), is restricted to the semi-desert region of Lebanon. It is a small species that spends most of its time between shrubs and rocks to avoid the heat.
© Ramy Khashab
Only one species of this family is present in Lebanon which is the Common Chameleon, also known as the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon). Like all other chameleons it is mainly a tree dwelling species with the ability to change its color based its surrounding (light, threats…). They are easy to recognize by their laterally compressed bodies, a relatively large head with eyes that move independently from one another, and a tail that is used as an extra arm. Chameleons catch insect prey with their long sticky tongue. The local species is widely distributed in Lebanon and often seen in agricultural lands such as olive orchards.
Anguidae is a family of limbless lizards that are often mistaken for snakes. Unlike snakes these lizards have external ears, eyelids, and they lack the flexible jaw snakes possess. The largest legless lizard species in the world reaching 1.5 meters in length. Despite their size and alien appearance legless lizards are completely harmless and feeds mainly on snails and slugs. A single species of this family is found in Lebanon, the European Glass Lizard, also know as Sheltopusik (Pseudopus apodus).
Alexander’s Worm Lizard (Blanus alexandri) is the only species of the family found in Lebanon. Like all other Worm Lizard species, it is adapted to a fossorial (subterranean) lifestyle. It is characterized by its vestigial (rudimentary) eyes, lack of limbs, and a thick head made for moving and digging underground.
A Diversity of feet forms
Lizards walk in a very particular way: they move forward opposite front and hind leg, which makes the body move in a crawling movement of the body. Some lizards developed a entire crawling way of moving. It resulted in the uselessness of the limbs, which almost disappeared. Among Lizard order, limbs have been lost or reduced independently over two dozen times across lizard evolution, initiating a convergent evolution toward the snake form.
Another evolution of the lizard limbs is there adaptation to adhere to surfaces. Three lineages, the geckos, chameleons, and anoles (not found in Lebanon) have modified the scales under their toes to form adhesive pads, highly prominent in the first two groups. The pads are composed of millions of tiny setae (hair-like structures) which fit closely to the substrate to adhere using van der Waals forces. And lizard limbs got also adapted to different surfaces. The toes of agamas developed strong claws which grip on rocks, the toes of chameleons are divided into two opposed groups on each foot (zygodactyly), enabling them to perch on branches as birds do.
Hraoui-Bloquet, Souad, Sadek, Riyad, Sindaco, Roberto, Venchi, Alberto, “The Herpetofauna of Lebanon new data on distribution,” in Zoology in the Middle-East, 27 (2002), p. 35-46