Have You Seen Anoles Play Dead?

Baby Anolis distichus playing dead. See comment by Hispanioland.

John Phillips and Kirsten Nicholson report in Herpetological Review (42:426-427) observations on A. laeviventris and A. cupreus. To wit: “Upon capture, the individuals struggled to escape the grasp of one of the authors (JGP), and then suddenly went limp without further pressure being applied. In this state, both individuals exhibited the same body position: jaw wide open, dewlap extended, hind legs out, forelegs bent in over the venter….but when the grip was loosened, the individuals immediately sprung to life and escaped.”

The authors note that similar behavior has been recorded in several other species. Any one else seen this? Is it a widespread, but under-reported, natural behavior of anoles?

About Jonathan Losos

Professor and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. I've spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don't know.

15 thoughts on “Have You Seen Anoles Play Dead?

  1. This is a photo (at top of post) I took several years ago at home (Bani) of a juvenile A. distichus. The cat had taken its tail, but it was still alive with no other injury, so when I grabbed it I put it upside down and it stayed like this for quite some time. I don’t know if you can count that as its natural reaction trick since I placed it that way for the photo. If you put your finger in their throat and press gently, they will often do this.

  2. I observe this behavior fairly commonly when working with juveniles in our colony. Previously I had thought of it as a stress response because the anoles often “play dead” after receiving an injection or being manipulated. Simply moving them between cages or sexing them rarely elicits this response in my experience. Off the top of my head I would say that the juveniles would stay in this limp position for two to five minutes before moving again, just enough time for my to get worried.

  3. I saw this in A. longitibialis in Jaragua National Park. We had two adult males noosed and were trying to collect data for both of them. They couldn’t reach each other, but could see each other. The bigger one made a move to try to get at the smaller one, which then flipped onto its back and stayed like that for a while. When we removed the bigger male, the littler one eventually flipped back over, as though nothing had happened.

  4. I’ve never seen this in Anolis, but it’s not exactly rare in order Squamata. I’ve even had Teratoscincus scincus that played dead when either challenged for a mate or aggravated.

  5. In captivity some species do that to. Very young juveniles of Anolis barbouri and Anolis o. winstoni played dead while capturing them. They freeze for some secondes to 5 minutes. Actually, one never woke up! While playing dead they were in the fetal position.

  6. The first post in this discussion referenced open-mouth “dead” anoles, but the picture has a closed mouth anole. What have most people seen in this respect? Does the open mouth seem to be an aberration or a widespread part of the playing-dead behavior?

  7. Mine did it this morning, she was on the wall, I went upstairs to get ready for work, came back down, looked in and there she was. Looked like she fell off the wall into the food dish dead. Laying on its side, head over the food dish. I was so upset. Right before I left, I came in to take a picture, and there she was looking at me………I would’ve bet $100 she was dead.

    1. Oh my lord!
      My basilisk lizard did this to me last Friday night. My boyfriend and I were getting ready to bury him and I was crying!
      I came back to the terrarium and saw that his head was now ABOVE water when we left, his head was BELOW water. (They can hold their breath 30 minutes.
      I picked him up and he was stiff and has never let me touch him before without wildly flinging around.
      He was stiff—then all of a sudden he jumped out of my hands and ran on two legs to the kitchen. Caught the bugger and am still mad at him! 😉
      Looked up lizards playing dead and found this thread.

      Can’t find any instances of basilisck lizards playing dead yet though.

  8. My young brown anole did this behavior a few days ago while cleaning out his cage. It scared me. He flipped over with his mouth wide open for long enough to get me worried. Then he jumped up with no problem.

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