Reflections on the Shape of Lizard Eggs and Life

Elsewhere on Anole Annals, Silas Ginn responsed to a question about what shape anole eggs have. I believe his response deserves a wider audience and so am putting it up here as its own post:

Indeed, anole eggs are long and skinny when they’re laid. But due to their leathery flexible skin, they can expand like a balloon and will grow with age and moisture. I’ve only got experience with Knight anoles, green anoles and probably four or five types of different brown anoles, but they’re all about the same – except that the Knight anoles HATCH at the same size as a green or brown anole.

As for hatchlings of green or browns, they’re so tiny it’s just remarkable! My old workplace was “infested” with a few species of geckoes (in Calgary Alberta, Canada – of all places!) and the baby geckoes popped up all over the place, especially in the filing cabinets where they obviously preferred to lay their eggs between pieces of paper, due to their being hidden & protected so well.

But yeah, at one point I brought in some house-plants – this was a huge ware-house complex where we ran an aquarium fish and reptile importer supplying Western Canada’s pet-shops, plus an outlet to the public, and a custom tank building shop in the back, quite a lot of space and amounting to more than 700 aquariums all told – and the whole place with 35-40ft ceilings and kept at upwards of 30-degrees Celcius all of the time, naturally humidity was such that it actually RAINED inside of the place on a regular basis – a problem in that it brought down the decades-old asbestos spray-on fire retardant insulation material from the ceilings – but we had some very nice sky-lights as well, if it had been kept up better it would’ve made a fantastic space well I mean really fantastic ’cause I loved it even WITH the dust and cockroaches ha-ha.

ANYWAY yeah I brought in some house-plants to liven the place up – should’ve left ’em when I moved on, ’cause they’ve all died since. There was a huge Munstera deliciosa “swiss-cheese plant” which I potted up on top of overhead wooden beams that had been there for decades, as some type of over-head system for a belt-driven power supply back when it was a SWEAT SHOP and then a SLAUGHTER HOUSE for chickens, yuck – we kept the beams for our water supply and oxygen for bagging fish, plus running heated/de-gassed tank-change water, and a master air-line gang-way for running hundreds of little valves off of for all of the little bubblers etc.

But yeah what I did with it MYSELF, was to support some house plants. And this one Munstera got HUGE – it sent out aerial roots, if you know Munstera you know the type I mean – but THESE ones got long enough that not only did they hang down the nine-ten feet to drink from a puddle on the ground beneath it (how did it know there was a puddle there?) which pooled on the polished concrete floor, from leaking tanks, over-spills from the automated tank over-flow water-change system (tanks were individual, and what looked like the typical system where everything’s on a loop, was simply a fill line from huge tanks in the back, run with big pumps only during water changes, and the over-flow went directly to the drains. Which were typically blocked up and one such drain which had been permanently blocked by our swimming-pool canister type “Sand-Filter” from our Koi pond system (several ponds ganged together on one filter) had a huge cray-fish living at the bottom of it, as though the building itself were a concrete island with a lake or ocean below it, and drain pipes more like tunnels carved by urchins or other such burrowing creatures … such was the ecosystem of the place!)

Anyway yeah, that Munstera plant threw out aerial roots that first reached the puddle on the floor, but then I began to wrap ’em around the wooden beams to keep ’em out of the way, and they kept growing down and down – once they’d got a taste of the mineral-rich water down at the bottom there was no stopping ’em! And I kept looping ’em over and over, they kept growing until this became a semi-daily task, where the roots would grow more than ten inches in one night! INSANE house-plants.

But the best of ’em all, was a 30ft Ficus tree. I had been keeping my Knight anoles in ficus trees from the very beginning, and they’d laid their eggs in the pot at the bottom, whereupon they hatched out better than any other time when I tried to incubate ’em artificially. The plant itself came via my then-Girlfriend, who was a horticulturist who worked at the zoo, but in the winter season worked with companies who supplied and maintained house-plants in offices and public spaces all over the city. Which was really neat ’cause I was maintaining and installing big fish-tanks and ponds all over the place, and every now and again we’d bump into each other entirely by chance. (AND we had keys to the janitors’ closets no less – Hubba-hubba!)

SO – yes. She had a line on these un-wanted freshly imported Ficus trees – and I mean trees meaning trunks as thick as a man’s leg. BEAUTIFUL trees. I guess somebody had ordered too many. Just to get rid of ’em, the plant people were selling ’em off for fifty-bucks each, so I set up a few friends with ’em, but only a few friends had high ceilings. It’s too bad I couldn’t convince my bosses to buy up the whole lot, ’cause the ONE that I got was such a beautiful focal point. They said “we don’t sell plants” but MY response to that was “Well WHY NOT?” Ha-ha. I mean, we sold extensive selection of aquatic plants, we set people up with terrariums, we had sky-lights and a ton of stray light leaking from flourescents and metal-halide etc tank lighting – a HUGE warehouse complex with several wings to it, perfect temperatures and humidity – I don’t see why we COULDN’T sell house-plants out of that place. BAH! If it were MY shop, everything would’ve been better. But then, I might never have escaped!

So yeah – at some point, some green and brown anoles got into the big Ficus tree (SOMEHOW….) This was only after I’d given my Knight anoles some free time in it, but then kinda panicked when I realized what a hard time it was to get ’em back out, and how easily they could’ve fallen into a fishtank, or been stolen by members of the public who’d been known to steal lizards from the place in the past – I was breeding several pairs of Anolis equestris at home at this point and my “Blue Phase” babies were well known to the city, (I had several lines breeding true, with normal green babies, blue-phase babies which had grown up to enormous healthy adults and then bred back to the green strain and progeny came out blue half of the time, plus some very bright almost yellow phase animals which I called Chartreuse after the female pet they came from – none of this was dietary or environmental, none of it was random, it was genetic ’cause they ALL ate the same and lived in the same rooms & plants & lighting etc – with due care to keep the MALES separate of course) So yeah, a few of ’em had a little “vacation” up in that tree, & people came from all over just to see ’em in the shop, ’cause I was careful never to let the public know where I lived – there had been break-ins and thefts etc.

Anyway yeah, I had ’em there at the shop for a brief time, but then thought better of it, and the tree became ripe habitat for whatever green & brown anoles just “happened” to find their way into it! And it wasn’t very long after that, we began to find a whole lot of little tiny green or brown babies hanging around the lower branches. In hindsight, if they were all kept very fat and well fed, I bet it would’ve been possible to keep several species in the one tree all together at once.

So let’s say you had a spiral staircase in your home, and it wrapped around the tree on three sides – perhaps even some simple scaffolding could be erected, or a fire-escape type staircase – and one were to feed the biggest species such as Anolis equestris with chop-sticks and dead baby mice, as I had done with several of my pairs. Then the Anolis garmani Jamaican anoles that my buddy had could be fed similarly on grubs or some such – I like to use parrot feeding dishes for mealworms and stuff like that. Maybe keep a whole bunch of flies hatching out of similar containers – maggots from fish-bait shops are always a good standby when you’ve got fully enclosed terrariums with window screen & acrylic all around. I guess you’d have to put up with house-flies if you wanted to supply ’em to the anoles like this, but of course such a house-hold would have a ton of loose geckoes and finches flying all over, like my first “wife” and I used to have (just don’t keep TOKAY geckoes on the loose when you’re trying to breed finches, ’cause they’ll break into the cages and steal the babies from their nests!)

But yeah what I’m getting at, is it’s possible to imagine all those species of anoles living peaceably up in one tree, just keeping to their own heights, their own levels. Of course, they’d have to be REALLY well fed! I’ve kept ’em with similarly-sized animals, and my first baby knight anole lived variously with leopard geckoes, tokays, Madagascar day-geckoes (both the usual common type AND the more rare P.m. madagascarensis, with the lesser red colouring but with the addition of a blueish greyish cast/sheen to the midsection – reminds me of the colouring on the Mealy Amazon Parrot who ALSO lived with those animals, my beloved MAX … okay now I’m gonna go and cry! Two divorces, only one thing harder than leaving the parrot behind in the first, was leaving my Ex-Daughter behind in the second. There was a dog, too – in each case. But even that doesn’t compare to the parrot!) several other small to mid-sized lizards sheesh it’s too long a list to compile, especially considering how we took in unwanted animals & found ’em homes, plus sometimes imported shipments of reptiles at work brought in heavily gravid female chamaeleons which due to the abuse of capture & travel simply needed a comfortable place to quietly DIE…. GAWD what a horrible business it all is. Even the captive breeding can turn out horribly wrong, like a puppy mill without the hair but somehow still all of the shit-encrusted MATTS….

Ugh. Anyway yeah, the anoles were always good and peaceful with similarly sized animals … with the exception of that half-grown first baby Knight anole mistaking a fat leopard gecko tail for one enormous GRUB of some sort. Can’t imagine the size of the MOTH which it would’ve turned out to be ha-ha. One rather large leopard gecko tail alright. I guess she only took the tip off of it.

The stick in the spokes of this whole idea, is that the anoles would all have to come down to ground level to bury their eggs in the plant pot. Then climb back to the top again – usually with the male watching their every move, presumably so she wouldn’t mate with another male when he looked away. Certain pairs seemed monogamous. Males uninterested in other females. In those couples where the male did “stray”, the females seemed quite miffed about it.

Something else which I’ve never read about elsewhere, was the hatchlings making a “pip … pip” vocalization, which their brought the sudden attention of their parents who would listened intently, almost like crocodiles or something. I imagine that when you’re talking about the SMALLER anoles, this sound is so inaudible that nobody’s ever noticed it before – it was barely audible in complete silence when it came from six/seven-inch-long Knight anole hatchlings. And after witnessing that, I even let the parents spend time in direct contact with the freshly hatched neonates, and they were very gentle with them certainly not cannibalistic by any stretch. I think this was because they knew who laid the eggs and where they were laid, watching the spot etc – I guess I saw some instances of cannibalism between siblings, but I suspect that in their natural habitat the parents would at least be non-predatory toward their own young, if not outright protective.

HA-HA – I just remembered that you had asked one very simple question and I haven’t really answered it properly! Yes, the eggs of all anoles species which I know of are long and thin and leathery upon being laid – because the females do indeed have a very narrow pelvis. When the eggs are in moist soil – and I must add that the females are VERY careful in laying their eggs, to ascertain that the yolk is on the bottom of the egg, they spend a long time in the egg’s “nest” burrow, poking their nose into the flexible egg shell presumably to feel where the egg is more dense etc, and they will roll it around to the correct position. Where birds will roll their eggs around in the nest, it’s important to mark reptile eggs for the position they’re found, to keep the top of the egg upright oftentimes we will mark the egg with a felt pen – though I question the wisdom of that when that poisonous ink is likely to leach solvents in through the shell….

But they DO take on water and expand, which can be a problem if they’re TOO moist they’ll actually swell so large that the shell will split prematurely and the undeveloped baby lizard will die in the shell. Sure would be nice to find some type of antibiotic & antifungal spray or such-not, to treat the surrounding soil, to treat the egg itself, and hope that it will continue developing.

Suffice it to say that I’d have had a LOT more baby anoles if I had just left ’em in the pot of the 8ft ficus tree where I kept my first pair. Due to living way up North, and keeping ’em in a room without windows and artificial lighting through the whole winter, one of my females kept laying eggs through the normal summer breeding season and on through the following winter, until even with calcium supplements her bones became brittle and a short fall from her perch broke her back. (Whereupon I kept her alive until the following winter, carrying her everywhere she needed to go, spoon feeding her etc – until one night she’d deteriorated somewhat I carried her inside my coat and shirt, up to the top of a very very high poplar tree in the park, and brought her out into the cold air so she could expire. Probably more than fifty feet up in the air, it was a truly huge tree.)

And her mate kept watch over her the whole time – until my sister snuck into my room to use the ‘phone and left my door unlocked, and a CAT got in and killed him – I presume he protected his mate too, ’cause she was in a place where the cat could’ve caught her, and he could easily have climbed right up near the ceiling to safety. He truly loved his mate – you could see his eyes, the pupils contracting and dilating rapidly, just like with Max the parrot “love is in the eyes” so to speak)

AHEM yes – if I hadn’t tried to artificially incubate all of those eggs that I found, if they’d been left to the “mother knows best” logic which worked out with her first few babies – every one of something like fifty eggs artificially incubated under every feasible method known at that time, and NONE of ’em worked out, only the ones in the natural plant soil. But keeping in mind, this was a rather large dense Ficus benjamina plant, with a pot at the bottom with at the very least five gallons of soil in it, in addition to roots etc – I think this was instrumental to keeping the soil conditions very steady. I also watered the pot from the bottom, rather than pouring it over the roots, and had conditioned the plant to long intervals between waterings. Any smaller of a Ficus plant, or more to the point plant pot, and it might not have worked out at all.

But what was really interesting, was how the female anole laid all of those eggs together in very close proximity without disturbing the others. I found ’em all in a SPIRAL – first the hatched-out egg from the baby I discovered without even realizing they’d been breeding – then next to it a nearly hatched egg, and the next slightly less developed – in a spiral around the roots of the tree she had laid them out clockwise, each laid only a couple of inches from the last, and each buried a good five-six inches deep at that, it’s remarkable that in digging all of those nests she must’ve turned over the entire pot worth of soil, but without disturbing prior egg layings because she came within an inch or two but no closer. I wonder whether she felt the soil conditions, or marked the spot where the last was laid, or watched the spot the entire time without looking away, OR simply from memory? With a pattern which we later observed wherein she laid one egg every two weeks, sometimes two at a time but only rarely, that spiral pattern of nests added up to around a year’s worth of eggs.

Heck this is remembering back some 25yrs for me, so hard to recall specific numbers, but I’m pretty sure there were something like three dozen eggs found in that pot? I don’t think I even have the notes anymore, due to a house-fire several years back. But yes – if this were my plan, to breed anoles once again, of ANY species – I’d keep ’em in a tree & let ’em lay eggs in a pot – without disturbing eggs for incubation of any sort.

It would be very interesting to bring in some new anoles to captivity, and I’m specifically interested in the bigger types. But I think I’d rather find some way to ride my motorcycle throughout the Caribbean – especially Cuba, being that this is where all of the species reside. I wonder whether some sort of FERRYBOAT service might open up between Cuba and the States some day? Well, a boat from Mexico is probably a reality, though I doubt it’s any kind of ride-on/ride-off ferry.

But yeah either way, THAT’S how I wish to see animals now. In the WILD. Not that I ever wish to fly on an airplane ever again. Simply because of the carbon-footprint. One has to wonder what the numbers are really like, but I SUSPECT that I could ride the bike from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego & back, without burning through as much gas, as the equivalent to one airline passenger’s share of the fuel it takes to fly from Canada to Cuba & back for one single two-week holiday.

I dunno how much TIME I’d be allowed for a trip like that, but the whole point would be to take it slow, and wherever one finds some tall trees & ripe anole habitat, to bring out a rope & belay equipment, yank oneself up to the treetops, and commune with the wild anoles for a good photo opportunity each and every day. I’d love to hop around to ALL of the islands – there’s that wonderful book “Caribbean Anoles” maps out some very interesting and beautiful species – but the majority of ’em are on CUBA so that would be destination number one!

Well – PERHAPS it would be worthwhile to bring some new species into captivity. But only if it’s worthwhile from the animals’ perspective as well. And that’s so hard to control. Any worthwhile captive breeding effort with the LARGER species would have to involve several interested parties, ’cause you’d need several pairs just to get off the ground, and each pair needs a lot of space! Perhaps the smaller animals then? Sooo much easier to keep ’em happy in captivity. One has to wonder – perhaps with a really good sound-stage, one might record the “pips” of a hatchling less than an inch long…….


Want more? Check out Silas’ latest commentary.

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.

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