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What are those colorful lizards called?

What are those colorful lizards called?

The colorful lizards you often see scurrying across rocks or soaking up the sun are likely anoles (pronounced “uh-NO-lees”). Anoles are a diverse group of small lizards found throughout the Americas and Caribbean islands. With over 400 species, anoles come in a spectacular array of colors and have the ability to change color. This article will provide a quick overview of these fascinating lizards, including their appearance, habitat, behavior, diet, and taxonomy.

Appearance and Color Change

Anoles are characterized by their slender bodies, long tails, enlarged toepads, and chameleonic color changing abilities. Most species are 2.5-8 inches in length from snout to tail tip. The base color of an anole can range from green, brown, gray, or bronze with stripes, spots, or bars in hues of white, yellow, orange, blue, or black.

One of the most distinctive features of anoles is their ability to change color. Anoles have specialized skin cells called chromatophores that contain pigments of red, orange, yellow, brown, green, blue, or black. By dispersing or concentrating these pigments within the chromatophores, anoles can alter their appearance to blend in with their surroundings as camouflage or communicate with other lizards. For example, anoles will typically appear bright green when active but quickly turn brown when resting. Males also exhibit more vivid colors when displaying to other males or courting females.


Anoles are native to warm, tropical environments throughout Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and southern Florida in the United States. They occupy a variety of habitats including forests, grasslands, bushes, trees, and even urban areas.

Most species of anoles are arboreal, meaning they spend the majority of their time off the ground amid branches and leaves. Anoles have specialized toepads on their feet that allow them to cling to and run across slick surfaces. The arboreal habitat provides good cover from predators and plenty of insects to eat. Some species have adapted to live on twigs, tree trunks, rocks, walls, or the ground. Anoles enjoy basking in sunny spots and many species live along the shoreline.


Anoles are active, territorial lizards with intricate social behaviors. They are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and sleep at night. Males in particular are highly territorial and engage in elaborate displays to defend their domain and court females.

When patrolling their territory, male anoles will frequently do “push ups” and head-bobs to show dominance and warn off intruders. If an intruding male doesn’t retreat, the resident male may respond with aggressive throat displays, chasing, and even physical combat.

During mating season, males will put on an elaborate courtship display to attract females which includes extension of a colorful throat fan (dewlap), motions with the head and forelimbs, and rapid color changes. After mating, females lay one egg every 7-10 days, burying them in moist soil or hiding them in vegetation.


Anoles are predominantly insectivores, feeding on live insects and other small invertebrates. With their excellent vision, anoles locate prey against bark and foliage then capture it with quick strikes of their sticky tongues which they can shoot out up to two body lengths.

Some of their frequent prey items include crickets, grasshoppers, flies, butterflies, caterpillars, spiders, roaches, termites, ants, beetles, and millipedes. Anoles will additionally consume flower nectar, fruits, pollen, and small amounts of vegetation.


Here is an overview of anole taxonomy and classification:

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Reptilia
Order Squamata
Suborder Lacertilla
Infraorder Iguania
Family Dactyloidae
Genus Anolis

Anoles belong to the genus Anolis within the family Dactyloidae. There are eight recognized subgenera and over 400 described species, with many yet to be named. Some of the most common anole species kept as pets or found in the southern United States include:

  • Green anole (Anolis carolinensis)
  • Brown anole (Anolis sagrei)
  • Knight anole (Anolis equestris)
  • Puerto Rican crested anole (Anolis cristatellus)
  • Barbados anole (Anolis extremus)
  • Jamaican giant anole (Anolis garmani)

Key Traits of Anoles

To summarize, here are some of the key identifying traits and behaviors of anoles:

  • Slender bodies with long tails
  • Adhesive toepads for climbing
  • Colorful patterns in greens, browns, grays, etc.
  • Ability to rapidly change color
  • Diurnal and active foragers
  • Mainly insects and small invertebrates
  • Territorial, especially males
  • Complex mating displays
  • Good climbers but can live in variety of habitats
  • Mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions


Anoles are diverse, colorful lizards with fascinating behaviors and adaptations. Their sticky-padded feet allow them to navigate branches with ease, while their color-changing skin helps them camouflage and communicate. Although they may look delicate, anoles are active, territorial predators feeding mainly on insects and invertebrates. With over 400 described species, there are myriad anoles still waiting to be discovered and named by scientists. Next time you see a cute little lizard scurrying by, it just may be one of the spectacular and variable anoles.