All that’s missing is the electric-blue fire breath and a ring of flattened skyscrapers.

Fortunately, the Philippine sailfin lizard is only as long as your leg and prefers munching leaves, fish, crustaceans and insects to people, but it can make a swift getaway in water like its enormous blockbuster lookalike. So it’s no surprise its Latin moniker is “hydrosaurus”!

Exit with a splash

When you live in mangrove swamps or along coastal rivers, it’s not only land predators on your tail. It could be eagles from above, or fish and other reptiles from below, but the sailfin covers both bases. If it’s basking on vegetation over water and talons come aswooping, it can drop off and swim away, even staying submerged for up to 15 minutes. It’s not just an awesome swimmer either: if ambushed in the water, it can also sprint on it.

River runner

It does this with the aid of its flat and fringed toes and a “slap, stroke and recovery” method. The downward “slap”of its feet creates an upward air pocket; the “stroke” kicks backwards creating forward momentum; and “recovery” is when it lifts its feet to start the cycle again. As long as it keeps up speed and stays upright, it can clear short distances before physics clears its throat. Of course, it’s only the smaller and lighter juveniles who can pull this off. And there’s a lot of them about, as it happens.

The only teens not on social media?

Although the Philippines’ 2001 Wildlife Act protects native and non-native species from trade, the Philippine sailfin lizard is still taken from the wild, usually as a hatchling. A study in 2014 found that, as a result, most native wild populations were juveniles.

Things weren’t great three years later either, when Canlas et al. studied animal trafficking via Facebook, and yes, this is a thing that happens. When tracking 20 local Facebook groups for just 22 days, they found 14 Philippine sailfin lizards illegally offered for sale, at just PHP1,000(£15/USD20) each.

You couldn’t even buy a decent drawing for that.

Worse still, only 5.7% of the sailfin’s suitable habitat is protected in the Philippines, dropping as low as 0.8% for any coastal areas, so habitat destruction such as logging, and capture for local food and the pet trade have driven it to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Maybe it’s time for it to use its third eye again?

Visually prepared

Believe it or not, as I mentioned earlier, the sailfin has a vestigial or “parietal” eye like a dot on top of its head, which is apparently sensitive to sunlight and might help it to navigate. If that wasn’t eye-catching enough (sorry), the males’ impressive rear- and tail-fins can reach 7cm (2.7inches) high, and their colouring becomes more purple as they age. Given that the females have a smaller dorsal fringe, the fins are probably for territorial or mating displays rather than cooling down, and this makes sense because females can lay a couple of clutches of eggs from a single mating. So every display counts!

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book, and just sit back and watch their awesomeness while keeping an eye on their numbers.


Latin: Hydrosaurus pustulatus

What? Semi-aquatic lizard that looks like a mini-Godzilla

Where? Clue’s in the name, but the Philippines, in mangrove forests or freshwater rivers near the coast

How big? 60-91 cm / 24-36 inches long

Endangered? Currently classed as Vulnerable due to habitat destruction, and being captured for food and the illegal pet trade.

Probable motto: Why have a glorious sail if you never go in the water?

They look awesome. Do they need my help at all?

There are no specific conservation drives for the sailfin, but Conservation International Philippines works to protect local ecosystems, endangered species and to tackle climate change.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Akpan, Nsikan. 2014. “Genetic forensics wakes a dragon“. Science.

Canlas, Cristine P. et al. 2017. “A rapid survey of online trade in live birds and reptiles in the Philippines“. TRAFFIC Bulletin 29(2):58-63.

Hydrosaurus pustulatus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Isaac, Norman. 2017. “Hail to the sailfin lizard“. AnimalScene.

Lizard, Philippine sailfin“. No date. Louisville Zoo.

Philippine sailfin lizard“. No date. Australian Reptile Park.

Philippine sailfin lizard“. No date. Oregon Zoo.

Siler, Cameron D. et al. 2014. “Conservation genetics of Australasian sailfin lizards: Flagship species threatened by coastal development and insufficient protected area coverage“. Biological Conservation 169(2014):100-108.

Uhlenbroek, Charlotte. 2008. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animal Life. Dorling Kindersley.

Featured image credit: “Sailfin lizard resting on rocks” by gregbrave , ©