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The photo shows a green lizard with its tail curled like a snail shell. The lizard has two horns and matches the leaves of the plant on which it sits.
A chameleon. This Jackson’s chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii) blends in with its surroundings. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The Squamata (“scaly or having scales”) arose in the late Permian, and extant species include lizards and snakes. Both are found on all continents except Antarctica. Lizards and snakes are most closely related to tuataras, both groups having evolved from a lepidosaurian ancestor. Squamata is the largest extant clade of reptiles.

Most lizards differ from snakes by having four limbs, although these have often been lost or significantly reduced in at least 60 lineages. Snakes lack eyelids and external ears, which are both present in lizards. There are about 6,000 species of lizards, ranging in size from tiny chameleons and geckos, some of which are only a few centimeters in length, to the Komodo dragon, which is about 3 meters in length.

Some lizards are extravagantly decorated with spines, crests, and frills, and many are brightly colored. Some lizards, like chameleons, can change their skin color by redistributing pigment within chromatophores in their skins. Chameleons change color both for camouflage and for social signaling. Lizards have multiple-colored oil droplets in their retinal cells that give them a good range of color vision. Lizards, unlike snakes, can focus their eyes by changing the shape of the lens. The eyes of chameleons can move independently. Several species of lizards have a “hidden” parietal eye, similar to that in the tuatara. Both lizards and snakes use their tongues to sample the environment and a pit in the roof of the mouth, Jacobson’s organ, is used to evaluate the collected sample.

Most lizards are carnivorous, but some large species, such as iguanas, are herbivores. Some predatory lizards are ambush predators, waiting quietly until their prey is close enough for a quick grab. Others are patient foragers, moving slowly through their environment to detect possible prey. Lizard tongues are long and sticky and can be extended at high speed for capturing insects or other small prey. Traditionally, the only venomous lizards are the Gila monster and the beaded lizard. However, venom glands have also been identified in several species of monitors and iguanids, but the venom is not injected directly and should probably be regarded as a toxin delivered with the bite.

Specialized features of the jaw are related to adaptations for feeding that have evolved to feed on relatively large prey (even though some current species have reversed this trend). Snakes are thought to have descended from either burrowing or aquatic lizards over 100 million years ago. They include about 3,600 species, ranging in size from 10 centimeter-long thread snakes to 10 meter-long pythons and anacondas. All snakes are legless, except for boids (e.g., boa constrictors), which have vestigial hindlimbs in the form of pelvic spurs. Like caecilian amphibians, the narrow bodies of most snakes have only a single functional lung. All snakes are carnivorous and eat small animals, birds, eggs, fish, and insects.

The photo shows a snake with orange and black bands and white stripes.
A nonvenomous snake. The garter snake belongs to the genus Thamnophis, the most widely distributed reptile genus in North America. (credit: Steve Jurvetson)

Most snakes have a skull that is very flexible, involving eight rotational joints. They also differ from other squamates by having mandibles (lower jaws) without either bony or ligamentous attachment anteriorly. Having this connection via skin and muscle allows for great dynamic expansion of the gape and independent motion of the two sides—both advantages in swallowing big prey. Most snakes are nonvenomous and simply swallow their prey alive, or subdue it by constriction before swallowing it. Venomous snakes use their venom both to kill or immobilize their prey, and to help digest it.

Although snakes have no eyelids, their eyes are protected with a transparent scale. Their retinas have both rods and cones, and like many animals, they do not have receptor pigments for red light. Some species, however, can see in the ultraviolet, which allows them to track ultraviolet signals in rodent trails. Snakes adjust focus by moving their heads. They have lost both external and middle ears, although their inner ears are sensitive to ground vibrations. Snakes have a number of sensory structures that assist in tracking prey. In pit vipers, like rattlesnakes, a sensory pit between the eye and nostrils is sensitive to infrared (“heat”) emissions from warm-blooded prey. A row of similar pits is located on the upper lip of boids. As noted above, snakes also use Jacobson’s organ for detecting olfactory signals.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e