Grass-loving lizard (Philochortus zolii)
|Size||Snout-vent length: up to 7.3 cm (2)|
- The grass-loving lizard is the most threatened reptile in Egypt.
- The grass-loving lizard has an extremely long tail, which it uses for balance when climbing.
- As its name suggests, the grass-loving lizard is dependent on grassy habitats. It is associated with only a few specific grass species.
- The grass-loving lizard has a highly restricted distribution, occurring in a total area of less than 100 square kilometres.
The grass-loving lizard is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The grass-loving lizard (Philochortus zolii) is the most threatened reptile in Egypt (2). It is a slender, medium-sized lizard, most easily identified by the alternating dark and sandy stripes running along the length of its body, and by its extremely long tail which is a striking red colour, particularly in young individuals (2) (3). The red of the tail becomes less distinctive with age (2).
The limbs of the grass-loving lizard are largely yellowish, but the long front limbs have a series of two or three plates edged with black. There is a wedge of exposed skin on the throat, and the irises are white (2).
The grass-loving lizard has often been confused with the closely related Philochortus intermedius (1).
The grass-loving lizard is found only in three isolated and widely separated locations in Libya and northern Egypt (1) (2). In Egypt, it appears to be restricted to just one small and extremely fragmented area of salt marshes in Wadi El Natrun (1) (2), while in Libya it is known only from the Oasis of Elbarkat, south of Ghat, and from western Cyrenaica (1).
As its name suggests, the grass-loving lizard prefers habitats with grassy vegetation. It is found in semi-desert on the margins of oases, where it is confined to areas of sandy soil with halfa grass (Desmostachya bipinnata) or sometimes Alhagi graecorum (1) (2). This species prefers low elevations, only being found at sea level and below (1) (2).
The grass-loving lizard is quite specialised in its habitat preferences, and shows very little capacity to adapt to cultivation or other habitat fluctuations (1) (2). It is seemingly dependent upon only a few very specific species of grass (2).
Like other members of the Lacertidae family, the grass-loving lizard is likely to be a carnivore and to hunt during the day (4). Lizards in this family are active foragers and use a combination of vision and scent to locate and catch insect prey (5).
An excellent climber, the grass-loving lizard uses its long tail for balance on the slender vegetation associated with its habitat. It also burrows in sandy soil under grass clumps, using its strong forelimbs in conjunction with backwards propulsion from the hind limbs to push the sand (2).
Little specific information is available on the breeding behaviour of the grass-loving lizard. Members of the Lacertidae family are not generally territorial, although territories may be established during the breeding season, with males perching on rocks or other such vantage points (4) (5). Male lacertids typically try to persuade females to mate, rather than using force, by using spasmodic push-up actions to display. Receptive females respond by nodding the head, which encourages the male to pursue the female further. The male continues the display intermittently while approaching the female, and may grasp the side of the female’s neck with his jaws during mating (4).
The grass-loving lizard is an egg-laying species (1). Although specific details of its clutches are not known, they may be similar to those of closely related species, which may have small clutches of four to eight eggs on average (4).
Some lacertid lizards are able to shed their tail if attacked by a predator, which may distract the predator long enough for the lizard to escape. Eventually, a new tail grows around the bud of the previous tail, although it is never as long as the original. Loss of part of the tail in this manner can impair a lizard’s ability to run, climb and balance (5).
The main threat to the grass-loving lizard is the loss of its very specific habitat due to agriculture and overgrazing (1). In Egypt, suitable habitat is declining in both area and quality, and this is also presumed to be the case in Libya. The rarity of the grass-loving lizard is also making it more attractive to animal collectors, and declines in its population can be partly attributed to collection for the pet trade as well as for scientific research (1) (2).
The grass-loving lizard is made particularly vulnerable to extinction due to its already highly restricted and fragmented distribution. Its global occurrence is estimated at less than 100 square kilometres, and there are fears that this species may already be extinct in Egypt (1).
The grass-loving lizard does not currently occur in any protected areas, so there is an urgent need to protect its habitat and to develop community-based protection measures (1) (2). An estimated one to five square kilometres of suitable habitat has been identified in Egypt, suggesting that there is hope for conservation efforts to protect the habitat there. Without any action, the grass-loving lizard is in imminent danger of extinction (3).
The situation of the grass-loving lizard is so dire that the species would benefit from ex-situ measures, collecting and propagating it in captivity to prevent its extinction while conservation measures are developed and implemented in the wild (1).
Data on the grass-loving lizard is scarce due to its sheer rarity. Undertaking more research into its biology, ecology, range and taxonomy will therefore be fundamental to implementing conservation strategies for this unique and poorly known reptile (1).
Find out more about the grass-loving lizard and other reptiles:
The Reptile Database:
More information on reptile conservation:
International Reptile Conservation Foundation:
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- Carnivore: an organism that feeds on flesh. The term can also be used to refer to a mammal in the order Carnivora.
- Ex-situ: measures to conserve a species that occur outside of the natural range or habitat of the species. For example, in zoos or botanical gardens.
- Taxonomy: the science of classifying organisms, grouping together animals which share common features and are thought to have a common ancestor.
- Territorial: describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (August, 2013)
- Baha El Din, S. (2006) A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo.
- Baha El Din, S. (2010) Creature feature: is the grass-loving lizard Philochortus zolii Scortecci 1934 extinct yet? Nature Conservation Egypt Newsletter, 11: 5.
- Porter, K.R. (1972) Herpetology. Saunders Company, Philadelphia.
- Huey, R.B., Pianka, E.R. and Schoener, T.W. (1983) Lizard Ecology: Studies of a Model Organism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.