Chinese crocodile lizard

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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The endangered Chinese crocodile lizard is the last surviving species of its genus and family, which dates back more than 100 million years. Its subtropical habitat is shrinking due to deforestation.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the Chinese crocodile lizard?

This colorful reptile is not a crocodile but a lizard. It gets its name from its powerful tail, which is scaly like that of a crocodile. The Chinese crocodile lizard’s defining feature is its vibrant skin. It has a gray-brown body with a yellow-tan underside and red or orange scales running along its sides. Males are usually larger and more colorful, with the colors growing more vivid during breeding season.

Otherwise known as the shinisaurus, the Chinese crocodile lizard is a popular household pet. It hails from a small mountain range in southern China and northern Vietnam.

Habitat

These territorial and semiaquatic creatures spend their time alone in slow-moving streams and freshwater pools. Picture a densely populated subtropical forest in the mountains of southern China: It is in the watery bottom of this biome that crocodile lizards like to swim. The vegetation and rocky crags provide shelter and protection, which these otherwise solitary reptiles usually share when they go into brumation—similar to hiberation—for the winter.

Diet and behavior

These reptiles hunt in the water as well. Their primary source of food is invertebrates, like insects, snails, and tadpoles. In captivity, they are also fed bugs like crickets and worms.

What sets Chinese crocodile lizards apart is that the young are precocial, which means that they are capable of feeding and caring for themselves from the moment they are born. Their parents do not raise them.

When they encounter a predator, Chinese crocodile lizards tend to choose flight over fight: They hiss, bite, and defecate until they can escape into the water and propel themselves away with their tail.

Threats to survival

Chinese crocodile lizards are the last surviving species of their genus and family, the Shinisauridae, which dates back more than 100 million years. They are now under threat mainly because of human activity, and are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Loss of habitat from deforestation is the primary reason the population of Chinese crocodile lizards is declining. In Vietnam, for example, the area where a subspecies was discovered in 2003 is now in danger from activities like logging and coal mining. Thomas Ziegler, the German scientist who first recorded this subspecies, estimates that there are only 200 left.

In southern China, electro-fishing—a method using electricity to stun the catch—and fish poisoning affect younger crocodile lizards, who may be directly killed by these practices.

Harvesting is another threat: Crocodile lizards make docile and pretty pets, which is why so many of them are illegally taken from the wild for the international exotic pet trade.

Conservation

About half of the areas where crocodile lizards are known to live are protected.

Researchers are constantly working to improve these existing protections. Ziegler’s joint German-Vietnamese team has established breeding programs in both Hanoi, Vietnam, and Cologne, Germany.

Chinese crocodile lizards are not an official protected species in Vietnam. National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow Hanh Ngo is one of the researchers looking to survey this elusive species more closely, to better understand how many are left and raise awareness among tourists, locals, and local governments.