Picture an iguana. What you’re envisioning is probably the archetypical green iguana: striking spikes, an imposing dewlap, and a dinosaur-like demeanor. His signature look is pretty severe… but he quickly proves he’s a harmless clutz at heart when he topples out of his tree.
Like a nerdcore rapper with punk rock style, the green iguana only looks tough. He spends a good amount of his time, in fact much of his life, lounging in the rainforest canopies of Mexico, Central America, on Caribbean islands, and into parts of South America. But contrary to the “lazy lizard” stereotype, iguanas move overland and through the water with speed and agility. They’re active throughout the day, maintaining the flexibility and strength that enables them to fall up to 50 feet (15 meters) out of a tree without injury.
Pet vendors like to advertise the green iguana’s “calm disposition,” which you can read as “sluggish and unhappy outside their natural environment.” Many people are attracted to the idea of a pet with such exotic looks and docile behavior. Consequently, green iguanas are one of the most popular reptile pets in the US. This is unfortunate, because while wild iguanas frequently live to be 20 years old in their tropical homelands, the majority of captive iguanas die within the first year.
Now I’m not a vegan or vegetarian or PETA activist… but even I know there’s something wrong with this picture. Jungle creatures are not supposed to live in terrariums in Indiana, as my friend Dustin found out when he was ten. He had been begging his mother for an iguana, and she obliged… but within a week he handed the creature off to a different owner because the reptile, out of its element, lashed out at little Dustin with its tail.
Generally, green iguanas do everything in their power to avoid a confrontation. When threatened by a predator, such as a hawk, the iguana will attempt to flee – running, leaping into a jungle pool from a tree branch, cutting a path through the water with his powerful tail. If flight is impossible or if the iguana is wounded, he’ll do his best to scare off the attacker: extending his dewlap, stiffening his posture and puffing out his chest, bobbing his head menacingly and hissing. The predator that ignores these warnings gets treated to the iguana’s whiplike tail and razor-sharp teeth. Like many lizards, the iguana can ditch his tail if the enemy gets hold of it – he’ll grow a new one later.
You’ll see green iguanas in their natural environment when you visit Isla Palenque. On this island in Panama, the native iguanas nosh on flowers, leaves, and fruit all day long (they’re herbivores) and bob their heads to one another (and maybe you) in greeting. Some of the color variations you’ll see are gorgeous: check out the Isla Palenque iguana who decided to park himself at the construction base camp.
Getting to Know Panama’s Green Iguanas
Favorite food: wild plum.
Stats: 6 feet / 2 meters long (including tail), 11 pounds / 5 kilograms.
Nickname: gallina de palo (bamboo chicken or chicken of the tree). Local cultures that have been using iguanas as a food source for 7000 years have given iguanas this nickname because they supposedly “taste like chicken.”