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Why do common lizards lift their feet?

Printed From: Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK
Category: Herpetofauna Native to the UK
Forum Name: Common Lizard
Forum Description: Forum for all issues concerning Lacerta vivipara
Printed Date: 21 Sep 2021 at 4:11pm
Software Version: Web Wiz Forums 11.06 -

Topic: Why do common lizards lift their feet?
Posted By: GemmaJF
Subject: Why do common lizards lift their feet?
Date Posted: 26 Mar 2014 at 9:51pm
Foot lifting in common lizards is a behaviour that has intrigued me for a number of years.

The only references I ever find to lizards lifting their feet whilst basking is it is to protect them from a hot surface.

I do not believe this an explanation for what I'm observing. Every day, every lizard on the log piles goes through the ritual of foot lifting. Maybe one foot, maybe two, maybe all four (though they usually fall off the logs at this point - but obviously there is some desire to at least try!). It often occurs during the basking period, not immediately but saying in the middle of a basking period would be fairly accurate. Afterwards when they start to get mobile, they happily walk over the same surfaces with no apparent discomfort at all, or need to lift their feet.

It doesn't seem at all possible to me that the surface of a damp log is intolerably hot to the lizards, particularly seeing as they are often also pressing their bodies against it.

It occurred to me it could be a metabolic method of increasing body temperature on certain days?

Interested in any thoughts on why they do it or suggestions how I might study the behaviour and eventually understand it.

And other's observations of this behaviour too.

Posted By: Suzy
Date Posted: 26 Mar 2014 at 11:47pm
I too would doubt it is overheating - in England in March!
I wonder if blood vessels are more plentiful and nearer the surface and it is exposing the undersides of its feet to warm up more quickly as you suggest.


Posted By: will
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 6:51am
Hi Gemma, there's a thread about this somewhere else, I think. Anyway, I reckon some (but not all) is social in nature - a gesture of supplication to a dominant individual, maybe. If you get close to a lizard and do this without scaring it away, it often ends up foot-waving at you, as if to say 'you are bigger than me, I don't think you are a predator, but you are a dominant individual'. Maybe I'm reading too much into foot-waving and I know it happens when the lizards are sometimes on their own, but I have seen it feature in social interactions, both in Zv and La. Perhaps it serves a thermoregulatory and a social purpose? No doubt Chris will have better/fuller explanations.

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 8:31am
I like both the suggestions and had not thought of either.

I certainly get interactions from the lizards whilst doing the photography, they are very aware I'm there for sure, but are also on the whole amazingly tolerant. I have been wondering though if shutters going off, my movements etc did in some way modify their behaviour.

Which gives me an idea, my new canon zoom lens has arrived. I think I'll try standing off from a distance for a session or two and see if the foot lifting behaviour is less common, i.e. if my presence is partly or mainly the cause. Be interesting too to capture it in response to the presence of another lizard. 

I've a feeling that it is also in someway linked to body temperature, i.e. it occurs not at the start of a basking session, not at the end but more in the middle. This could though still be social, assuming if too cold it's just too much effort, if warm enough, fleeing is an option.

There is another behaviour I've got interested in too. Often at the end of a long basking session some of the lizards seem to become almost hyper-active. Leaping about like loonies and thrashing their bodies. It only lasts a few seconds but they appear to lose any sense of self preservation, throwing themselves off the log piles etc! Soon after they regain their composure and start actively hunting!

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 10:39am
I wonder if they would respond to model lizards, if the foot waving is a social thing? like Tinbergen's models of sticklebacks...? Will be interesting to see the results of your experiment, Gemma.

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 1:18pm
Now that's a thought Will, think I could make a fairly convincing model lizard and try it out.

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 4:06pm
...especially if it has really big feet on it!

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 5:33pm
I've ordered some stretchy rubber lizards (with big feet), going to paint them to look a little more realistic and see what happens. Fortunately I quite like things like this, if anyone has ever found them under survey felts, yes it was probably me left them, as I usually have some in my bag when I'm out and about. LOL" rel="nofollow -

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 7:51pm
wow! with those colours they ought to elicit some kind of response from your lizards...   what you need is a transparent piece of thread on a fishing line so you can raise the paws from a distance.

Posted By: Suzy
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 8:56pm
I wonder if Amazon profile us from what we buy. What do they make of Gemma with her water pistols and rubber lizards?!


Posted By: Iowarth
Date Posted: 27 Mar 2014 at 10:24pm
Like Will, I have a vague recollection of us discussing this before.

There is no doubt that in most lacertids (and, indeed, other genera/families) that "arm waving" is used as some form of communication. Most commonly, in my experience, by subordinate animals by virtue of sex or size to a larger/more dominant animal. In these cases I regard (i.e. anthropomorphise) it as a "no need to bother me, look, I'm harmless" gesture. Certainly, save with the most inveterate bullies (and their personalities are individual enough to produce bullies) this does seem to result in the approaching animal not behaving aggressively. This, however, serves only to account for the situations where one arm at a time is lifted and waved when another animal - or occasionally me - is approaching.
I am sure that it serves many other social interactions which are beyond my limited ability to identify. I am also sure there are purely physiological reasons on occasion and that these include lifting the feet clear of a hot surface and, possibly, muscular contractions to increase body temperature. As I mentioned in the adjoining lizard hibernation thread they do have the ability to boost their body temperatures somewhat by burning energy which is achieved in turn by muscular contractions.
Of course, all in all, apart from the one signalling function I have identified, this can be summarised as b*****d if I know!!


Chris Davis, Site Administrator

Co-ordinator, Sand Lizard Captive Breeding Programme (RETIRED)

Posted By: AGILIS
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 5:56am
Its pretty obvious would you stand bare footed on a sheet of ice after rising from bed Keith


Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 8:43am
I'm beginning to think I did ask this before on the forum, a while back before the whole cat thing got to me and I stopped watching the lizards closely.

I think the dual purpose of muscle contraction to raise body temperature and signalling could have had an evolutionary link. So for example the behaviour evolved as a metabolic function, but as the lizards developed the behaviour it then also became a social signal. (Or the other way around!) Certainly worth some experimentation and further observations. i.e. is it possible through observation for me to separate when it is social and when it is purely physiological based on outside stimuli or general behaviour at the time?

Hadn't really thought of myself before as a giant bully lizard, but I guess that is some form of acceptance by the colony. Wasn't really until I got back out surveying yesterday that I realised just how tolerant of me my garden lizards are. Even the previously nervous ones now make a point of breaking in on photo shoots to get their pictures taken. Wink

PS Suz, I think Amazon have me profiled pretty good from what they send me in emails and the adverts they stream to nearly every page on google. Toys, sweets, that sort of thing LOL

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 10:26am
interesting point re the evolutionary origin of foot-waving - I think the courtship displays of some ducks, grebes etc are based on 'fixed action patterns' which are derived from feeding actions (dabbling etc) - so maybe the social evolution of foot-waving is indeed derived from a more functional thermoregulatory purpose originally.   I don't know how you could test that hypothesis, though!

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 11:04am
I wondered Will if I could devise a reliable test to separate the behaviours (social/physiological) it might then be possible to look at related species. This could reveal for example if it is primarily social or physiological in some species and give a hint to which developed first. So if I found a species that didn't use it at all socially, but did use it to increase body temp, this might point towards the initial purpose in evolutionary terms. Must be worth a doctorate at least LOL

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 11:14am
there are many PhD's given out for far less! you could use the precise elements of the foot wave between species to try to work out a phylogeny for them, like they do with bird courtship displays, too.

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 11:42am
Sounds like I would need to film the behaviour and then see if I could break it down into visual elements. One would have to assume they would exist, else how would a dominant lizard know that the submissive one was being submissive, and not just trying to warm up! (based on the current hypothesis that it has a dual evolutionary purpose)

Posted By: liamrussell
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 12:16pm
Gemma, maybe one of these models might be better - bit dear though..." rel="nofollow -" rel="nofollow -

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 12:21pm
Those are insanely expensive! I think a bit of paint and the rubber lizards will look great. I'm going to do a male with yellow/orange underside and a female to start with and see if they have different effects on each individual If I did find a dead lizard on my travels I could take a RTF silicone mold off it and cast some resin models too, or if anyone finds one and wants to pop it in the post...

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 12:23pm
I wonder how much a Komodo Dragon would set you back...

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 12:41pm
You'd need a mortgage for a Komodo Dragon mdoel Will!

Posted By: liamrussell
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 12:46pm
Some more useful research seems to point to it being a predator response, I guess to demonstrate ability to flee quickly and make potential predators think it's not worth effort. So they are waving at you rather than other lizards, to say you can't catch me so you might as well not even try.

This is for Podarcis muralis and is quite detailed:" rel="nofollow -

This is for common lizards, but a bit less conclusive:" rel="nofollow -

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 1:03pm
Thanks Liam, I was just searching through to see how much previous research there has been, hadn't found those. I'm pretty sure now a lot of what I've captured on film recently of arm lifting is directed at me as I see it most often with lone individuals and during the macro photography when I'm very close and there is a lot of noise from the camera shutter. I wonder what they would do if I did it back to them!

This one I've just started to read through, not a closely related species but it does seem arm waving it well developed in several/many lizard species" rel="nofollow -

Posted By: liamrussell
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 1:29pm
Here's a picture of one waving at me with all four legs...

Posted By: Suzy
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 1:34pm
There are so many strands to this. I guess observation of lizards - how many/proximity/gender/age, then air temp and ground temp, then times of day (perhaps this will only help as regards temperature).
As you will 'know' your lizards Gemma you should soon be able to spot patterns, if any, and maybe make predictions.
I think it is fascinating to do this kind of stuff. Find things out not in books.


Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 4:11pm
It's intriguing stuff for sure. So reading through the papers Liam posted  Podarcis muralis has 3 types of foot movement type III being the signal to predators. I've definitely seen a foot lift with clear circling motion from common lizards in the past. The ones I'm currently seeing are direct lifts up like in Liam's picture. I'm wondering if they have different meanings.

Interesting the second paper mentions 'Starts' which is the behaviour I've also observed a lot recently, where they will suddenly make a move and run and thrash about then start to move normally.

I've also observed stroboscopic movements in the past too, though interestingly the author of the paper only reports seeing this in direct response to chemical cues from snakes.

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 4:14pm
exactly, Suz - perhaps leading to rauk's first joint scientific publication?

Liam - foot-waving could therefore perhaps be like a warning call given by a bird, not so much to alert other birds but to say to the predator 'don't even try!' another interesting possibility, although in my experience the lizard will wave once the human has approached it up close, ie exactly when it could be caught. I would expect a lizard to foot wave as soon as it was spotted by the lizard, to discourage a closer approach. The more you think about it, the more complex it gets...

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 4:24pm
Originally posted by will will wrote:

exactly, Suz - perhaps leading to rauk's first joint scientific publication?

Liam - foot-waving could therefore perhaps be like a warning call given by a bird, not so much to alert other birds but to say to the predator 'don't even try!' another interesting possibility, although in my experience the lizard will wave once the human has approached it up close, ie exactly when it could be caught. I would expect a lizard to foot wave as soon as it was spotted by the lizard, to discourage a closer approach. The more you think about it, the more complex it gets...

That's a very interesting point Will, reading the Podarcis muralis paper suggests that the Type III foot wave when displayed, is followed by the animal fleeing. The signal being given no closer than a meter away from the predator. I'm in much closer than that with the photography, and they do not flee, usually at the end of the session I can retreat leaving them just where they have been basking all morning. In fact recently I've even moved my finger up close to them just to see what happens. Can anyone predict what they do?

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 4:49pm
PS Will I like the idea of a joint paper, that would be something!

I'm in a position to repeat the methodology (on a small scale) of the first paper posted by Liam:" rel="nofollow -

This would involve approaches using binoculars to ACO and observing lizards on the objects I have at a local survey site (i.e. with lizards not accustomed to me sitting with them for hours on end) and see what happens. This could then be repeated by other members and we could pool the results. Certainly for now trying to establish how many types of signal exist for Zootoca vivipara seems like a way forward, so evidence or not of a 'Type III' response will help.

Posted By: Iowarth
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 4:54pm
I have read the two papers. Although there is some excellent work I feel that the Podarcis one has some shortcomings. Referring specifically to the Type III foot shake or wave I certainly wouldn't dispute that it may well be a predator response - but far from exclusively so. They make a specific statement that it does not appear to be conspecific which is totally opposed to my observations in both captivity and the wild. I believe this may simply be observational error - the fact that the observer cannot see another lizard doesn't mean it isn't there! I regret that we have a common problem, even in and certainly not restricted to scientific papers - the drawing of foregone conclusions from unwarranted assumptions!
When searching for lizards I tend to move very slowly (actually the only way I can move nowadays!) and try not to be silhouetted against the sky. Consequently, judging by the lizards' reactions, I seldom cause anything other than curiosity once I get reasonably (=very) close.
In almost every case, the observation of this arm waving is followed, shortly thereafter by the appearance of another dominant or potentially dominant animal in the same species. I have seen this innumerable times in Zootoca and several species each of Lacerta and Podarcis.
Probably the most outstanding example was a female green lizard which my partner and I saw on small open patch adjacent to dense heather. My partner saw it first and actually spotted it quickly due to the waving motion - although the lizard wasn't even looking at us. She said " There must be another lizard nearby". Look as we might, we were unable to see one - and yet, three minutes later a large male emerged from the heather in the direction she had been looking eliciting even more frantic arm waving. He just settled down to bask next to her and the arm waving ceased. After just a minute she started again, now looking in a slightly different direction. Sure enough, this time within seconds, another larger female emerged from the heather. Again she was content just to bask and the arm waving ceased. Even though the first female clearly saw and reacted to the other animals, we were unable to see them until they emerged into the open - and we are both very good at spotting animals even in dense vegetation.
I am bound to say that despite my training as a scientist I am growing more and more sceptical of more and more scientific papers on an almost daily basis - due generally to their conflict with many years of personal observation. (Incidentally, Gemma, when I was younger and didn't shake so much, I was able to approach Common Lizards as you do and even get them to climb onto my fingers. They enjoyed it (the warmth of my hands) so much that the biggest problem was usually scraping them off!)


Chris Davis, Site Administrator

Co-ordinator, Sand Lizard Captive Breeding Programme (RETIRED)

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 5:11pm
This is very true Chris regarding papers, one has to be very careful and I'm usually more skeptical than convinced! 

I just had a thought dawn on me. When I'm really really close with the macro photography and the lizards are in the cracks in the logs, I wouldn't suspect they can see another lizard. (bearing in mind I probably know where the others are located at the time out of direct line of sight etc). What they may well see though is their own reflections in the lens! Perhaps a mirror will investigate this.

You are right about the finger, the usual response is to run towards it, then sit on top of it, nice and warm. So for me at least that points towards them definitely not regarding me as a predator, at least not in this situation.

Posted By: will
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 5:18pm
one of my favourite sand lizard sites, in Dorset, consists of piles of tiles next to a nature reserve (well known to quite a few people).  Here you can watch the sand lizards foot-waving to each other as they go about their business at high densities in this favoured area.  I'm certainly going to try to be more scientific when I next visit the site, and try to see exactly what's going on, but I would agree with Chris that most of the foot-waving is conspecific and seems to do with establishing / acknowledging the pecking order!

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 28 Mar 2014 at 5:46pm
Does the paper not also assume though that Type I and Type II responses do exist? I found that not well explained, I'll need to go through it and find the references as I'm assuming one or both relates to conspecific activity and somehow from video captured they established Type III was not.

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 29 Mar 2014 at 5:32pm
Reading through the paper again:

"One foot shake type in particular is performed in the presence of potential predators (e.g., snakes) leading to the hypothesis that the display may have an antipredator function, but this has never been tested."

From this Chris I assume the observers were able to recognise the foot shake as not of a type used towards conspecifics and as in someway distinct. 

"Type III foot shake displays are performed by lizards of both sexes and all ages, and consist of rotating motion of the entire foreleg. Lizards perform type III foot shakes while stationary or following a short relocation run often with no other lizards in sight"

I have seen the rotating motion rarely but Zootoca vivipara does do it. This seems to me distinct from plain foot lifting I've recently been observing. So I think the investment in a laser range finder to repeat the experiment with Zv might be worth the effort.

Posted By: Iowarth
Date Posted: 29 Mar 2014 at 7:03pm
Hi Gemma

I have had to read it again. One day, scientists will learn the rules of writing good English and that won't be necessary!

Certainly your assumption would be correct, but in all honesty I have seldom seen a one foot shake (assuming this is different to the Type III shake). Conversely, I can remember no example of the  Type III shake in relation to a predator. And "no other lizards in sight" is unfortunately very observer biased. Since I have seen several occasions on which territorial male sand lizard has seen and attacked another male 5 metres away from it, then unless the lizard in question is on a totally flat white canvas surrounding it for several metres, then one cannot assume there is no other lizard within its sight! Nor should one imply that this is the case as this quoted sentence does.
All of this simply confirms that this is worthy of further study - but on a much firmer basis.

Chris Davis, Site Administrator

Co-ordinator, Sand Lizard Captive Breeding Programme (RETIRED)

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 30 Mar 2014 at 10:41am
Yes I agree Chris, I think we need a very firm foundation for what defines a foot shake, foot lift etc.

I think the researchers possibly did this using video capture evidence, but then do not reference the previous work sufficiently. There is only very scant mention of Type I and Type II and no explanation as to how they are distinct from Type III. So one is left to assume the observers in the experiment knew the difference - yet with very little insight as a reader as to what that difference might be! (I think I may contact the authors and see if they can shed further light on this).

I think a very simple way to test would be to use the research in the other paper posted by Liam. 

Placing a lizard in a container that has previously housed an adder should stimulate a Type III response in Zv. If this is clearly visually different to the responses observed towards conspecifics, it's 'game on'! Sadly the authors of the second paper though they mentioned observing foot lifts they didn't think to actually describe it and apparently also lost all the data on it!

I'm not keen to bring animals into captivity, but placing an animal briefly into say a small plastic aquarium or bucket for a short period in the field may work. 

Posted By: Iowarth
Date Posted: 03 Apr 2014 at 5:18pm
Having stated in black and white that most "foot waving/shaking" I have seen has been both con-specific and not followed by running away, today, in one of my vivaria I saw a Darevskia unisexualis (I'll leave you to guess what sex it was! Smile ) give the classic foot wave to an approaching Podarcis siculus male and then run away. The Ps was substantially bigger than the Du (and they are aggressive so and so's - I've seen one attack a cat and get away with it!!) so I think this could well qualify as a reaction to a potential predator.

Chris Davis, Site Administrator

Co-ordinator, Sand Lizard Captive Breeding Programme (RETIRED)

Posted By: naysu
Date Posted: 09 May 2014 at 11:48pm
Hi Guys :)
Sorry for dragging up this topic, as it's a little old, but I was reading the whole thing and joined the site to comment here and share my own experiences!

This is a behavious in common lizards that I have observed myself and also found incredibly interesting :).

I originaly had 3 baby common lizards (zootoca vivipara) 2 female and 1 male.
Initially, i had observed rapid front feet waves (up and down not in circles) when the lizards met face to face suddenly, and a couple of nips here and there, but within a week they had settled right down, and lived together for a while. I hadn't seen any foot gestures for the rest of their lives, no fighting, (spare them trying to steal food from one another at times) and so I just put it down to them being babies, and a little jumpy.

cut to now, I do not have the male anymore and have now just introduced 2 new lizards to the terrarium. one male to fill the gap and one very large pregnant female I wanted to observe and study the birth, feed the young for a good start and let the mother and babies go again.

now as soon as they were introduced the big female was very aggressive. nipping at any lizard that walked within range. lots of tail wiggles, and single front foot lifts (never two feet) up and down in rapid succession. she would do this just before biting, or if the other lizard walked away she would stop.

after a couple of nips, my lizards became wary of her (they were smaller in size) and this time, every time they approached her, or she approached them, they displayed very clearly, very exaggerated front arm waves (both arms, one up, one down) but no tail wiggle. to me this was clearly submissive, as they never followed it with an attack. (either relaxed or ran away)

now after that day I removed the large female and set up her own tank to give her peace. but left the male in, (she really hated that male for whatever reason) so now there was only 1 new lizard in the tank.

My two females (although slightly smaller) were not afraid of this male at all, and were happy to sit alongside him, on him, smell him etc.
however, the male for the first few days did the two arm wave when they approach or he approaches. after seeing no reply from them, he then approaches and basks next to them. Definitely appears to be submissive. he is settled right down now, and is hardly worried about them anymore.

I have some footage of these different behaviours i can put on youtube privately if any of you guys are interested for your research :)

Posted By: GemmaJF
Date Posted: 10 May 2014 at 11:27am
Thanks for sharing your observations, I would love to see the footage.

Posted By: Robert V
Date Posted: 17 May 2014 at 6:04am
Hi Gemma,
when I was young (here we go thinks Gemma, Uncle Albert with his stories again haha) I used to keep a young Grassie in the same tank as a common lizard, ignorant then of potential predation.
But the young grassie never ever made a move in that direction that I saw, but when it used to slide past the Lizard, the lizard would always raise its front left foot but never ran away...
I just made a mental note - but now you've struck a chord - you should do a paper like you say, especially as you have a few in your back garden.
Look at these two photos... Same lizard, a minute in between shots, as he got used to me being there... The change in expression from sort of shocked to sort of pissed off is I think pronounced...


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