There are perhaps no more than 1,000 individuals of the Endangered Chinese crocodile lizard — which is found in southern China and northern Vietnam — remaining in the wild today.
This unusual lizard is so named due to the two rows of scales along the top of its muscular tail, resembling a miniaturised crocodile tail. Just like crocodiles, the Chinese crocodile lizard is a powerful swimmer, and prefers to dwell on branches which overhang slow moving streams and ponds.
Little is known about the Chinese crocodile lizard. Individuals appear to be mostly solitary except during the breeding season, when males become even more brightly coloured, and during the winter, when individuals will group together for communal hibernation.
The Chinese crocodile lizard is the sole surviving species in both its genus and its family, Shinisauridae. Should this species become extinct, we stand to lose an entire branch of the tree of life — a branch that stretches back more than 100 million years. That is 40 million years before the extinction of the dinosaurs, and around the time of the emergence of modern birds!
The Chinese crocodile lizard is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Population surveys indicate the species may have declined by more than 80% in the past 40 years, and the remaining populations are highly fragmented. The major threats to the future of this unique lizard are habitat loss and harvesting for both domestic use and the international pet trade. Individuals can be worth the equivalent of two month’s salary for hunters, thus the economic incentive is significant.
Although the species does occur in protected areas, more than 50% of remaining populations are not protected. The species is listed in CITES Appendix I, and ex-situ conservation will be an important strategy for the survival of this species.
- Order: Squamata
- Family: Shinisauridae
- Population: 1,000
- Trend: decreasing
- Size: 42cm (?)
The Chinese crocodile lizard is known to persist in only two Provinces in southern China (Guangdong and Guangxi). The species occurs on the slopes of Yen Tu Mountain in Vietnam, more than 500 km from the nearest Chinese population.
Habitat and Ecology
The Chinese crocodile lizard favours densely vegetated subtropical forests between 200 – 1,500 m above sea level. The species is semi-aquatic and is associated with slow-moving streams and pools, where individuals will rest on branches overhanging the water below. Individuals are diurnal and their diet is thought to consist of insects, tadpoles and small fish.
Hibernation is triggered by the water temperature dropping below 15.5°C, between November and March, when individuals will hibernate together in tree holes or rock crevices. This lizard is viviparous and, after a gestation period of nine months, gives birth to up to 12 young.