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Lizard Eyes: What Makes Them Different?

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From the bizarre bulging eyeballs and slit pupils of geckos, to the downright alien prying eyes of chameleons, lizard eyes are quite unique. There are more than 5,000 different types of lizards, and they have evolved to have a range of different eye shapes, orientations and sizes, with a variety of beneficial adaptations well suited to each species' lifestyle.

Let's dig into what makes lizard eyes so fascinating, what their vision looks like, and which species have the sharpest eyesight.

Do lizards have good eyesight?

small lizard water dragon
For a reptile, lizards have surprisingly well-developed eyesight.

©Valt Ahyppo/Shutterstock.com

In general, lizards tend to have very good eyesight . They rely primarily on their vision to find food and avoid predators. In most respects, their eyesight is as good as humans, if not better!

Lizard eyes can see colors we can't, and they can focus on both near and distant objects with ease. They even have a "third eye," usually located on the top of the head, that helps perceive changes in light and dark and regulates hormone production.

Of all the different types of reptiles, lizards probably have the best overall vision. For starters, they have unique photoreceptors in their eyes that allow them to see a wider range of colors than we do. This includes colors that go well into the ultraviolet range of the spectrum.

Lizards can also see with amazing clarity and clarity! Most species can see well at both distance and near, thanks to their ability to flex the eye muscles surrounding the lens to focus on different objects. This allows their eyes to focus and track fast-moving objects or animals in motion, such as a predator trying to eat them or their own prey.

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Remarkably, lizards, like humans and most other mammals, dilate and constrict their pupils to allow in more or less light depending on the situation. Most lizards are diurnal and have medium-sized, round pupils, while nocturnal species such as geckos typically have slit-shaped or vertical pupils, better suited to low-light conditions.

While lizards also partly rely on their senses of smell and hearing to survive, their vision is the most refined (and most important) of the three.

Can lizards see color?

The largest bearded dragon-Oriental bearded dragon
Your bearded dragon can see more colors than you can!

© Zhitkov Boris/Shutterstock.com

Lizards can see color. They can actually see more colors than humans! Lizards have four types of cones (compared to three in humans), and they have unique photoreceptors that are particularly sensitive to ultraviolet light. This allows them to see colors in the ultraviolet and ultraviolet range.

The world looks more vivid and colorful through the eyes of lizards! This is because they are tetrachromats. Tetrachromatic animals have four types of cone cells in their eyes. Tricolor animals have only three, dichromatic animals have two, and monochromatic animals have only one.

Most animals are dichromatic or trichromatic, so the range of colors they can see is fairly limited. Animals with tetrachromatic vision, such as lizards, can see colors in the ultraviolet spectrum. This also includes some birds, fish, amphibians, and even some insects and mammals. Tetrachromatic vision also helps animals see better in low-light conditions, which is especially useful for nocturnal lizards such as geckos.

Do lizards have night vision?

crested gecko on leaves
Geckos have excellent night vision to suit their nocturnal lifestyle.

© iStock.com/jamcgraw

Most lizards are diurnal, so their vision is best suited to daylight conditions. However, nocturnal animals like geckos have excellent night vision. Their night vision helps them avoid predators and spot prey, even in very dark, heavily shaded conditions.

In general, lizards don't have very good night vision because they are most active during the day. However, for nocturnal geckos, their huge eyes with vertical slit-shaped pupils are perfect for the dark. They can even see close-up details and focus on moving objects (or other animals) in the dark!

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During the day, the gecko's pupils are tightly constricted, allowing only a small amount of light to enter. This is to protect their sensitive eyes from harsh sunlight. At night, their pupils are greatly dilated, appearing wider and rounder, to absorb the last bit of light possible. Furthermore, thanks to their highly specialized cone cells, they can easily distinguish colors even in pure darkness.

Do lizards really have a "third eye"?

Types of Green Lizards - Jewel Geckos
In most lizards, the parietal eye is located directly between the two dominant eyes on the top of the head.

© reptiles4all/Shutterstock.com

Lizards, as well as frogs, salamanders and some fish, possess an organ known as the parietal eye, or "third eye." This "eye" is small and primitive, but it senses changes in light and helps produce hormones and regulate body temperature. In most species, the parietal eye is a tiny gray pinprick-sized spot located directly between the eyes on the top of the head.

Lizards do technically have three eyes! Just don't expect to see a giant third eye poking out of your bearded dragon's head anytime soon. In fact, your lizard's top eye is much smaller and less developed than the two main eyes they rely on for vision. In fact, without a magnifying glass, you probably wouldn't be able to see it, since it's barely bigger than a pin.

While the parietal eye can "see" to some extent, it is mostly limited to capturing subtle changes in light and dark. This organ also regulates hormone production and body temperature regulation. Efficient thermoregulation is especially important in ectothermic or "cold-blooded" animals, such as lizards, that rely on external warmth to maintain body temperature.

Interestingly, the parietal eye is also a compass for many lizards! Because of its ability to perceive light, the third eye helps the lizard orient itself and find shelter, food, and familiar areas of its environment.

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Which lizard has the best eyesight?

Animals with big eyes - chameleons
Chameleons have by far the best eyesight of any lizard.

©Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock.com

Of all lizard species, chameleons have the most well-developed eyesight. Their eyes can move independently of each other, giving them an almost 360-degree field of vision. They see well up close and far away and, like most lizards, are able to see a wide range of colors in the ultraviolet spectrum.

While most lizards have excellent eyesight, chameleons are truly remarkable. They can move each eye independently of the other, which allows them to see in almost all directions. Chameleons often use their keen eyesight to assist in camouflage abilities.

Their deep-set eye sockets and large eyes have a wide range of motion. These bulbous eyes are protected by thick eyelids that cover everything but the lizard's pupils. Chameleons can even switch between monocular and binocular vision at will! This means they can switch between seeing with one eye or both at a time.

All in all, chameleons don't just have the best eyesight of any lizard—they have some of the best eyesight in the entire animal kingdom, too.


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Animals with big eyes - chameleons
The chameleon's eyes provide a 360-degree view.

© Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock.com website

about the author

Hailey Pruett is a non-binary content writer, editor, and lifelong animal lover living in East Tennessee. They grew up on a hobby farm and owned and cared for a variety of animals, from the mundane (dogs, cats) to the more exotic and unusual (lizards, frogs, goats, llamas, chickens, and more!). When they're not busy writing about how awesome reptiles and amphibians are, they're usually playing arcane indie video games, collecting Squishmallows, or hanging out with their cat, Hugo. Their favorite animals are bearded dragons, salamanders and marine iguanas.

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