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Why do lizards do push-ups?

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Spend enough time around lizards and you'll realize that they're actually very social animals with many surprisingly intricate ways of communicating — not only with each other, but with you too! Perhaps at some point, you've noticed your bearded dragon or even a wild chameleon bobbing up and down quickly, as if they were going through a high-intensity workout. So why do lizards do push-ups? What purpose do they serve in society? What kind of lizard would do this weird behavior?

Read on as we explore the lizard that does push-ups and why this unique behavior isn't just a weird exercise routine sweeping the reptile world.

Why Lizards Do Push-Ups

what do chameleons eat brown chameleons
Male chameleons do "push-ups" to show off their vibrant wattles to female lizards.

©Natalia Kuzmina/Shutterstock.com

Many species of lizards sometimes bob up and down in a "push-up" motion for three main reasons. These include:

  • Show dominance over another lizard and/or assess their size and strength (usually among males)
  • Courtship with another lizard (usually done by a male to a female)
  • To get the attention of another lizard (or, as captive pet lizards often do, to get the owner's attention; can be exhibited by either male or female)

It turns out that the lizard's "push-up" display is actually quite subtle and context-dependent! Many different species of lizards exhibit this behavior both in captivity and in the wild. However, depending on the situation the lizard finds itself in, the cause can be very different. Showing can have a wide range of meanings, from "stand back" to "Hey, look at me!"

Push-ups are far from the only way lizards communicate! Although most species don't have much vocalization (or none at all), they use many different gestures to signal or convey information to each other. From waving arms to head shaking to full-body push-ups and even sticking out brightly colored flesh, these seemingly silent reptiles are actually quite talkative, but we humans just can't easily understand or identify them.

Next, let's break down the most common reasons lizards do push-ups in more detail.

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Show dominance over other lizards or predators

spiny-tailed lizard
Some lizards use push-ups as a defense mechanism.

©Luis Montero de Espinosa/Shutterstock.com

One of the main reasons lizards (usually males) do push-ups to each other is to make themselves look bigger and more intimidating. This behavior also allows the lizards to assess each other's size and strength. Most species use pushups in this way to compete with each other for mates/resources or to fend off predators.

In most cases of lizard push-ups, it's two males posing with each other as they compete for mates, food or territory. This is usually done to decide if a fight is necessary and to allow one of the lizards to back off before the fight occurs. Think of it as their way of sticking out each other's chests to intimidate their opponents.

In addition to simply making themselves look scary, lizards also do push-ups to gauge each other's size and strength. If one of the lizards is significantly weaker than the other, it may take this opportunity to escape.

What's more, lizards don't just do push-ups to scare each other away. They also sometimes do this to keep away predators like snakes, hawks and even humans. By making itself appear larger and more menacing, the lizard hopefully temporarily scares its attacker. Meanwhile, the lizard runs to safety. Not only male lizards do push-ups, but female lizards have been documented doing this too!

Many species will even combine this behavior with tail dropping or self-mutilation! After startling a predator, lizards may cut off their own tails to further distract animals wishing to eat them. Some lizards, such as alligator lizards, can even regrow a lost tail, giving them a chance to drop it again later for a quick escape.

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Push-ups as a courtship display

What Blue Belly Lizards Eat - On Fence Posts
These blue-bellied fence lizards do push-ups to show off their bright colors.

© Isabelle Eve/Shutterstock.com

Another common reason lizards do pushups is to attract the attention of potential mates. Some species also do this to show off the bright colors on their bodies. Typically, men perform this pose, although women occasionally perform it in this situation.

Actively doing push-ups with someone you're interested in doesn't sound like the best way to attract a mate. However, when it comes to lizards, this is the perfect way to find a date. For the most part, lizards will simply do push-ups near a promising mate to attract more attention. However, for some species, they do it to show off a certain body part, such as their extra flesh, or a particularly bright patch of color somewhere on their body.

For example, male western fence lizards do push-ups to better show off their bright blue bellies to females. Females in this species tend to prefer males that are more vividly blue, so males will display this trait as often as possible.

Other species, such as male green chameleons, perform push-up displays to show off their bright red flesh to females. Like western fence lizards, female chameleons tend to prefer males with brightly colored wattles. When males push out their flab and bob up and down quickly, they get more attention from nearby females, or more importantly, potential mates.

"Pay attention to me" push-ups

spiny lizard bearded dragon
Lizards in captivity, such as bearded dragons, often do push-ups to get their owners' attention.

© iStock.com/huettenhoelscher

Oddly enough, another surprisingly common reason lizards do pushups is to get the attention of another lizard. Lizards in captivity often do push-ups just to get the attention of their owners or keepers, usually out of hunger or boredom. Alternatively, some lizards will do push-ups to humans in an attempt to signal dominance as they interpret us as potential predators.

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If you've got a pet lizard, you've probably seen your scaly pal doing… nothing special as it seems. Well, in this case, your lizard may be trying to get your attention (getting you to give them food or enrichment) or signal to you that there is a problem if you mess with them.

This behavior is actually quite common in captive lizards! Usually nothing to worry about, especially if your pet is still adjusting to your/their new home. In short, in this situation your lizard may communicate one of two things by doing push-ups:

  1. They're still nervous around you and trying to look too scary to provoke (after all, they instinctively interpret us as predators).
  2. They just want your attention. It could be because their water bowl is empty, they're bored, or even you're two minutes late with their dinner.

Either way, these "watch out for my pushups" are just another way our pet reptiles communicate with us, despite the obvious language barrier.

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featured image

A leopard lizard standing on its front legs, looking for prey.
A leopard lizard standing on its front legs, looking for prey.

© Steve Shoup/Shutterstock.com


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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