You’ve probably seen a dog wag its tail when its owner returns home from work, a cat lashing its tail before chomping down on an unsuspecting hand, or a rattlesnake quickly shaking the tip of its tail as a warning to stay away.
Of course, these aren’t the only animals that wag their tails; lizards do, too!
Is it happiness? Anger? A warning?
Why do lizards wag their tails?
Lizards use body language to communicate how they are feeling and may wag their tails for a variety of different reasons, including distracting or escaping a predator, aggression toward other lizards, communicating stress or agitation, trying to impress a mate, or while hunting prey!
With so many possible explanations, it can be challenging to figure out why your scaly companion is wagging their tail.
There can also be a lot of variation in tail-wagging! The lizard may move only the tip of their tail or the entire appendage. The movement can be slow and deliberate or fast and lashing.
In this article, we will explore each possible explanation and discuss other clues that may help you decipher the meaning of a lizard’s tail-wagging.
Let’s dive in!
Reason 1: Evading A predator
Both captive and wild lizards have been observed wagging their tails when facing a potential threat. The perceived predator may be a fierce bird of prey, a hungry snake, or simply a well-meaning owner approaching the terrarium a little too fast!
In a study published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, researchers studied two populations of zebra-tailed lizards on two different islands. One island had many predators, while the other had far fewer. Lizards on the predator-infested island wagged their tails when the researchers approached – the lizards on the other island did not.
The study concludes that, by wagging their tails at predators, the lizards may be trying to show that they aren’t an easy meal. In other words, they’re saying, “I see you! You can’t sneak up on me – I’m ready to run like the wind!”
Another study of fringe-fingered lizards in the Mediterranean suggests that tail-waving (and even hand-waving!) may be the small reptiles’ way of getting the attention of predators so that the lizards can keep an eye on them.
The researchers observed lizards foraging for food with no predators in sight. The lizards that did “risky foraging” – out in the open – waved their tails more often than those who foraged in safer spaces, like under the cover of vegetation. Lizards primarily waved their tails when they were standing still and able to observe their surroundings.
Another theory is that a lizard wags its tail in front of a predator to draw its attention to their tail, rather than their head or body.
Lizards have a much greater chance of survival if the predator grabs them by the tail. This is because many species of lizard possess an extraordinary ability called caudal autonomy. They can detach their tails from the rest of their bodies and live to tell the tale!
Tail-dropping lizards have a natural weak point in their tails. When the tail is under physical stress – like if it is pulled or hit – the muscles in the tail spasm and pull apart, and it falls right off. Some lizards drop their tails before a predator even touches them!
The nerves in the tail remain active for several minutes. The predator is left bamboozled by the amputated, twitching appendage, and the lizard is able to get away.
So, if you have a tail-dropping lizard and they perceive you or something in their environment as a threat, you won’t just notice them wagging their tail, but you might see them dropping it.
Thankfully, in some lizards, the amputated tail grows back! It will look a bit different from the original tail; it may be shorter, weaker, more bulbous, or less colorful.
Anoles, some geckoes, and some skinks are just a few lizards with this awesome superpower. However, not all species are so lucky. Crested geckos, for example, can ditch their tails, but they can’t grow them back. That’s why paying attention to your lizard’s tail wagging is crucial!
Reason 2: Aggression
Wagging or lashing of the tail is a common display of aggression in many species of lizards. The wagging may be a slow, deliberate wave or a fast, lashing motion depending on the intensity of the conflict.
Tail wagging may be accompanied by raising or curling the tail, head bobbing or shaking, push-ups, standing tall and arching the back, or gaping. Some lizards also swallow air to make themselves look bigger than they really are.
Lizards display these behaviors when in competition for territory or mates. The chance of aggression in captivity can be eliminated by keeping only one lizard per habitat. Most commonly kept lizard species should be housed alone, especially if you do not know the sex of the reptile.
Leopard geckos, anoles, bearded dragons, chameleons, and crested geckos are mostly solitary. While multiple female anoles can be housed together, two males should never be kept in the same enclosure. Regardless of species, two male lizards should never share a habitat!
If cohabitating reptiles display signs of aggression like the one listed above separate them immediately.
Avoid handling your lizard if they are wagging their tail or displaying any of these signs of aggression. It is telling you, “Stay away!” Not respecting your lizard’s boundaries may result in you getting bitten or the lizard dropping its tail.
Reason 3: Stress
Tail wagging can also mean that your lizard is experiencing some other kind of stress. Of course, lizards don’t experience stress in the same way that humans do!
If your pet is stressed, it doesn’t mean that they’re worried about everything they have to do; it means that something in their environment is making them uncomfortable.
Aside from tail wagging other signs of stress in lizards include, frantically running around, loss of color, making noises when you pick them up, and glass surfing, that’s when they’re trying to climb up the glass.
Look out for signs like heavy breathing or panting, as well as loss of appetite. If your lizard is hiding more than usual then this might also be a stress-related behavior.
Stress weakens lizards’ immune systems and can lead to illness, so it is important to figure out the cause as soon as possible!
Reason 4: To Attract A Mate
Another reason that a lizard may be wagging its tail is to attract a mate. Male lizards have been observed waving their tails to try to get the attention of females. The tail may be held high and swept side-to-side or vibrated quickly.
Courtship displays vary between species, but other things to look for are bright colors, push-ups or head bobbing, or flaring their dewlap – if they have one.
Like other animals, lizards perform these rituals so that females can see that they are healthy, fit, and ready to tango! The more impressive a male’s display, the more likely it is that he will impress a lady enough to father her offspring.
Solitary, captive lizards may also perform “breeding behaviors” like head-bobbing to get their owners’ attention.
Reason 5: Hunting
Another reason lizards wag their tails is that they are getting ready to eat. It is not known exactly why lizards wag their tails when hunting, but there are a few possible explanations!
“Caudal distraction” is a technique used by some lizards (and snakes) to distract prey. If the insect or other prey item is focused on a wiggling tail, they won’t expect the killing bite from the head! While it is rare in lizards, a couple of species practice “caudal luring,” using their wiggling tail to attract prey.
Another, cuter possibility of why lizards wag their tails just before a meal is that they are simply excited to eat! Captive lizards may even quickly wiggle their tails at the front of their cage when their owners approach.
Why Do Leopard Geckos Wag Their Tails?
In addition to the reasons listed above, leopard geckos also wave their tails when walking to maintain balance.
Research has shown that leopard geckos with in-tact tails hold themselves higher off the ground, take longer strides, and move faster than those who have lost their tails. When a leopard gecko loses its tail, its gait changes a little.
In the study linked above, researchers carefully restrained the geckos’ tails so that they couldn’t wave them as they walked.
Geckos with restrained tails walked just like geckos who had no tails at all!
Why Do Bearded Dragons Wag Their Tails?
Like other lizards, bearded dragons wag their tails when they are feeling threatened, aggressive, stressed, or possibly excited. It is important to note that bearded dragons cannot drop their tails. If a bearded dragon loses its tail in some horrible accident, it will not be coming back.
Bearded dragons may also wag their tails to help loosen dead skin after shedding. This tail wag is often stronger and more vigorous than the other kinds of wagging done by bearded dragons.
If your beardie is having difficulty shedding, you can try giving them a warm soak in shallow water or gently rubbing the skin that has yet to be dislodged.
It Probably Isn’t Happiness
While lizards may quickly twitch their tails with excitement before they eat, as you have read, prolonged wagging is usually a sign of fear, aggression, or stress.
While a wagging tail is a common sign of a happy dog, reptiles express their happiness a bit differently.
It is safe to assume that if your lizard is healthy, they’re happy!
Signs of a healthy (and happy!) lizard are a good appetite, bright and clear eyes, and good coloration. Additionally, if your lizard is reacting to movement both inside and outside of their habitat, they’re active and explore the environment you’ve created in their enclosure and they spend time in both warm and cool sides of the enclosure then they’re most likely living their best life!
Lizards express their needs and emotions differently than other animals, so it is important to research and observe your pet so that you are tuned in to their cues!
My Lizard Is Wagging Its Tail. Should I Be Worried?
Tail-wagging is a common behavior, and most of the time, it isn’t anything too serious. If your lizard is wagging its tail, it is likely trying to tell you something.
Something in its environment may be causing it discomfort or stress; maybe it isn’t fully comfortable with you yet. If your lizard wags its tail when you attempt to handle it, it is telling you “Leave me alone!”
If you’re not sure what tail wagging looks like then check out this leopard gecko in the video below!
In some cases, however, a twitching tail can be a sign of disease (in the presence of other symptoms).
If your lizard’s tail and other limbs are twitching for a long period of time, it may be a sign of metabolic bone disease (MBD). MBD is caused by insufficient minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients in a reptile’s bones. It is typically caused by low calcium and/or vitamin D3, or lack of ultraviolet light.
Other signs of MBD include, stiff/jerky movements, tremors or seizures, lethargy, and overall weakness as well as a decreased appetite. A crooked tail, and soft, bent, or broken bones can also be signs of MBD.
If you notice these signs in your lizard, consult your local reptile veterinarian.
Like a lot of other animals with tails, lizards use theirs to communicate how they are feeling. As you have learned, there a lot of potential reasons behind your scaly pet’s waving, wagging, or twitching tail!
Trying to figure out what is going on in your lizard’s head can be a daunting task, but taking into account its environment and general behavior can help you put the pieces together.
Understanding your pet’s behavior is a key ingredient to good husbandry, and your lizard will definitely appreciate you taking the time to learn its language!