Lizards have become increasingly popular pets in recent years. With their scaly skin, beady eyes, and alien-like appearances, lizards can be fascinating creatures to observe and interact with. Many lizard owners claim that their pets appear to recognize and remember them. But is this actually true? Can lizards form memories of people and develop bonds with their owners? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.
The lizard brain
To understand lizard memory, we first need to know a bit about the lizard brain. The lizard brain, also known as the reptilian complex, is the most primitive and basic structure of the brain. It controls fundamental survival functions like breathing, heartbeat, and instinctual behaviors. The main parts of the lizard brain are the brain stem and cerebellum.
Compared to mammals, the lizard brain lacks certain structures. Lizards do not have a cerebral cortex, which is the outermost layer of the mammalian brain responsible for cognition. They also lack a hippocampus, which deals with learning, memory, and spatial navigation in mammals. Overall, the lizard brain is much simpler and smaller than mammalian brains.
There has been much debate over whether lizards can form complex memories, especially regarding their owners. Some experts argue that because lizards lack key brain structures for learning and memory, they operate mostly on instinct rather than retaining memories.
Others counter that we should not underestimate the cognitive abilities of lizards. Though small, the lizard brain still contains areas like the amygdala and thalamus involved in processing emotions, sensations, and some degree of learning.
Evidence for lizard memory
So what evidence is there that lizards can remember and recognize their owners? Let’s review some of the key research findings:
Several studies have shown that lizards, especially larger species like monitors, iguanas, and tegus, can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people. For example, one study found that adult tegu lizards were less aggressive and exhibited fewer escape attempts when handled by their regular caretakers compared to strangers.
Lizards are capable of basic learning and retaining new information. Studies have successfully trained lizards to navigate mazes and solve simple puzzles to obtain food rewards. The lizards are able to recall their training for at least a few weeks, demonstrating memory.
Spatial memory and navigation do not necessarily require a hippocampus. Research shows lizards can remember locations of resources like food, water, and hideouts in their environments for months at a time through associative learning.
Several lizard species have been found to discriminate between individual humans, indicating they form memories of specific people. For example, male chameleons engage in more aggressive displays toward unfamiliar males than familiar males they have encountered before.
How good is lizard memory?
Comparative studies provide clues into how lizard memory stacks up against other species:
|Up to 3 months
|Up to 9 months
|Up to 1 year
|Up to 2 years
|Up to 10 years
As shown, lizards generally fall on the lower end of the memory spectrum compared to many mammals and birds. However, their memories can persist for multiple months, which is sufficient for forming bonds and recognizing individual humans over time.
Factors influencing lizard memory
Several factors impact the memory capacity and retention of lizards:
Younger lizards tend to have poorer memories than mature adult lizards. As lizards age and their brains develop, their cognitive functions improve.
Size of species
Larger lizard species with bigger relative brain sizes, like monitors and iguanas, generally outperform smaller species on memory tests.
Memory can be enhanced through training exercises that engage the brain. Lizards allowed to explore enlarged enclosures or complete puzzles tend to show improved learning and recall.
Exposure to frequent stressors like loud noises, disturbance, and improper housing can impair memory by elevating cortisol levels.
Environmental enrichment that provides mental stimulation, such as objects to interact with, multilevel housing, and hidden food, can boost memory capacity.
Bonding with lizard owners
The evidence makes a compelling case that lizards can form memories of people to whom they are frequently exposed. This means lizards have the capacity to “remember” and recognize their main caretakers. However, the bonding behaviors may be subtle.
Lizards are not likely to get excited or snuggle up to owners like dogs. But they may demonstrate recognition by:
- Being less fearful and more tolerant of handling
- Allowing more tactile interaction like chin rubs
- Seeking proximity to familiar people
- Showing habitat preferences near certain individuals
With time and patience, owners can build trust and familiarity with their lizards through regular gentle handling and positive reinforcement training using treats. This can lead to strong bonds where the lizards seem to “know” and look forward to interacting with their owners.
The bulk of the research indicates that lizards do have the capacity for memory, even if their brains are simpler than those of mammals and birds. Lizards can learn to distinguish individual humans and retain these memories over a period of weeks to months. Therefore, it is very plausible that pet lizards recognize and remember their owners over time through repeated exposure and interaction. While lizard bonds may be more subtle and restrained compared to other pets, caring lizard owners can develop meaningful relationships with their scaly companions built on trust and familiarity.