Oh jeez, it runs across water!

“Yes, it runs on rivers,” exclaims Edward Magpayo in Filipino. He points at the three Philippine sailfin lizards enclosed in a big glass cage at Manila Zoo’s Reptile House. The 40-year old graduate of Bachelor of Science in Business Administration has been working as an animal keeper at the zoo for the past 10 years. The sailfin lizard is just one of the animals he looks after.

“My father, who used to work here at the office, recommended me [for the job]. I know my course [does not seem related to] my present job, but I have learned to love [it],” Edward explains. The afternoon zoo-goers ogle the unique oviparous lizards which are endemic (found only) in the Philippines. The millennials enjoy their selfies with the immobile reptiles. The lizards remain stationary even when some playful kids tap the glass. Others, like this writer, crane their necks and read the information poster which hangs above the glass enclosure.

It reads: “Sailfin lizard, Hydrosaurus pustulatus. The adult average length is 24-30 inches to a maximum of 36 inches. Their bodies are slightly compressed and their tails are long. The male has a large ‘sailfin’ on the back and tail, while the female has dorsal fringe. Their toe-scaled fringes allow these animals to run on top of the water for short distances, on hind legs, like pontoons. Juveniles run on top of the water for very short distances. A vestigial ‘third eye’ on top of its head (parietal or pineal eye) is clearly visible and sensitive to the angle of sun’s rays which is thought to be a homing mechanism. Distribution—They are found all over the Philippines, except in Palawan. Habitat—They live in rain forests and [are] never far from water. Diet—They eat fish, fruits, vegetables, and insects.”

“I feed them twice a day with camote tops, apples, carrots, and bananas,” Edward says of the lizards locally known as ‘ibid’. “But I have yet to see these sailfin lizards really run across water,” he adds, while looking at the ankle-deep wading pool where the lizards leisurely crawl like common house lizards, a far cry from their natural habitat— riverbanks, rivers, and rice fields.

The caged lizards seem relatively young, with their brownish color. It is said that the males manifest a purple color as they grow older, and comparatively, males have a larger crest on their back than the females.

When pressed for any memorable anecdote while animal keeping, Edward
thinks for a while and says, “I’ve no problem with the reptiles like these lizards. It’s a different story with birds. One time I was cleaning at the aviary, when a white-breasted eagle suddenly swooped down and clawed off my right ear. I felt a stinging pain as blood trickled down” he recalls. “Another time, a Philippine monkey escaped from its cage. I ran after it. After a few minutes of chasing I got hold of its nape but it struggled and in a snap, bit…my left thumb. I went to the veterinarian for [an] anti-rabies shot,” he shares while showing the simian scar on his thumb.

“The sailfin lizards are tame and gentle.” Edward says. Indeed, wildlife experts say that these lizards are threatened by habitat loss, of being killed for food, and collection for the pet trade.

Run for your life, sailfin lizard!

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s August 2017 issue.