by Whit Gibbons

March 9, 2008

I couldn't believe a national story that was in the news last week. At least I couldn't believe it anymore than I did two decades ago. The Lizard Man is back! Being a herpetologist who is currently writing a book on lizards, I must rehash the story once again.

The story was a mystery of such magnitude that it also reached the national news media back then. The creature known as Lizard Man, as reported by Dan Rather on CBS News, had attacked a car driven by a high-school student in South Carolina, beating on the roof of the car and chewing on the chrome bumper.

Many stories about Lizard Man have been written, but the best investigative reporting was by Lynne Katonak, a staff writer for the Aiken Standard. She started her story by saying it was "time to get to the bottom of the Lizard Man story and the only way to do that is to go to the experts."

The five experts were scientists from the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Four were herpetologists, who should know about lizards, and included Justin Congdon, Nat Frazer, Jeff Lovich, and me. Chuck Lydeard was the token mammalogist. As someone said, "we brought Chuck along in case this thing turns out be more mammal than reptile."

Lynne asked the group of scientists the question, "Does this Lizard Man story sound likely?"

Nat allowed that "South Carolina lizards are not aggressive. However, that doesn't rule out the possibility." He pointed out that some lizards such as the 10-foot long Komodo dragons of Indonesia could be perceived as very aggressive. I interjected that I had never heard of one that would eat chrome, whereupon Justin noted that "no experiments have ever been designed to feed metal to lizards."

Lynne asked if Scape Ore Swamp, the location of most Lizard Man sightings, would be a typical habitat for a lizard. Justin replied that except for the coldest regions of the world, lizards live anywhere including beaches, woodlands, deserts, and swamps. "One group, the gecko lizards, even live in and on buildings."

Lynne pointed out that the swamp had once been the site of moonshine stills and asked if the presence of illicit alcohol could have attracted Lizard Man. "I've never come across a lizard with a drinking problem," replied Jeff. "Sure, I've seen a lot of pickled lizards, but they are all in museums."

Another theory addressed was that Lizard Man was looking for a mate. I noted that male lizards will sometimes move long distances looking for mates, and Nat suggested that was why Lizard Man was always in a hurry. I made the point that we must then assume that Lizard Women look like cars. Justin suggested that instead of biting the chrome bumper Lizard Man was kissing it. As far as Lizard Man walking upright, the herpetologists noted that basilisk lizards of tropical America and collared lizards of the Southwest run on their back legs.

Chuck was able to get in a few comments related to his mammal expertise when a comparison with Big Foot was brought up. He also pointed out that the very term Lizard "Man" had implications of the creature being some sort of hybrid.

We concluded the interview saying "we're not saying the Lizard Man story is true or false. The point is that there are so many amazing creatures in the world that it's not necessary to make one up." We don't have to invent mythical animals. We have enough real ones to keep us fascinated for a lifetime.

Clearly, interviewing lizard experts was less than conclusive about the reality of the story. The most telling comment about the original Lizard Man story came from a local sheriff interviewed by Dan Rather. The clear-headed officer of the law told the reporter that he had received a report that day of "the Lizard Man walking down the Interstate holding hands with Elvis." The officer pointed out how absurd such reports were, noting that "everybody knows Elvis is dead. And even if it was him, he wouldn't be holding hands with another man!"

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