The Basilisk Lizard

One of the most famous water-walking creatures is the common basilisk lizard. These South American reptiles are far too large to be kept aloft by surface tension and other interfacial effects. They generate the vertical force necessary to stay above water by slapping the water hard and fast. There are three phases to a basilisk’s water running gait: the slap, the stroke, and the retraction.

In the slap phase, the lizard slams its foot flat against the water surface at a peak velocity of about 3.75 m/s. The impact pushes water down and generates an upward force on the lizard that accounts for between 15-30% of the lizard’s body weight, depending on the size of the lizard. The rest of the upward force comes from the stroke phase, where the lizard pushes its foot downward in the water, causing an air cavity to form.

The air cavity is vital for the last phase of the lizard’s step. The basilisk must pull its foot out and prepare for the next slap, ideally doing so without generating too much drag. The lizard does this by pulling its foot through the air cavity before it seals. Doing so through air is much easier than through water.

Water-walking this way requires fast reflexes. Basilisks take up to 20 steps per second when running across water and reach speeds of about 1.6 m/s. Although both juvenile and adult basilisks can run on water, the smaller lizards do better because they can generate more than enough impulse to overcome their weight. (Image credit: T. Hsieh/Lauder Laboratory, source; video credit: BBC; research credits: J. Glasheen and T. McMahon, G. Clifton et al.)

This week FYFD is exploring the physics of walking on water, all leading up a special webcast March 5th with guests from The Splash Lab.

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