By Nick Thomas
Bert Langerwerf was 10 years old when he first became interested in lizards. He found a small lizard in a ditch by his home in the Netherlands and was immediately fascinated by the creature.
That was 50 years ago. Today, Mr. Langerwerf lives in America and still loves lizards. But now he breeds and sells them to people all across the country who share his fascination for these amazing critters. (Related item: Bert Langerwerf's website
In 1988, Langerwerf settled in Alabama because the warm climate was ideal for raising many types of lizards. "The weather in Holland was not good to raise reptiles," he says. "It was too cold and wet."
People like Langerwerf, who breed reptiles as a hobby and sometimes sell them, are called herpetoculturists, according to Ken Marion, a biology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The scientists who study the biology of reptiles are called herpetologists.
Even though Langerwerf is not a trained herpetologist, he knows a lot about lizards. Much of what he learned he taught himself by studying lizards, reading books, and talking with other people who have kept lizards.
He has bred more than 150 species, many of them for the first time in captivity, and has made some important discoveries about lizards.
In 1976, Langerwerf discovered that in certain species, it was the temperature of the lizard eggs in the nest that determined whether the lizards would hatch to become males or females.
He has also written several hundred articles about lizards for scientific magazines and journals, and receives many invitations to travel around the United States and overseas to talk about lizards. Langerwerf has earned the respect of herpetoculturists and herpetologists around the world.
He says there are many types of interesting lizards in the U.S. One of his favorites is the anole (a-NO-lee), which is most often seen in the Southeast. He says anoles are easy to spot, because the males have what's called a dewlap, a pink fan-shaped flap of skin on their throats.
"They show their dewlap to attract females or chase away other males," says Langerwerf. "They can also change color like chameleons. But they are actually related to iguanas, not chameleons."
Most of the lizards Langerwerf raises are not native to America. That's because people who collect lizards are usually interested in the larger species that are found in other countries.
His biggest lizard comes from Argentina and is called a tegu. The babies hatch in July and sell for about $50 each. Within a year or so, they can grow to more than four feet long and have sharp claws and powerful jaws.
Tom Scollins of Baltimore, Md., who owns several lizards, has been bitten by his tegus, but says, "It was my fault for underestimating their strength."
Despite their size, Argentine tegus are usually gentle when raised in captivity, Langerwerf adds.
Nicole Russell, who lives in New Jersey, also owns some tegus. She often takes "Nico," her male tegu, to visit students in local schools so they can learn more about lizards.
"He loves children," she says, "and is really the most docile, sweet animal in the world."
Langerwerf recently visited Mountain Brook Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala., where the fifth-grade classes were doing a project on lizards. In addition to a young tegu, he took along an Australian water dragon. These are big lizards, too, about half the size of a tegu, and live along the rivers of eastern Australia. The males have beautiful red bellies.
Naturally, the kids wanted to see the lizards up close. So Langerwerf walked around the classroom and allowed students to carefully touch them.