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Monday, June 8, 1998

Forget film; real dragons
eat seaweed, snort salt

When I went to see "Godzilla" recently, I had high hopes.

Previews of the film had teased me with scenes of a gigantic lizard rising from the depths of the ocean, only to run into trouble with a big colony of human beings.

What fun, I thought. The grand pooh-bah of marine iguanas visits New York.

The movie's opening scenes were promising. Marine iguanas lie scattered over a bunch of lava rocks when an atomic blast disturbs them.

Lazily, these lizards push their bodies up with their front legs and check it out.

The filmmakers don't show it, but I know, in real life, what these iguanas did next: sneezed out some salt, plopped back down and went right back to sleep.

Hey, marine iguanas need their rest. These Galapagos natives, which grow to 3 feet long, are the only lizards in the world that swim in the ocean and live solely on seaweed.

The distinct blunt snouts of these reptiles allow them to nip close to the rock-clinging plants.

Female and young marine iguanas usually get their seaweed from rocks exposed during low tide. Big males, however, are more adventurous.

These lizards often take to the sea, swimming with their heads above water and moving their muscular tails sideways to propel themselves forward.

Marine iguanas can dive to 35 feet and stay under water, eating seaweed on the ocean floor, for at least an hour.

This is pretty hard work for a cold-blooded reptile in the chilly waters of the Galapagos.

Like all cold-blooded animals, the marine iguana's body temperature varies with that of its environment. At night, marine iguanas sleep in rock cracks or under leaves. Some even climb shrubs to snooze on the branches.

In the morning, the cooled lizards haul themselves onto black lava rocks near the shore. There, the sun and rocks heat the lizards, giving them the energy to jump in the water and graze.

When they get either full or cold, they head back to the warm slabs and hang out, sometimes by the hundreds, getting their body temperatures back to a comfortable 95 to 100 degrees.

Marine iguanas accumulate a lot of salt during their days in the ocean, but these reptiles have highly effective salt glands connected to the nostrils.

To get rid of excess salt, the lizards sneeze the crystals out in an impressive white spray.

The sight of these primeval lizards -- basking in the late afternoon sun, their heads held high, their demeanor so regal -- nearly moved me to tears the one time I visited the Galapagos.

And they're totally fearless. I could walk, even lie, among the iguana crowd and not cause so much as a flicker of an eyelid.

Of all the amazing animals and breath-taking scenery of the Galapagos Islands, the marine iguanas remain high on my list of favorites.

And that's why I was so disappointed with the movie.

Godzilla eats fish. OK, OK, so maybe he's part water monitor. The filmmakers did give us a glimpse of a few monitor lizards at the start of the movie.

Monitor lizards are big, scary meat-eaters with a striking resemblance to dragons. Some monitor lizards take to the water to hunt, eating fish and anything else they can catch. Others readily climb tall trees in search of prey.

OK. So even if Godzilla is part marine iguana, part water monitor, I still hate him being portrayed as just a thug with big feet, stomping on people, eating cars and demolishing buildings.

Real-life lizards are far better. A true Godzilla would bask on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport, rain salt all over Manhattan, then eat Central Park.

Maybe in the sequel.




Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,