Whether you have a pet iguana of your own, work with iguanas in any capacity, or are merely fascinated by these massive lizards, you’ve probably wondered at some point what their teeth look like. Furthermore, do iguanas bite, and are these supposed mini-Godzillas and their chompers truly as they look? After all, even though most iguanas are fairly docile herbivores, their bites have caused countless injuries to unsuspecting or ignorant reptile owners. So are iguanas dangerous, or are they just misunderstood?
In reality, although iguana teeth are intimidating at first glance, most iguanid lizards rarely bite unless they are provoked. Read on as we take a closer look at the average iguana’s dentition and behavior. We’ll also discuss how you can avoid being bitten the next time you encounter one of these majestic reptiles.
Do Iguanas Have Teeth?
Even though you’ve probably never gotten close enough to an iguana to see them, iguanas actually do have teeth! In fact, they have lots of them. They’re born with fully-formed teeth that are immediately ready to start tearing into dense plant growth! Alternatively, if they’re one of the rarer omnivorous species, their teeth can also rip apart insects and other animal matter.
Inside an iguana’s mouth are four equal quadrants. Each quadrant has between 20 and 30 teeth. Those teeth are constantly growing, being worn down, and being replaced by new teeth. In total, an iguana’s mouth has between 80 and 120 diamond-shaped teeth at a time! These teeth are small and translucent yet sharp. They resemble a serrated edge, sort of like the “teeth” on a steak knife.
Next, we’ll get more into the specifics of the structure of reptile teeth and what unique type iguana teeth fall under. We’ll also learn more about how these teeth are replaced over time and why they are so perfectly suited to an iguana’s diet and lifestyle.
Types of Reptile Teeth
Nearly all reptiles have teeth that fall under at least one of the following categories: acrodont teeth, thecodont teeth, or pleurodont teeth.
Acrodont teeth are common amongst small lizards like chameleons and bearded dragons. They are loosely fused to the surface of the lizard’s jaw bone rather than deeply embedded into the jaw. These teeth do not replace themselves over time. They are uniformly pointy and triangle-shaped yet fairly weak and prone to breakage.
Thecodont teeth are the largest, strongest, and rarest type of reptile dentition. They are only present in the mouths of crocodilians such as crocodiles and caimans. Thecodont teeth grow from deep-set sockets or ridges along the reptile’s jaw bone. As a result, thecodont teeth are more rigid and better suited for taking down large prey. These teeth can be present in many different sizes and shapes.
Finally, there’s pleurodont teeth. These are present in larger lizards’ mouths like monitor lizards and iguanas as well as some smaller species like geckos. All iguanid lizards are pleurodonts, such as green iguanas, marine iguanas, and spiny-tailed iguanas.
Pleurodont teeth are similar to acrodont teeth. They are attached to the surface of the jaw rather than growing from deep within the jaw bone itself like thecodont teeth. However, pleurodont teeth have a stronger attachment to the jaw bone than acrodont teeth, and new teeth are constantly growing in to replace the older, weaker ones.
Do Iguanas Bite?
Even though iguanas mostly use their teeth to tear into plants, they can still do significant damage to unsuspecting animals and humans. But it’s not just their teeth that can be dangerous! Iguanas have very strong jaw bones and muscles that can clamp onto a predator animal (or your finger, for example) and cause nasty wounds that often require stitches or, in rare cases, surgery.
In addition to their painful bite, iguanas often carry and spread salmonella bacteria. This makes them especially dangerous if an iguana bite happens to break the skin and draw blood. As they are pleurodonts, iguanas also commonly shed their teeth when they bite. These tiny teeth can become embedded in their bite wounds and cause bacterial infections.
Are Iguanas Dangerous or Aggressive?
Fortunately, iguana bites and attacks are rare. Most species aren’t particularly aggressive towards humans or other animals unless they are provoked or stressed. They also display plenty of warning signals before they bite, like rapid head bobbing, defensive tail whipping, or hissing.
As we touched on earlier, iguanas are mostly herbivorous or omnivorous species that aren’t interested in large prey. This means they tend to avoid interacting with humans or other large animals that could pose a threat to them. However, wild male iguanas can be a bit territorial during their breeding season at the end of every summer.
You can easily prevent being bitten by an iguana by avoiding approaching them (if they’re wild) or handling them with care (if they’re captive and/or your own pet). If you must handle an iguana, approach them from the side very slowly so they aren’t overwhelmed by your shadow. Completely support their body and tail with one arm under their belly while your other arm restrains them.
If you own a pet iguana, you should begin socializing and handling them as early as possible from a young age. Consistent, careful handling will gradually encourage the iguana to be more calm and docile around you as they age and grow into their full adult size, which is when they are capable of doing the most damage. Don’t rush into holding and handling them. Instead, start out with petting them and generally just getting them used to your touch, scent, and presence.
What To Do If An Iguana Bites You
If you end up being bitten by an iguana, don’t panic or make any sudden movements or loud noises. Upsetting the lizard more can cause them to lash out further and be more aggressive towards a perceived threat.
Most iguanas will release their jaws immediately after biting and flee. However, if an iguana is clinging to you and just won’t let go, you can disorient them either by covering their head with a blanket or towel or holding an alcohol-soaked rag near their nose. Household cleaners containing ammonia also work for this purpose. Just be sure you don’t get the alcohol or chemicals in their mouth or nose.
Another tactic that helps in this situation is to slowly and carefully lower the iguana to the ground. This will give them more solid footing. Don’t dangle them around or try to fling them, as this will cause their jaws to clamp down even harder. Alternatively, try to hold the iguana upside-down and gently tug on their dewlap to get them to release their grip.
Being patient is crucial here, as much as the bite probably hurts. Once the iguana has released you, clean the wound with something like Betadine and hot, soapy water. Many injuries will need stitches and further medical treatment like antibiotics, since iguanas can transmit salmonella bacteria. As a general rule, if the bite has broken the skin, it’s best to seek medical treatment immediately.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.