Alleged serial bomber Eric Rudolph claims to have survived his first winter on the lam primarily by eating lizards. Is he fibbing, or could such a reptile-heavy diet really keep a man alive for months?
Almost certainly not, especially given the dearth of sizable lizards in the Western Carolina mountains. The region’s most abundant species are classified as skinks and include the five-lined skink. These slender critters rarely grow longer than a man’s hand and can weigh as little as a tenth of an ounce. Lizard meat provides about 50 calories per ounce, putting it on par with chicken. Assuming that Rudolph needed to consume a bare minimum of 1,500 calories per day—a very generous assumption, since winter survival is particularly grueling—he’d need to dine on nearly two pounds’ worth of lizards each day. That’s somewhere between 100 and 300 skinks, which means he’d have to spend virtually every waking moment turning over rocks and peering into rotted logs.
It’s possible that Rudolph also incorporated salamanders into his diet, as the lizardlike amphibians are plentiful in the Southeast. Still, salamanders and lizards are hard to locate and capture, especially in the dense forest that Rudolph called home—salamanders in particular, as they are nocturnal. Wilderness survival experts recommend preying on frogs and snakes instead, since they’re less skilled at evasive maneuvers. Rudolph would also have been well-advised to focus his lizard-hunting efforts on the early morning hours, when the creatures are sluggish because they’ve yet to receive adequate sunlight.
As an ex-soldier, Rudolph was likely familiar with the Army’s survival manual, which contains tips on worst-case-scenario cuisine. The book clearly states that reptiles should be cooked thoroughly, as the raw flesh often contains dangerous parasites. On the plus side, cold-blooded animals don’t carry blood diseases. And Carolina lizards aren’t poisonous, so there’s no need to worry about crunching into a venomous sac.
Although lizards are rarely eaten in the West, they frequently appear on menus overseas. The animals are considered a delicacy in China’s Guangdong province, for example, though the government has been cracking down on wild-animal markets to discourage new disease outbreaks in the wake of SARS. In Vietnam, some species are believed to promote male virility, and roasted lizards are enjoyed in parts of Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Americans who’ve sampled the flesh report that it tastes like chicken.
Explainer thanks Ron Hood of Survival.comand Michael Dorcas of Davidson College.