A movie like The Amazing Spider-Man is not one that requires an examination of how realistic the plot is. Sure, you can think about whether the characters are real and three-dimensional. But then you think about whether the action is awesome (and three-dimensional, in this case) and you probably don’t care that getting attacked by a radioactive spider is not really the most likely event. In fact, the slim-to-none chance of that happening in real life may be one of the most attractive things about the story.
But—and here’s where the spoilers come in—there’s one very important plot point that had us scratching our heads. The villain in the movie is that herpetological Mr. Hyde: The Lizard, reptilian alter-ego of Dr. Curt Connors (played by Rhys Ifans). Spider-Man sees a lizard on the street, and then gets the idea to use New York City’s lizards to track down the big bad one in his subterranean sewer den. Watching the movie here in that same city, a question is raised by Peter Parker’s ingenuity. “We have lizards?”
Short answer: as a matter of fact, yes. Good job, Spider-Man.
TIME spoke to herpetologist Zoltan Takacs, who points out two lizards that could have helped Peter Parker on his quest: the Italian Wall Lizard, Podarcis sicula, a foreign species introduced via pet trade in the 1960s, and the Northern Fence Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus, which was brought to Staten Island from New Jersey in 1942 to feed lizard-eating snakes at the island’s zoo and still lives in Staten Island and north of the Bronx. (It’s a “B&T” or bridge-and-tunnel lizard, Takacs jokes.) The Wall Lizards are a good city lizard because they like to sit on, well, walls. “It prefers sunny, dry, rocky areas, walls of undisturbed old buildings, bridges—places that you would find in and around parts of NYC,” says Takacs. They do just fine in the New York climate, hibernating through the winters. The five-lined skink (Plestiodon [Eumeces] fasciatus) lives nearby too, but it sticks to the suburbs.
But that doesn’t mean the movie is scientist-approved. “Lizards, like other reptiles, need external heat to operate,” says Takacs, so they stay in the sun—and, in the Wall Lizard’s case, on dry land. So even though Spidey follows the lizards into the sewer, real lizards would likely run the other way. Plus, most city lizards live in captivity.
While Takacs was answering questions, we couldn’t resist: what about Spider-Man himself? Takacs’ specialty happens to be as a toxinologist; he studies venomous animals, including spiders. But he hadn’t seen the movie, wasn’t familiar with the mythology of the character and couldn’t comment on the feasibility of a radioactive spider bite imbuing a misfit teen with super powers. He does think that bites get a bad rap. “Most people don’t realize that snake and lizard venoms are used for saving lives,” he says. “If anybody in New York City gets a heart attack and ends up at Columbia’s Presbyterian hospital, he’s likely to be saved by a drug from snake venom. One of the best-selling drugs of all time for high blood pressure comes from snake venoms. And there is one from my favorite lizard, the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum)—this lizard venom is the source of a powerful drug for diabetes.” Spider venom is also in drug trials at the moment. And maybe the radioactive thing is not so far-fetched after all. Takacs mentioned another drug currently in trial, a drug meant to cure brain tumors—and it’s made from radioactive scorpion venom.