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NATURE HAPPENINGS - August 2003

Smart Like A Lizardo
by Damian Fagan

Summer is a lizard’s time. These cold-blooded reptiles thrive in the heat of summer, although they too know when to shade up and let the heat of a day pass. Lizards and snakes have little ability to control their internal temperature, and though they are active in the warmer months, they cannot tolerate excessive temperatures.

In August, several large lizards are commonly observed here in Canyon Country. The Longnose Leopard Lizard has a long snout, averages 8-15 inches in length, has tan to dark brown color, and is spotted with dark spots; hence, its common name resemblance to the African cat. These lizards inhabit open country, grasslands and shrub lands, where they use their predatory speed and agility to catch insects and small lizards - sometimes even their own species. To further their “leopard” connection, these lizards watch and wait for prey then run them down with a quick burst of speed.

Gravid or pregnant female Leopard Lizards, develop orange or scarlet spots or streaks on her sides. These may last several weeks after she has deposited her eggs in some protective burrow. If times are favorable, these lizards may lay a second clutch of eggs in August. Unlike birds, there is no adult to incubate the eggs.

The scientific name for the Leopard Lizard is Gambelia wislizenii. Gambelia honors William Gambel (1821-1849) an assistant curator of the Natural Academy of Sciences who collected plants in the West. Though he died at the age of 28 during a winter crossing of the Sierra Mountains, his memory lives on through Gambel’s quail and Gambel’s oak. The specific name or species name honors Frederick Wislizenus (1810-1889), a German physician who immigrated to the United States and collected many specimens of the flora and fauna of the Southwest.

Besides the colorful Collared Lizard, a relative of the Leopard Lizard, the Desert Spiny Lizard can also be observed in August. Unlike the Leopard Lizard, the Desert Spiny occupies tree or shrub-dominated habitats. These lizards may be seen climbing a tree or loafing on a stout limb or scampering across open ground in search of prey. Prey consists of smaller lizards, beetles, other insects, and even flowers and nectar.

Because of their arboreal nature, Desert Spiny Lizards have shorter hind legs than their ground-dwelling relatives. Their dorsal scales (on their backs) are very keeled and pointed almost giving these reptiles a “moused” appearance. A small black collar encircles their neck. Smaller than a Leopard Lizard, these are stout looking lizards.

Seemingly safe from ground predators, Desert Spinies have to contend with whipsnakes or gopher snakes, both of which may climb trees in search of prey. Younger lizards may fall prey to these snakes, but sometimes the snakes catch an adult. It is almost comical to watch the snake try to swallow the large lizard.

Another of the spiny lizards that is active in August is the Eastern Fence or Plateau lizard. These lizards are often referred to as “blue bellies” due to the blue markings on the undersides of the males. These markings are very evident during mating displays when the males engage in a variety of “athletic” moves that resemble movements in a workout video. Head bobbing, bowing, pushups, and flattening of their sides, are all behavioral attributes meant to exhibit these blue markings to prospective mates or to deter rivals.

Smaller than Desert Spiny Lizards, the Plateau Lizards are found on trees, boulders, canyon walls or rocky areas. Searching out small insects, these lizards seem to favor beetles.

So if you’re out in the noonday heat of August, take some advice from your reptilian ancestors - be smart like a lizardo. Pass some time in the cooler shade of a tree or boulder. Though we may have better control over our internal temperatures, we too cannot tolerate well those excessive summer temperatures.

 

 

Check back soon for some really cool lizardo pictures.

 

 

 

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