The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Lizards Love Warm Weather
by Ro Wauer

Almost everyone likes lizards. Unlike closely related snakes, lizards have somehow passed the test of what yard critters are acceptable. They possess legs, unlike snakes, and so do not crawl about on their bellies; they can run about with amazing speed. Plus, lizards often seem as curious about us as we are about them. And they live in and around our homes, so finding a lizard or two is never much of a chore. Especially during the warmer days of spring, summer and fall, lizards can be commonplace.

My yard, assumedly fairly typical of most non-urban yards (I live in the Mission Valley area of Victoria County), contains five species of diurnal lizards: Carolina anole, Texas spiny lizard, six-lined racerunner, prairie lizard, and ground skink. Although when I wrote a nature note about my yard lizards in 1995, anoles where far and away the most numerous of the five, now, anoles are far less numerous and spiny lizards have increased. Racerunners, prairie lizards, and ground skinks are also reasonably common. Actually, ground skinks are the most numerous, but since they are less obvious, spending most of their time among the leaf litter, they don't get equal observation time.

Anoles are one of my favorite lizards, probably because they seem to have more personality than the others. This 3- to 4-inch lizard, sometimes known as chameleon, changes color from deep green to brown or grayish color, depending upon the substrate. Males often perch on a favorite spot and will chase other males away when they get too close. They have a habit of puffing out their throat on territory to expose a pinkish dewlap and doing a few bobs of the head or push-ups. If a rival male continues to trespass, a heated battle, with much biting, is possible. The resident male almost always is the victor, and the intruder flees.

The Texas spiny lizard is a stocky lizard with a rather scaly appearance. Most individuals are 5 to 7 inches in length, but an old-timer, that has somehow survived the predation of a number of birds, especially roadrunners and red-shouldered hawks, can reach 11 inches. This is the "rusty lizard" that prefers woodpiles, trees, and rocky places but occasionally is found in the open. Males possess a narrow light blue area, without a black border, at each side of the belly.

The six-lined racerunner is the most streamlined of my yard lizards, with a long, slender body and an extremely long tail, a total of 6 to 9 inches. The color pattern on the back consists of six light and six dark stripes, and its underparts are plain. Males sport bluish underparts. This is an active, rather bold lizard that moves in a jerky fashion when hunting, but runs away very fast when disturbed. It prefers more open, harder terrain, where it can outrun its predators.

The prairie lizard, the least common of my five species, is a 5-inch lizard with a light brown stripe, edged with lighter stripes, down its back. Males possess two long, narrow light blue patches, one at each side of the belly, bordered with black. It seems to prefer sparse ground cover.

The ground skink is less obvious, because it lives among the ground cover and humus. It is also one of the poorly marked lizards, sporting a smooth, brown to golden back, with a slightly darker stripe down the back and very short legs. Rarely more than 5 inches in length, the ground skink with slither into the humus if possible, rather than run away like most lizards. Two nighttime lizards are also resident in my yard area, the banded and Mediterranean geckos. Both are most obvious around outdoor lighting where they come to rather insects attracted to the lights.

Population changes in lizards are fascinating, and it largely is due to the population of predators. Although I still have a few anoles, the current number is only a tenth of what it was ten years ago. But the number of anole predators, including spiny lizards and red-shouldered hawks, has notably increased. My yard, in a sense, is but one tiny example of the natural changes that exist in nature worldwide.

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