Monday, May 25, 2009

Lizard Safari

October 2008
Armed with a butterfly net, field guide and a shoebox, my six-year-old son and I embark on a neighborhood safari in search of tigers, leopards and zebras. This is not a pretend expedition: these are common names of some of the dozens of lizard species that live around Phoenix. Maricopa County is heaven for serious herpetologists, those who study reptiles and amphibians. My son has added herpetologist to a long list of professions he intends to pursue in his lifetime, so we are living in the right place. Of over 130 “herp” species that occur in the entire state of Arizona, 82 can be found in this county. Twenty-eight of those are lizards, which includes geckos, skinks, iguanas and Gila monsters.

While many reptilian creatures, especially rattlesnakes, inspire terror in most people, nearly everyone loves lizards. Local lizards are not venomous, except for the rarely seen Gila monster. Lizards are great for natural pest management, feasting on crickets, termites, spiders and other critters we don’t like to have in our houses. They remind us of dinosaurs and dragons, every child’s fantasy pet. Lizards are just plain cute.

We spot our first specimen basking on a boulder, well camouflaged against the brown and gray speckled rock. Flipping through our field guide, we discover that we’ve found one of the most ubiquitous of Arizona’s herps, the ornate tree lizard. These little guys have adapted to just about every habitat in the state, from the most remote canyons of the Colorado River to cinder-block “cliffs” in downtown Phoenix. Plus, as their name suggests, they like to climb trees. Blue patches on the sides of its belly tell us that this one is a male. The tree lizard darts under a spiny cholla cactus, where we decide to let it be.

Up the wash, another lizard dashes across the path. “Look, a tiger!” shouts Orion. He races after the lizard, a young tiger whiptail. Eleven of the 50+ species of lizard in Arizona are whiptails, distinguished by slender tails that are longer than their body. Juveniles of this species have bright blue tails and pinstripes on their back. As they age, the stripes and tails fade to a mottled brown. These guys are tricky to catch, being ultra-speedy, but this one is no match for an eager first grader. The lizard squirms in the net and is then put into the cardboard box so we can get a close look at him. Or is it a her? Many whiptail species are known to be parthenogenetic, meaning that entire populations are all females that produce eggs without mating. Ours is not a clone, however, since tiger whiptails reproduce the old fashioned way. At this lizard’s young age, however, it’s tough to tell male from female.

This is a catch and release expedition, so we gently let the tiger go under a shrub, where it disappears quickly in a rustle of dry leaves. We move on to check dark crevices in a boulder field for chuckwallas. These are the behemoths of Sonoran desert lizards, measuring up to a foot and a half from their nose to the tip of their tail. Our next-door neighbor had seen one nearby just a week before. No such luck today. Back home, we add the day’s observations to our Deem Hills wildlife log, which now has eight kinds of lizard. Not bad for a suburban safari!

Want to learn more about lizards in your backyard? Check out “A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona” by Thomas Brennan and Andrew Holycross, or log on to their nifty website at

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