Watching gila monsters is a lot easier than bird watching. For one thing, you don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. or squint through binoculars to see one. And there’s no mistaking this plump, pink and black beaded creature for anything else in the known universe.
I met my first gila (Heloderma suspectum) at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona. It was a spring morning and the sun was already hot. While inspecting an irrigation line, I discovered him following my path lapping up small puddles of water from around one plant after another. I walked over for a closer look, but the lizard just lumbered along, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Secure in his venomous defenses, he was in no rush. I felt privileged to have one all to myself, especially considering gila monsters spend almost all of their time underground. Lacking a camera, I followed him and stared, fixing his image on my brain. Though they’re not supposed to get longer than 14 inches, I remember mine as much bigger, which is probably true of most gila monster sightings.
After a half hour of this, I began to wonder if the lizard would ever leave. What’s more, he appeared to be completely ignoring me. Succumbing to boyish temptation, I held up the end of my boot just close enough to get his attention. The creature did what any red-blooded gila monster would do—he hissed and gaped at me in true TV nature drama fashion, confirming yet again the innate stupidity of the male human species. Then he walked off in a huff down the hillside.
Most lizard watching is not like this. Our local striped whiptails, for instance, usually appear as wavy brown bands, pulsing across the landscape in jerky strobe light movements. But when they step out of their world onto the patio around our cabin, they skittle across the glossy concrete surface, their long toes spinning around spasmodically like some cartoon creature. It is only then, when their attention is focused on the abundant supply of crickets and other insects in this hostile zone, that I can see them more clearly. I note that our patio whiptail has a dark brown body and usually a light blue tail, which my field guide tells me is the plateau whiptail (Aspidoscelis velox). At least I think it is. Or it could be the desert grassland whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens), whose tail is supposed to more of a dull blue. I have spent many a morning just trying to differentiate between shades of whiptail blue.
Lizard identification is often a catch as catch can process. Lizards don’t usually hang around in one place for long. As for picking one up for a closer look, forget it. Even if I could catch one, the stress on both the lizard and me would not be worth it. So the resourceful lizard watcher must grab whatever details are offered in these brief glimpses, just as astronomers of old used to peer through their telescopes at planetary features that constantly shifted and darted out of their vision with the moving atmosphere. By capturing a few key markings or colors, and using a good field guide with range maps, I can usually arrive through a process of elimination at a positive ID.
That is the way I discovered that we have yet another species of whiptail inhabiting our five acres. Catching a glimpse of movement, I followed her to a nearby scrub oak and slowly peeked over the shrub. The whiptail froze at my approach, then flattened her body, revealing numerous small white spots between her stripes. Also, there was no blue to the tail. These two details, coupled with the range map, nailed her as a gila whiptail (Aspidoscelis flagellicauda). The habitat was right too. Since this species actively forages along riparian corridors up into conifer forests, she was probably following one of the two washes bounding our land.
At least I don’t have to worry about telling the whiptail sexes apart. All of ours are female and reproduce through parthenogenesis. That is, they reproduce asexually, producing hatchlings that are clones of the mother. It is intriguing to speculate how and when such a system got started and how long it will continue. Perhaps we human males should not take our evolutionary future for granted.
Like the gila monster, some lizards have such a unique appearance that identification is easy. Such was the case with the greater short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) I first observed just down the road from our home. Sometimes called a horny toad by locals, this lizard does sort of resemble a spiky toad, with stubby tail and short horn-like scales behind its head. The range map told me that this is the only species of horned lizard known to occur in our area. I have also observed this species up on the Mogollon Rim at 8,000 feet, which is not exactly a reptile paradise. The creature must spend most of the year underground beneath the frost line to survive. The horned lizard usually stays motionless to avoid detection, so once you spot one you don’t have to work up a sweat. Since mine was sitting in the middle of the road, I gently scooped him up and placed him out of harm’s way on the roadside.
Another “easy” lizard is the collared lizard. Ours is known as the eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris). It is hard to confuse this substantial, muscular-limbed lizard with any other. When you first observe his stunning blue-green body, with two black collars, light polka dots and yellow front feet, he seems more like a brightly painted toy lizard than a real one. The colors seem too outrageous to be real. But then he moves and the wonder begins. You’ll often see this aggressive, territorial lizard sitting on a large rock. With an imposing head, he must seem like a miniature Tyrannosaurus to the other lizards, which he often eats.
Far less intimidating—unless you’re a bug—is the ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus). His background color is a dull gray or tan, like the scaly bark of the trees he often frequents, adorned with pairs of distinctive dark brown crossbars. Though said to be common, he is an uncommonly beautiful, elfin creature darting on delicate claws in and out of the shadows.
But my “main man” saurian is the plateau lizard (Sceloporus tristichus). He looks like your everyday grayish brown, stocky little business man lizard with an unassuming appearance. At first glance you don’t notice anything particularly striking about him. I think it was his relatively bland nature that first challenged me to think more about this lizard world I inhabit. It was just another lizard, but what kind? So I started crouching over the patio boulder where I first saw these lizards, and began really looking at them.
The first thing I noticed was the confusing range of characteristics exhibited by different individuals. Some appeared to have light stripes running down their backs, others did not. Some had noticeable brown blotches, or were they cross bars? And was that a blue patch on its belly or was I seeing things? Only after repeat observations and learning how to immerse myself in these quiet lizard moments was I able to gradually sort these things out. A camera also helped. Nothing like a good close-up to clear up fleeting glimpses.
Of all our species, these plateau lizards are the ones that most closely share our living space. They live on and in the boulders and stone wall that adjoin our patio. The wall was built chiefly to discourage javelinas and rabbits from chewing on our cactus and other plants or at least to slow them down a bit. The local plateau lizards view it as their own private Disney World, complete with shady condo crevices. As I have come to better know these lizards they have grown near and dear to me. Somewhere in the hidden rooms of our patio wall they must mate and lay small clutches of eggs, for each spring and summer I see their tiny offspring emerging. And I welcome these tiny replicas of their parents into our world.
It was while moving a plant along the same stone wall one June morning that I finally and conclusively recognized (I think) my most recent acquaintance, the greater earless lizard (Cophosaurus texanus). As I strained to record whatever distinctive traits I could, the lizard surprised me with a new maneuver: instead of retreating from me, he actually ran toward me, then perched on a nearby boulder. Then he bobbed his head in typical male fashion and wagged his tail, curling it up behind him in the exact way I had hoped, revealing the telltale black bands against a white underside. This was the third time I had observed this species, and this was the final clue I was looking for. I was about to go inside and pour myself a celebratory drink, but instead crouched there inelegantly to see what else he might do. One thing the lizard wasn’t doing was going away. As I watched, he sat there in the warm sunshine, even closing his eyes temporarily as if to demonstrate complete disregard for my presence.
After five minutes of this, both my knees and my patience were starting to get the better of me, so I did what any other playful 60-year old male might do—I started wiggling my little finger on the ground in my best “come hither” impression of either a big fat worm or perhaps a female lizard. Well that got his attention. With eyes now bulging, he bobbed his head in apparent frustration. But possibly sensing something not quite right with my finger, he advanced no closer. So I tried my forefinger instead, but no luck. The lizard stared at me as I began to wonder who the smarter creature was.
It was only after consulting my field guide that I discovered my faux pas. The prominent pink throat patch and the hint of salmon along its sides, coupled with the subdued and hardly noticeable side bars just in front of the hind legs, could mean only one thing: my lizard was a she. This pink and salmon coloration occurs in females only during the breeding season of spring and summer. So why was she bobbing her head at me?
Just as humans do, lizards display their emotions in a variety of ways. These display behaviors are unique to each species and may include not only the familiar head bobbing and push ups but also inflating the throat or body, gaping, biting, chasing, lunging, and a subtle shuddering of the whole body. These displays can be combative in nature, as between males of the same species establishing dominance or territory, or between lizards of different species or even with wholly different critters like me. They can also assist in courtship, though I seriously doubt if my female lizard had this in mind. I can only guess at what she might have been trying to say to me.
My wife, Josie, when I told her my story, had another question: why are you tormenting that poor lizard? I hadn’t thought of it that way. I was just seeing what the lizard would do. Though I doubt if I seriously traumatized the creature, Josie did have a point. I was no passive observer. I was a ringmaster, sticking my hoop out for the lizard to jump through and entertain me.
But I’d like to think there is something more to these all too brief lizard encounters. Every time I see a lizard, even one that I have seen dozens of times, I am filled with a joy that I have seldom felt toward another creature.
This might have something to do with my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, both the real ones as depicted in museums as well as those of early Hollywood, involving modern day lizards in frilly outfits. It could also be that lizards were always foreign to me while growing up in suburban Connecticut, where you had to really work at seeing a lizard. Only one lizard species—the five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus)—isfound in Connecticut or anywhere else in New England, occurring there only in widely scattered populations. So it is not surprising that I never met one in nature. Lizards had to wait until much later when I first visited the Arizona desert and thrilled to the exotic otherness of this elusive, fleet-footed creature darting across my path.
Now that I live in northern Arizona, you would think I might have become blasé about seeing lizards. But that first enchantment has never left me. Each time I see one is like the first. Invariably I stop, stare and then smile. I get warm and fuzzy inside, as some people do when they see a bunny or deer. And at the risk of being overly sentimental, I prefer to think of them more as fellow living beings than “its”, as is evident from my use of personal pronouns in describing them.
Maybe the lizard is my animal spirit guide or totem. According to American Indian beliefs, one does not choose one’s animal guide. Rather, the animal chooses you and decides whether to reveal itself to you. I don’t know if my lizard friends have any special medicine for me or can lead me on my spiritual journey. But I do feel there is a two way street here. With a bit of patient observation I have tried to know my lizards better, and they have revealed things not only about themselves but about me.
With its hard scales and claws, the lizard stares back at me across the eons, reminding me of another time when his kind still ruled the earth. But unlike the warm-blooded dinosaurs and the modern birds they became, the lizard still goes about its ectothermic way, reducing its metabolic rate to almost nothing when necessary and adjusting its internal body temperature by following the sun.
Maybe that is why, having followed the sun to a warmer climate myself, I especially relate to lizards. Despite my constant body temperature, I too require a certain level of external warmth to energize my being. Here at 5,000 feet in the mixed pinyon-juniper and chaparral highlands where I live there are only a few months of frost-free lizard days. In fall, as nights become crisp and I retreat to my fireplace, the lizards retreat into the earth to their secret lairs below the frost line. I think of them often as I sit in my rocking chair next to the window, trying to soak up enough rays to get me going. I imagine their curled up bodies in deathlike repose beneath the rocky outcrops, and wish them well. And I look forward to that first day in late winter or early spring when lizards rule my earth again. © Gene Twaronite 2012
Originally published in Snowy Egret (the oldest independent U.S. journal of nature writing) 2011