Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Northern Alligator Lizard: We have lizards in Western Washington? You’re kidding, right?

I so clearly remember the afternoon about 20 years ago, working in my yard. I was rummaging around some old rotting logs that were mixed in under a thick growth of salal when suddenly something quickly moved and stopped. I immediately of course assume “oh, yet another garter snake”. But then I looked more closely: what WAS this thing!? I was thinking “salamander” but no, it sure wasn’t that either. After getting photographs developed (yes, this was WAY back in ancient times of only shooting with film!) I finally figured out that we have lizards around our neck of the woods! Yes, the Northern Alligator Lizard is a remarkable reptile that is fairly common but usually hidden from view.
The Northern Alligator Lizard ranges up to 13 inches in length. However all of the specimens I’ve witnessed over the past 20 years have been in the 7-8 inch range. This alligator lizard species prefers our cool shady forests. They range from the southern portions of British Columbia down through the Pacific Northwest. One thing that makes the Northern species stand out from others is that they give birth to live young. The Southern Alligator Lizard and most others lay eggs. Northern Alligator Lizards are found in cooler and wetter environments than most any other species of lizard. They are often found in forest clearings or edges, under logs and other surface debris. They can also be found in talus slopes that are associated with forests. And what an amazing banquet of foods they eat. They feed on a wide range of little critters such as insects, ticks, spiders, millipedes, and snails. Thus I’m a very huge fan of these amazing creatures if they eat ticks---one of the few things on this earth that I completely detest!
Able to reproduce each year, they have anywhere from one to eight young. I was surprised to learn that they have a life expectancy of up to eight years. You may not have ever seen them before, but it isn’t likely due to your not paying attention. They make extensive use of cover such as rocks, logs, and shrubs. But they don’t go far either. Most individuals are site faithful, remaining in the same area (within a 100 foot radius) for three consecutive years. I was greatly humored over one last fact about them which was news to me: lizards with shorter tails have slower sprint speeds. I’m still trying to find out more detailed information to know WHY this is the case, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
So get outside this summer and kick some rocks and logs around a bit. Snoop around in some dark corners of your property if you border forested areas. You just might be able to startle yourselves and see these hidden creatures of our unknown world! But if you so choose to please handle them very carefully, if at all. Alligator lizards have a tail that easily breaks off and they also have strong enough jaws to give a serious bite!

8 comments:

  1. Here is a friends response about "lizards with shorter tails have slower sprint speeds."

    First all lizards can lose their tails. It sort of depends on the species but there are two main reasons, (now remember there are exceptions to every rule). Some lizard tails are a defense mechanism that fools the predator into going after the tail rather than the body, and the tail drops off. We have a skink here in the Pacific Northwest that will have a bright blue tail as a juvenile...the predator goes after the bright tail and the skink gets away. It grows back. Also, for many species, desert geckos and gila monsters for example, it is a way to store fat for lean times. Slow lizards should have a fat tail that looks almost like somebody tied a ballon to their butt. If you see the vertabrae, that is a sick lizard. Most fat tail lizards are desert animals, again think Gilas, that live in an environment where it can be feast or famine. Also, they have come up with other creative ways to defend themselve...can't be burning too many calories when you aren't sure when your next meal may show up.
    In long tail lizards, the tail helps with locamotion and balance and also in males for territorial dominance...if a lizard is a "fast" lizard it's tail is going across a horizontal surface the tail acts as a counter balance to its S shaped running form...lizard that lose their tails are slower (they don't have the counter momentum) kind of like if you made a kid sprint but they couldn't pump their arms. For lizards running up a vertical surface, the tail becomes a fifth foot that "anchors" them to the surface with two of their feet while the other two are getting new holds (how rock climbers always talk about three points). From there it's just a bit of Darwin...if a longer tail helps you sprint faster you are less likely to end up as redtail dinner, while your shorter tail sibling ends up as todays appetizer.

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  2. Oh God... The snake picture is awesome. I wish I also could have taken a picture of this snake. But I am little scary about this.

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  3. We now have an Aligator Lizard that lounges around our porch and retreats in the evening to our forest area. Cool little dude!

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  4. I grew up in North Eastern Oregon and lizards were not a rare thing at all. They had detachable tails too.

    I also remember the insects we called "sand crickets" that some people freak out about when they see them. Ant lions were also in abundance.

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  5. Is this Lizard? At first sight I think this is a snake. They are looking like a snake. You took a rear photo. Thank you shearing such a beautiful post.

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  6. Wow! so wonderful picture. There are two lizards I am totally confused. How can you shot this. This is right perfection. Only lucky parson can shot this type of photograph. And Thank you so much for sharing so wonderful post.

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  7. This is really rear picture. Your timing is wonderful and perfect. Great job.

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  8. We have many N. aligator lizards in the southwest Thurston County, where the habitat ranges prairie to mixed conifer/deciduous/oak. They like wood or rock piles, mole tunnels, and other good hiding spots. We shoo them off the paved roads in the evening to keep them from becoming flat lizards - one tried to run away by crawling up my wife's leg. Just this week a lizard has taken up residence in our garage - his tail is longer than the rest of his body. I'd like him to stay and help with the wintering insects. Any suggestions on keeping him/her healthy? Andy near Yelm, WA.

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