Lizards don’t have big brown eyes, perky ears, or a button nose. They lack the fur and facial hair necessary to hide a multitude of pimply and scaly sins. To call them homely would be a compliment. Their appearance is wizened, scarred, and Jurassic from the moment they’re hatched.
But lizards may be doing something rather beautiful these days -- no, I know it’s spring, but I’m not thinking what you’re thinking. I mean beautiful in regards to mankind – but more on that later.
Lizards first crawled upon this earth about 300 million years ago, which puts their arrival somewhere between primordial ooze and the first dinosaur. In other words, they’re among our planet’s ultimate survivors. Not only have they been around the block, they’ve been around whatever it was that preceded the block, and have the world-weary looks to prove it.
There are – depending on whose word you take for this, 3,000 to 5,000 different lizard species, and they claim homes on every continent except Antarctica. Out of that vast number of species, remarkably, few pose any real danger to humans.
Most lizards have a full set of sensory receptors. They have ears, and they can see. Their sense of smell requires a two-step process – and it’s something akin to wine-tasting – they suck in a molecule of tasty air on the tongue which then goes back for technical analysis to the scent cells located in their mouth.
They also have a nervous system, evolved enough to register touch, and perhaps evolved enough to register pain.
Here in Southern California, and certainly Altadena, we have two species that have been spectacularly and visibly successful – the alligator lizard and the western fence lizard.
The alligator lizards are the longer ones, typically 8 inches from nose to tail, and usually found under and in between objects. When they bite, it hurts, so don’t mess with them.
The western fence lizard, on the other hand, is the benign little chap you find copping rays or doing push-ups on rocks and walls and other elevated surfaces. One reason this lizard hits the gym is to show off the lovely iridescent blue that colors his underbelly. Though you’re welcome to look, the calisthenics are not for your delight, or course; the lizard boy hopes to attract a lizard girl and make a lizard date.
As is the case with other lizard species, the western fence lizard can intentionally detach the tail when chased by predators. The tail continues to wiggle, baffling animals in hot pursuit, particularly if that animal is my Labrador retriever.
But such chicanery comes at a price. If the boy lizard drops his tail, he can forget about dinner and a movie, he can forget about prom; his dating season is, for that year anyway, effectively over. The girl lizard will not return any calls until the tail grows back.
Lizards are friends in the garden – they eat insects, including those insidious rolly-pollys. But even better, it is possible (though this is still in argument in the scientific community) western fence lizards play a significant role in reducing the incidence of Lyme disease in humans.
For more than a decade, some scientists have postulated that the western fence lizard carries a protein in the blood which, when a tick feeds upon the lizard, cleanses the tick gut of the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease.
So there you have it. Another reason to believe there’s more to love in nature than just a pretty face.
Ceramic tile by artist Elizabeth Garrison, part of new art installation by Elizabeth Garrison & Victor Henderson at Stephen Sorensen County Park Gymnasium and Community Center at Lake Los Angeles.
To learn more about the scientific argument regarding Lyme disease and western fence lizards, you can start with a google search.