Monday, April 23, 2007
Western Fence Lizard - Super Hero
Spring doesn’t just warm up the ground for seeds to grow and flowers to bloom. The sun heats the rocks and gravel and invites the lizards to emerge from their winter hiding spots. The most visible lizards in our yard are Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). There is a pair in the herb garden and this large individual in the driveway. They seem to prefer elevated basking sites where they can keep an eye on their territory and watch for insects.
The female in the garden frequently jumps up several inches to catch flies. She’s an efficient insect eliminator and fun to watch.
You may know these lizards as “blue-bellies.” Males, especially, have bright patches of blue on their bellies and sometimes at the throat. The fence lizard does push-ups displaying his bright breeding colors to admiring females. The brighter the blue, the healthier and more attractive the male is as a mate.
We haven’t always had lizards in our yard. When we first moved in, garden snails infested the African daisy planted along our front hillside. Blindly, we used the box of “snail bait” poison left behind by the previous homeowners. Did it get rid of the snails? No. It would decrease them for a while, but then they would multiply and return in greater numbers.
When the poison ran out, we tried beer traps, copper strips and a variety of organic methods. After several years of “Earth friendly” snail deterrents, we began to notice there were fewer snails but it wasn’t because of anything we were doing. Something was eating them.
Now that our snails were “clean” and tasty, predators were picking them off. A skunk was crunching them on the porch and alligator lizards (Gerrhonotus multicarinatus) moved in to dine as well.
As we remove the African daisy and replaced it with native plants, we have less and less non-native garden snails. The snails don’t like the thick waxy leaves of the ceanothus or the aromatic taste of sage. But these native plants have attracted native insects.
In May of 2004, we spotted the first western fence lizard in the yard. Since then, there has been at least one batch of youngsters. Rock piles and concrete walls soak up the sun’s rays and create warm stopping places for lizards. The nooks and crannies between the rocks make it easy for a lizard to hide from a hungry red-shouldered hawk.
A place to live and a safe food source were all the lizards needed to move in. Western fence lizards patrol the herb garden, eating a variety of bugs. They warm themselves on the driveway and run up the walls, clinging with their long strong toes.
But these western fence lizards are doing something else for us besides insect patol. You see the western fence lizard is a Super Hero. Not only can they run straight up a wall, they fight disease.
Lyme’s disease has made its way to Southern California from the east coast. But this debilitating illness is less of a threat to humans here than in other places. Why? Because of the western fence lizard. The tick’s that carry Lyme’s disease are small, tiny actually. These ticks will hop on a western fence lizard as easily as a mouse or a person. And here is where the Super Hero comes in: If a tick carrying Lyme’s disease bites a western fence lizard, something in the the lizard’s blood neutralizes the disease. When the tick leaves the western fence lizard it is no longer a carrier of Lyme’s disease.
If you have western fence lizards as neighbors, they are protecting you from potential disease. What other wonders are these lizards capable of? Who knows. Perhaps they carry a natural antibiotic in their blood like Komodo dragons or American alligators that could be beneficial to humans.
For now, I’m happy to watch them basking in the garden. And to inspire them to stay we’ve created a few more rock piles and added some novel resting places. The female fence lizard has moved into a dark-colored, resin gargoyle-shaped drain spout. For a lizard it’s a cool place to live.