Lizards are cool, even when it’s 90 degrees out
This is the fourth in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.
Desert bighorn sheep and golden eagles consider Colorado National Monument their home. So do lizards.
Guess which species attracts the most visitors? If you said lizards, you’ve been out in the desert sun way too long.
Your average Nikon-wielding tourist wants to capture the majesty of those curiously strong mammals with their curled 30-pound horns, skinny legs and furry white butts. Mr. Nikon positively drools when an eagle’s huge shadow rolls across the landscape nearby. Who can blame him?
For those very few folks lucky enough to see a mountain lion scamper across Rim Rock Drive at dawn, like a woman on a bicycle did last year, they are close to speechless afterward.
“That long tail,” she told me. “Awesome!” Having once seen a cougar loping across Old Gordon Trail, I could relate to her amazement. A cougar’s tail does seem to go on forever.
But your odds of laying eyes on a cougar, eagle or bighorn are relatively low unless you have time to go tramping up Lower Monument Canyon or hang out near Balanced Rock.
That brings us back to my all-time favorite beast, the lowly lizard. Nine lizard species call the monument home.
From early spring, when they emerge from a long winter’s nap (called brumation) until they return to their burrows in late fall, these cold-blooded (but warm-hearted and harmless) reptiles are as plentiful as cacti in the high desert.
Because they are so common, lizards are taken for granted instead of respected. And they face prejudice all their own. In fact, the lizards out here aren’t slimy, don’t attack humans unless provoked, and aren’t poisonous.
If you spend only an hour here at the monument, you’re almost guaranteed to cross paths with a few extraordinary characters. You see them crawl out from under rocks in stop-and-start fashion, searching for a grasshopper lunch, and then disappearing down a burrow, kicking up sand in its haste.
Lizards are fast as fish — one species has been clocked at 16 miles an hour — and do pushups when they feel threatened. I’ve seen an eastern fence lizard inhale a gnat in midair as if it were nothing at all. And I watched a western whiptail slowly chew up a noisy cicada as if it were a delicacy to be savored, not rushed.
Mostly, lizards flat out look cool.
The most easily identified is the collared lizard. With a bright-gold head, two black neck stripes and an aquamarine torso, the collared is known to herpetologists as Crotaphytus collaris.
I call him the rock star of the monument. Imagine Mick Jagger with sharp teeth and a long tail. The collared’s gold feet match his big, dinosaurish head. His territorial instincts lead to bloody skirmishes with other lizards over turf or females.
Like the cougar, collared lizards eat meat. They prefer to dine on other lizards and small mice, leaving spiders and insects to lesser lizards.
There really are no lesser lizards, of course. All have fascinating characteristics, distinctive skin patterns and unique behaviors.
You may glimpse a tiny creature jumping from one juniper branch to another and think “bird,” but a closer look reveals a 5-inch tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) getting his exercise when it’s 90 degrees in the shade.
Would you believe one species (the plateau striped lizard) comprises only females? They actually reproduce without males. It’s a fact, I’m sorry to say. You’ll find them in Upper Ute Canyon, romping happily with no males in sight.
A 12-year-old boy once asked me, “Is it true that some lizards can shoot blood out of their eyes at predators?” I thought he was pulling my leg, but nope. You can watch a short-horned lizard squirt blood at a coyote on YouTube.
All living things endure intense heat in the high desert, and the arid climate that goes with average precipitation of less than 10 inches a year. Where water is so scarce, wildlife survive by quenching their thirst on fluids of plants, insects and other animals.
All sport survival skills. Eagles, owls, hawks and falcons comb the canyons for a “live” meal, which keeps smaller birds, rabbits and reptiles ever wary.
But when attacked, lizards often escape, though sometimes without their tails intact. Tails provide balance for the lizard when running upright, so the wounded lizard must take it slowly for a few weeks until a new tail regenerates.
Lizards also have a hidden organ atop their heads called the parietal eye. It registers the amount of sunlight to which the lizard has been exposed. According to scientists, this organ may tell the lizard it’s time to find shade so that it doesn’t become overheated, or when to go underground for winter.
If only Mick Jagger were so cool.
# # #
Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.