Lizards at their peak this time of year


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James W. Cornett, Special to The Desert Sun 9 p.m. PDT August 20, 2015

Noticing more lizards?

If you are, it’s because there are more lizards now than at any other time of year.

By August the eggs laid by female lizards have hatched. Tiny, near replicas of adult lizards are scampering all over the desert, in every habitat, in search of their first meals. The hatchlings of most species are so small that they can easily be mistaken for insects.

We Coachella Valley residents share our desert with no less than 26 lizard species. That’s a lot of lizards compared with other areas of Southern California. We have more lizards than all of Los Angeles and Orange counties combined and more than the entire Mojave Desert. We are very lucky, if you are charmed by lizards that is.

There are two principle reasons for our rich saurian heritage. First, lizards do well in deserts. Unlike most rodent species that are nocturnal (active at night), most lizards are active in the daytime (diurnal). For large portions of the day they prefer to maintain a body temperature about the same as ours, around 99, give or take a few degrees. The abundance of solar radiation throughout the year and warm air temperatures for most of the year help them maintain an elevated body temperature since they generate little of their own body heat. We refer to lizards, indeed all reptiles, as cold-blooded since they rely upon external sources of heat—sunlight, warm air and warm substrate—to keep warm. (Humans and other mammals are said to be warm-blooded because they/we generate body heat through rapid internal chemical reactions.) In short, lizards are abundant in our desert because it is one of the easiest environments to keep warm.

For much of the year it is even warm at night. This allows us to host a few nocturnal lizard species that experience sufficient heat to complete their life cycle during hours of darkness. All of our nocturnal lizard species are geckos including banded, leaf-toed and Mediterranean geckos. (The latter species is a recent arrival from the Mideast.)

A second explanation for our rich lizard fauna is our connection to the Baja Peninsula. From a biological perspective, the southern half of the Coachella Valley is a northward extension of Baja California. The San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains are part of what geologists refer to as the Peninsular Range Province which runs from the tropical southern tip of the Baja Peninsula all the way to the temperate San Jacinto Mountains that form the spectacular western backdrop of our valley. A truckload of plant and animal species, including many kinds of lizards, are associated with this province and its rocky mountainous spine. If you live on the north side of the valley you will never see banded rock, granite spiny or Baja California collared lizard. They are what biologists call Peninsular Range Province endemic species restricted in their distribution to the hillsides on the valley’s south side. Their presence greatly bolsters our valley’s lizard species richness.

The offspring of all these reptiles are now out and about, along with their parents, resulting in a late summer and early fall abundance of lizards. Rejoice, if you are fond of lizards that is.

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