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Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

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Alligator Lizards

Growing up in La Crescenta provided me and the local kids ample opportunities to hunt down swift, scampering lizards on a daily basis. We’d comb through the rock piles that were in the many vacant lots in our neighborhood, and capture lizards in our dirt-stained little hands. We’d always let them go after sufficiently harassing them. The most common lizard was the western fence lizard, a fast, small lizard. Less common was the “horny toad,” a fat, spiky lizard that looked like a dinosaur. A third variety of lizard was common enough, but frankly we were a little scared of them. That lizard was what we called the “snake lizard” because of the undulating way they moved, but they are properly called alligator lizards. They were big and strong, and if you didn’t grab them just behind the head, they’d twist around and bite you. Pretty thrilling for a 7-year-old boy! The alligator lizard is just as common today as it was back then, and still just as fun to try to catch. They are ever-present in my backyard, often hiding under foliage or debris, other times sunning on a rock. My wife finds a particular joy in letting the alligator lizards she catches bite her finger. She swears she can see them smile with pleasure as they bite down hard. She thinks they’re cute. The alligator lizard has a long snake-like body, with small, short legs that almost seem an afterthought. Nine to 13 dark bands run across their backs and tails, with the areas between the bands a yellow, orange or grey. Their scales are keeled, or ridged in the center, making them feel rough to the touch. They are commonly in the five-to-eight inch range, but can grow up to 16 inches long. The head of the alligator lizard is very snake-like in appearance, and they have large yellow eyes. Their tails are extraordinarily long – twice the length of their bodies. Like many other lizards, they have a unique and fascinating self-defense mechanism in the form of a tail that will automatically detach when grasped by a predator. Anything chasing an alligator lizard is likely to grab its extraordinarily long tail first. Naturally occurring fracture planes in the tail provide weak spots where the tail can easily break cleanly off. The detached tail will immediately go into a wild spasm, thrashing around and distracting the predator enough to allow the now tailless lizard to slink away un-noticed. Sphincter muscles in the lizard end of the tail stump squeeze off blood flow, and a new tail will grow back after a few weeks. It’s not unusual to spot a “stumpy” alligator lizard, or one in which the tail has grown back in a slightly different color. Although they have defenses against higher-level predators, they’re excellent predators themselves. They eat any other creature smaller than themselves – a wide spectrum of insects (including black widow spiders!), baby birds and bird eggs, even other alligator lizards! Several years ago we kept a couple rescued lizards in a terrarium. We fed them all the crickets they wanted, but apparently it wasn’t enough. One day we came home to one missing lizard and one very, very fat lizard. Although they are active all year, we encounter them most often in springtime when we’re clearing weeds or prepping the garden. Alligator lizards are currently wrapping up their mating season, a particularly brutish affair in which the male grabs the female’s head in his powerful jaws and holds her immobile until she submits. I encourage you to get out in your yard and hunt down some of these very interesting lizards. Woodpiles are a favored spot because of the black widows that often hide there. Be sure to let them go again so they’ll eat the pests in your yard. Since they live 10 to 15 years, you’re likely to spot the same one over and over. Alligator lizards are a friend to man, and a benefit to every garden. And, as I said before, according to my wife they’re really cute.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

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