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The lore of lizards

Texas species feature unusual coloring and escape tactics

Jim and Lynne Weber

Various beliefs, myths and legends have been inspired by the behavior of lizards. In ancient Egypt and Greece, the lizard represented divine wisdom and good fortune. In Roman mythology, their hibernation symbolized death and resurrection, and in Australia the aboriginals believed that the sky would fall if you killed one.

Today, lizards still seem to fascinate us. Though Central Texas is home to several species of lizards, geckos, anoles, skinks and whiptails, those most interesting and likely to be seen are the Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus), the Green or Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis) and the Texas Alligator Lizard (Gerrhonotus infernalis).

Texas Spiny Lizard

Primarily arboreal but preferring basking surfaces such as fence posts and rock walls, the Texas Spiny Lizard is quite common in all but the eastern and western thirds of Texas. A large spiny lizard that attains up to 11 inches in length, it is grayish to olive brown with up to nine dark wavy bars spaced along its back, which give it a very scaly appearance.

Males have a narrow bright blue patch on each side of the belly, and though the females lack these colorings, they are slightly larger and paler than the males. Breeding occurs in the spring and summer, and mature females may lay several egg clutches per year.

An ambush predator, it feeds on a variety of insects found on the ground or up in trees, waiting from a position where it can spot prey, with its head down and tail up, curled slightly toward its back.

If you slowly approach this lizard while it is at rest, you may get within several feet, but any closer and it will rapidly flee up a tree.

Green Anole

Ranging from bright green to dark brown, the Green Anole can change color in response to temperature and stress, often resulting in remarkable camouflage. A small lizard, it has a pale underbelly, long claws and a thin tail.

The males have a "dewlap," a bright pink flap of skin that can be extended and retracted to intimidate rivals or attract females during the mating season.

This anole is arboreal, spending most of its time in trees, shrubs and vines, feeding on insects and spiders. While it has a small territory, a male will aggressively defend it, starting with extending its dewlap, bobbing its head, performing pushups and ultimately ending in a chase or a wrestling match. All this posturing and patrolling can make the males much easier targets for predators, however, and they tend to have higher mortality rates than the much more discreet females.

If it is late spring and the right to mate is at stake, the winner will once again employ head bobbing and dewlap extension to entice the female, who lays a single, soft-shelled egg among the leaf litter.

Texas Alligator Lizard

Measuring an impressive 10 to 24 inches long, the Texas Alligator Lizard is a stiff lizard with large, platelike scales and a long, somewhat prehensile tail. It is the largest lizard in Texas and the one of largest alligator lizards in the world.

Varying from ruddy yellow to reddish brown, it has dark crosshatches on its back with a lighter head and small, weak legs that are unmarked. Most often found on rocky hillsides, it has slow, calculated moves, feeding on insects, spiders and small invertebrates.

When alarmed, it may inflate itself in defense — and, like other lizards, even lose its tail to distract a potential predator — but more typically it will either freeze or fold in its legs and slither away like a snake.

Unlike many other species of lizards, breeding can occur year-round, and multiple clutches of eggs can be laid. Females often stay near the nest site to protect it, but once the young hatch they receive no parental care.

Lizards have been around for 100 million years longer than humans, and descended from the same family tree that gave rise to the dinosaurs. Consider that the next time you're lucky enough to have one cross your path, and show it some well-deserved respect!

Send your nature-related questions to naturewatch@austin.rr.com and we'll do our best to answer them. If you enjoy reading these articles, look for our book, "Nature Watch Austin," published by Texas A&M University Press.

Horny toads

Commonly called a "horny toad," the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) is a fierce-looking, flat-bodied lizard. Its head has numerous spines, the largest being two central horns on the middle of the head. With two rows of fringed scales along either side of its body, it is the only species of horned lizard to have dark brown stripes across the top of the head and radiating down from each eye. Once common throughout Texas, populations declined in the 1950s and 1960s due to pesticide use. Now found mainly in the western third of the state, it is listed as an endangered species. You can help by joining the Texas Horned Lizard Watch at http://bit.ly/M58MUB.