Lizards are a diverse group. If you want to see a lot of species though, you need to head to the tropics or the warmer deserts of the U.S. This is a Mojave Desert chuckwalla and is over a foot long.
The Mojave and Sonoran deserts are full of strange and wonderful wildlife. Their hot climates seem to especially favor reptiles and within a day or two in the Mojave, we had seen half a dozen species of lizards, perhaps the most common of reptiles.
Lizard species inhabit every continent except Antarctica and are found on most large island groups. They range in size from chameleons a few millimeters long that can change color to match their environment to the three-meter-long Komodo dragon, capable of killing a water buffalo.
As a group, lizards have been around for at least 220 million years and have had plenty of time to diversify. With over 6,000 species worldwide, it is easy to imagine that there is a lizard that breaks any rule man can establish for them. For instance, most lizards are predators, with specialists that hunt everything from insects to mollusks to mammals. However, the chuckwalla of the Southwest is an herbivore as is the iguana.
Unlike many snakes, lizards aren’t venomous, except when they are. The Gila monster of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts is the classic poisonous lizard. It was once thought that only one other species of lizard, the Mexican beaded lizard, was venomous but more recent research shows that several species of monitor lizards, including the massive Komodo, produce potent toxins.
Most lizards seem to consider their tail as a throwaway body part. When attacked by a predator, the tail can easily break off, leaving the predator with an enticing wriggling tail while the lizard makes its escape. After all, these tails can grow back, although they usually aren’t quite like the original ones. However, there are a number of species that depend on their tails for balance or even locomotion. Chameleons, for instance, have prehensile (grasping) tails that they use for climbing. Having it break off easily would be a definite disadvantage.
If one were asked what separates a lizard from a snake the temptation would be to respond, legs. Lizards have them and snakes don’t. In most cases, that is true. But in an example of convergent evolution, there are lizards, often referred to as glass snakes, that have lost their legs to make it easier to negotiate in their habitat. These legless lizards are different from snakes because the have functional eyelids, external ears and retain the ability to lose and regrow their tail.
Like other reptiles, lizards are ectotherms. They do not generate their own body heat, depending instead on the environment to do it for them. This alone marks lizards as daytime hunters where they control body temperature through exposure to the sun and shade. There are even exceptions here. Geckos, for instance, prowl the night.
Lizards can be found in almost any habitat. There are lizards living as high as 16,000 feet above sea level, lizards that live in trees and even a marine iguana that makes its home at sea. However, there are more in the tropics and deserts than other places. Idaho has only ten species of lizards and skinks. Only three species, the sagebrush lizard, the short-horned lizard and the western skink have ranges that reach to eastern Idaho.
That changes as you head to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts though. Nevada Natural Heritage program lists 25 lizards and skinks and Arizona sports 56 species, giving me all the excuse I need to spend more time south of the snowbelt.
Help Idaho Wildlife
Sadly, when we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho