Western Fence Lizard and More

In my humble enjoyment of wild creatures across the planet, I am reminded on this hot summer day of one of my favorite creatures on earth: lizards.

They can thermoregulate their body temperature and gather energy from the sun. Let go of their tail if it is clenched in the jaws of a predator and grow another.

Many have not two, but three eyes. Located on the back of the head, the third eye is used for regulating hormone production and detecting predators.

Our local lizard, the western fence lizard, possesses all these features and more. They are commonly found in California and many of the western states; and classified as Sceloporus occidentalis in the order Squamata and suborder Iguania.

With the current high temperatures lately, I have had the pleasure of watching them skitter around me every day.

They are small lizards, could fit into your hand. But good luck trying to get them into your hand because they’re lightning fast.

Males have a blue underside; you can see it here.

This one (below) has a small circle of pale blue on his throat.

This photo below highlights his many scales.

The scales overlap and are made of keratin. They provide protection from the environment as well as preventing water loss.

Lizards eat the mosquitoes that would otherwise bite me. This is a gift, pure and simple. They hop up and snatch the insect so fast that you can’t even see their tongue at work.

I love to sit outside at the end of a summer day watching the lizards. As opposed to the morning when they are sluggish and still storing the sun’s energy, late in the day they are super fast, like on steroids, after soaking up the sun all day long.

In addition to all this, Sceloporus occidentalis have a feature so extra special that it has become the subject of many scientific studies. They have the ability to neutralize the deer tick bacterium that transmits to humans, thereby curtailing the transmission of Lyme’s Disease.

Deer ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. A protein in the blood of western fence lizards kills the bacterium in these ticks when they attach themselves to a lizard and ingest the lizard’s blood.

Numerous studies have determined that Lyme disease effects less people in California than in the eastern U.S., due to our most common lizard’s neutralizing abilities. That’s a gift too.

More western fence lizard info:

Western Fence Lizard Wikipedia and Northwestern Fence Lizard CaliforniaHerpes.com

This is a photo of another of our common lizards, the alligator lizard.

These photos, below, are some of my favorite lizards from other parts of the world, starting with the small ones and working up to very large lizards.

These last two, the marine and land iguanas, are gloriously huge.

If you are squeamish about Squamata, I hope this lizard love fest has warmed you to these magnificent creatures.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Tropical Adventure in La Selva

One of the world’s most prominent tropical research centers is located in Costa Rica. A few years back, we had the pleasure and honor of being guests there, settling in with the rainforest creatures.

La Selva Biological Station is located in a lowland rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica. It is owned and operated by a consortium of about 50 universities and research institutions: Organization for Tropical Studies. They are dedicated to the study and preservation of the world’s tropical rainforests.

Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is home to more than 500,000 wildlife species making it “one of the 20 countries with the highest biodiversity in the world.” (Wikipedia) As a Central American country it is a natural land bridge, formed 3-5 million years ago, allowing the very different flora and fauna of the two continents, North and South America, to mix.

Today this biological research station hosts approximately 300 scientists from all over the world. Among the research labs, herbarium, classrooms and dormitories are a few stark rooms for laypeople visitors, where we stayed for four days.

More info: La Selva Wikipedia and Organization for Tropical Studies

Although our accommodation was a concrete cell, La Selva was one of our very favorite places to stay because we were in the center of a pristine rainforest teeming with wildlife. And to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholars of the rainforest, young and old, was a humbling joy.

Every day began when the howler monkeys and screeching parrots announced the dawn. Covered with DEET, long pants and long sleeves, Athena and I headed out into this humid, buggy rainforest each day. Interesting to note: of the 500,000 different wildlife species that Costa Rica hosts, 300,000 of them are insects.

This howler monkey was scarfing up the tree’s orange fruit.

Every day after our cafeteria breakfast, we would visit the tree with the two-toed sloth. S/he was always in the same tree, same limb, and always sleeping. And every day we stood under the tree craning our necks, binoculars and cameras ready, faithfully waiting for the sloth to move.

One lucky day it opened one eye and stretched a little. Of course we were both thrilled.

In La Selva we saw many birds and mammals, reptiles and insects. It is the nature of rainforests to have frequent rain; muddy and moldy ground; an abundance of ants, mosquitoes, gnats; and predators.

Much of the rainforest was dark, due to the thick canopy, but an occasional clearing offered photo opportunities.

We were pretty excited to find this three-toed sloth, a different species than the two-toed above. It was also asleep. They have an extremely slow metabolism, and are so slow they grow algae on their coat. If you look closely at this one below, you can see its furry arm is green-tinged…that’s algae.

There was a suspended pedestrian bridge where we spotted this big male Green Iguana. They are native in Costa Rica.

We also found a Little Tinamou near the bridge. Residents of Central and South America, they are very timid and rarely-seen birds.

We spent all day every day on the La Selva trails. When it got so hot we could no longer stand it, we would buy an ice cream bar at the gift shop and watch toucans and aracaris in the trees above.

Coatis were often around; a raccoon-like mammal seen in Central and South America, Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

Snakes are prevalent in this rainforest. This is the Bothriechis schlegelii, commonly known as the eyelash viper. It is venomous and aggressive, but was quite a distance from us.

There are 894 bird species in Costa Rica, more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Trogons are residents of tropical rainforests, this male was often outside our room.

Oropendolas are large songbirds in Central and South America, in the blackbird family. We saw two different species in La Selva.

Located relatively near to the equator, there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime. By 6 pm every night it was pitch-black.

We walked nearly a mile to the cafeteria, and after dinner the forest was black and very lively. We each wore a headlamp to light our way.

The first night we walked “home” we were intimidated. There were so many mysterious animal sounds, and lots of unidentifiable eye shine on the path beside us. We bravely kept walking.

A few paces later we discovered that what we thought was animal eye shine was actually lightning bugs twinkling in the humid air.

Each night we walked through this dark forest, hearing howler monkeys, watching swooping shadows of nighthawks and bats, serenaded by the tink-tink-tink of the “tink frog.”

By the end of our stay, the after-dinner walk had become a favorite adventure…but we were wise enough not to dally or deviate off the path.

One of my favorite night sounds, heard for miles, was the Great Tinamou’s loud and plaintive song. This is a recording (below) made in La Selva; you can also hear the cacophony of rainforest creatures.

Sound recording of Great Tinamou

On our last day, we had several hours between check-out and when our transport van arrived. Athena had a target species she wanted to photograph: the strawberry poison-dart frog. A student had told us where he’d consistently found them.

That day I would perform one of my most sacrificial photography-assistant tasks ever.

We found the grassy patch the student had described. It had an underlayer of squishy water, and was covered with fallen banana leaves and rotted logs. Because the frogs are small, smaller than your thumb, they vanish quickly in the debris.

We discovered if I walked out ahead, the vibration startled them to hop, exposing their bright tiny bodies, and then Athena would swoop in with her camera. The only problem was that every time I took a step, a cloud of a hundred mosquitoes poofed up around my ankles.

But we forged on, bent at the waist, scanning the grass and debris, enduring the mosquitoes and waiting for this tiny frog to pop up out of the detritus.

We found a few.

It would look like this at first…

… and then she would zoom in and click.

Their bright coloration advertises to birds and other predators that they are toxic. Are they toxic to humans? Yes, but only if you touch them. While the poison-dart frog wasn’t a problem, those mosquitoes made a hearty meal out of me.

I’m glad I could share with you this magnificent research station and our tropical adventure. The nice thing is, dear reader, you went through all of this rainforest and escaped every single mosquito.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Belize Wildlife, Part 2 of 2

Brown Basalisk Lizard in Belize

In addition to the abundant bird species found in Belize, as featured last week, there is also an impressive array of reptiles, mammals, and insects. Welcome to Part 2 of the Belize Wildlife series.

 

 Part 1 of Belize Wildlife. 

 

Native to Belize, the brown basilisk lizard is known for its ability to “walk on water.” With large hind feet and web-like toes, they fly so quickly across the water’s surface that it produces the illusion of the lizard running on water.

 

A quiet river boat ride revealed this basilisk lizard basking beside the river. Like most lizards, the basilisks have varying colors.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

The green iguana, which is not always green, was prevalent in many parts of the country. They are the largest lizard in Belize. We came upon this one on the outskirts of Belize City, he was about three feet long (.91 m) without the tail.

Green Iguana, Belize

Deeper into the jungle we were greeted by a troop of Gautemalan black howler monkeys. We had been birding in a Maya ruin, Lamanai, when we found the howlers lazily enjoying figs overhead. They were quiet in this scene, but other times we could hear their eerie, formidable howling from miles away.

 

Click to hear the black howler monkey.

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Maya ruin, Lamanai, Mask Temple

An old abandoned sugar mill in this same Maya ruin had been taken over by aggressive vines, supporting numerous varieties of bats, bugs, and birds.

 

Bats, Lamanai

 

 

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

 

Leafcutter ants, my favorite kind of ant, were also in the rainforest. Columns of ants steadily marched down the trail, each ant carrying a piece of leaf they had chewed and cut.

 

The largest and most complex animal society on earth other than humans, leafcutter ants carry twenty times their body weight, as they dutifully deliver their leaf piece to the communal mound.

 

Leafcutter Ants

 

Where there are ants, there are antbirds.

Dusky Antbird, Belize

 

Life in the rainforest can be brutal. Assassin bugs are known for painful stabbing and lethal saliva.

Assassin bug

 

One dark night after dinner, we found this bad boy on our doorknob. Fortunately it was outside and not inside, and I was wearing a headlamp so I could see not to touch the knob.

 

Belize Scorpion

 

It is the abundance of bugs that attract birds–there were beautiful flycatchers here.

Vermillion Flycatcher, Belize

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

 

Heading east out of Belize’s rainforests, the traveler eventually finds the dazzling waters of the Caribbean Sea. There’s nothing more calming after jungle mosquitos than a cool sea breeze.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

The coast of Belize is comprised of a series of coral reefs, with 450 cayes and seven marine reserves.

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Sea mammals we found snorkeling were southern stingrays and green sea turtles.

Southern Stingray, Belize

Green Sea Turtle, Belize, Ambergris Caye

 

Snorkeling with Southern Stingrays, Belize Barrier Reef

 

While walking the white sand beaches, black spiny-tailed iguanas were a common sight. This frisky pair scuttled up and down a tree trunk.

 

With over 600 species of birds and a plethora of other wildlife, Belize is a tropical menagerie. Thank you for joining me on this two-part adventure.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Northern Jacana

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

 

Studmuffin Iguana

Green Iguana, Belize

Green Iguana, Belize

 

We found this beauty while birding at the edge of an abandoned housing development in Belize City, Belize.  He was nestled in a thicket of trees flanking a river, soaking up the sun.  You can find the Iguana iguana here in its native territory just about anywhere in Belize, but surprisingly, they blend in. 

 

This male was over four feet long, weighed at least eight pounds.  As a cold-blooded reptile, they need the sunlight to raise their internal body temperature for metabolism stimulation.  Light is so important to this reptile that they have the ability to see ultraviolet rays.  They need the sun’s ultraviolet rays to manufacture Vitamin D which aids in absorbing calcium from the intestines.  In addition, the green iguana has a photosensory organ called a parietal eye on the top of its head.  It is sensitive to light changes and can detect movement, used as a protective mechanism for sensing predators. 

 

Yesterday it was chilly out, here at home in the northern hemisphere.  I stepped outside for a moment and found a patch of sun and turned my back to it and let it soak through me, and I thought of my friend the green iguana. 

 

Iguana Snuggle

Once again I was dazzled by iguanas.  On our recent trip to Belize we had the joy of seeing two species of iguanas and many smaller lizards and anoles as well. On the Caribbean side of Belize are a series of small islands; we were on Ambergris Caye where the main mode of transportation for locals and tourists alike are golf carts. Our first sighting of the spiny-tailed iguana was when a male shot across the road in front of our golf cart and nearly got flattened. We were thrilled with that flash of color and the excitement, and had our eyes peeled from then on, observing several dozen including a pair in a shuffled mating dance.

But it was on the mainland of the country when we saw the bigger green iguana that our reverence heightened. Our guide was driving around the outskirts of Belize City. We were “killing” a little time while waiting for the rest of our tour group to arrive at the airport, looking for birds. He had known us for less than an hour and knew us only as birders. He did not know, that is, that we were enamored of iguanas.

He turned right at a quiet T intersection and casually said, “There’s a green iguana back there.”  Continuing his turn, driving away from the iguana, we looked and looked all over the ground and finally said, “Where?”  I added anxiously, “We’d really love to see it.”  In a residential section with old, cinder block houses mixed with a development of new and primarily unfinished houses, was a tree-lined creek. There were few cars or people in sight so he accommodatingly turned the small bus around, pulled over, and pointed.

What he had seen was an iguana as far as 300 yards away, camouflaged and hidden in the leaves of a tree about 20 feet off the ground. We never would have seen this lovely creature even with our binoculars and birding skills, without the help of the guide. And oh, was he gorgeous.

Green Iguana

Green Iguana

Fortunately the sun was directly on him, so not only did we see him fairly quickly once pointed out, but the bright orange and gold colors of this large, green male in the prime of his life were striking. You can see from this photo the spikes on his nape. The spikes went all the way down the length of his long, leathery spine. He was about four or five feet long. Also in this photo is a good view of what is called his dewlap, that patch of loose skin at his throat. It is deflated here, but when they are threatened it balloons out. Although he was aware of our presence, he was unthreatened. We were respectfully quiet, unassuming, and stayed at a distance of about 100 feet away. In this basking pose, he is absorbing the heat of the morning sun, which helps him to digest all the leaves he has just eaten.

As a birder I am accustomed to getting a very brief 3-5 second look at a bird before they flit off to the next bug or perch. I think one of the things I secretly like about iguanas is that they stay longer on a perch, and although they can indeed move quickly (like that spiny-tailed iguana that just missed the tires of our golf cart), they are also known to move lethargically. If they don’t have enough heat, in fact, they can’t move at all. So we oogled this majestic creature for a languid 5 or 8 minutes, listened appreciatively to our guide’s whispered discussion of the iguana, took photos and marveled, and then eventually, with some reluctance, moved on.