Leaping Wildlife

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

Let’s celebrate this weekend’s Leap Day by joining some of the Earth’s most talented leapers.

 

Wildlife leapers come in all shapes and sizes.

 

One of my favorite leapers is the impala. Prime prey for many of Africa’s large mammals, impala’s defense includes leaps. Look at those long, thin legs…what magic they can do.

 

Impala, Botswana

 

They have a leap so unique, it has it’s own word: stotting.

 

While running, they fly through the air, land on their forelegs, then kick up their hind legs, and land on all four again. It’s all so fast you don’t know what happened until it’s over. There are many theories for the purpose of this tactic, mainly defense (see link above). There’s a stotting photo at the end.

 

The Klipspringer is another leaping African antelope, lives on rocky cliffs. Their name comes from Afrikaans:  klip (“rock”) springer (“leaper”).

 

This klipspringer was about a mile above us on a rocky hillside, gracefully darting across a precipitous granite wall.

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

 

More leapers live across the world in Australia where hopping kangaroos are a classic sight. They hop with the aid of large, stretchy tendons in their hind legs; the tail is also an aid.

 

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

This wallaby was only as tall as my knee, and her hop was not very big. I think the joey in her pouch might’ve had something to do with that.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby, Australia

 

This kangaroo, on the other hand, was nearly as tall as me.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Australia

 

Once when I was on an Australian back road, a mob of large kangaroos came clomping by at great speed. There were about a half dozen of them, and what a cacophony with their long hind feet and tails slapping the ground.

 

They tried to change course when they saw our jeep, but they were moving at such high speed that even when they stopped hopping, their large, heavy bodies kept sliding.

 

And then there’s monkeys. They sail through the air, land on a tree limb, grab onto vines, and skillfully make their way through a forest. They use their tails, too.

 

If you have ever spent a night in a monkey’s world, you are familiar with the sounds of this mischievous mammal pouncing on the rooftop above you.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

We had the fortune of watching these colobus monkeys effortlessly swinging through the trees.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

 

Frogs jump. This crazy one landed on glass, affording a good view of their powerful jumping legs and suction-cup toe pads.

 

Spring Peeper, Frog, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Many frogs can jump more than 20 times their body length.

 

We found this frog sleeping in the ladies’ room blinds, in Mareeba Australia. It was a hot day in the Fahrenheit hundreds and this opportunist found a cool spot…no jumping that day.

 

Frog in the ladies room, Australian Green Tree Frog, Ranoidea caerulea

 

These two colorful frogs are tiny–about the size of your thumb. With their petite size, they are far more difficult to spot than you would think, considering their loud colors.

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

This tiny poison dart frog chose a soggy grass patch to hide in. For every step I took to see it, a cloud of mosquitoes poofed up. About 20 mosquito bites later, it landed on this more posable wood piece.

 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

 

Rabbits hop. We happened to startle this one while hiking in Nevada. We were in rattlesnake territory, so I was relieved it was only a rabbit that hopped out of the undergrowth.

Rabbit, Nevada.

 

Last summer I accidentally startled a large rattlesnake, and that’s when I did the hopping.

 

And where would we be without leaping lizards in our world?

 

Lizards have a long list of predators, so they have to be quick. Whether they are small…

 

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

or large…

Green Iguana, Belize. Photo: Athena Alexander

…they can vanish in an instant.

 

My favorite lizard, the basilisk, can be seen here demonstrating the muscular legs that lend them their leaping skills. They not only leap on land, they leap on water, too.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Not to be outdone by mammals, amphibians, or reptiles, some of our long-legged insects have incredible leaping abilities. Spiders, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, to name a few.

 

Katydid, California

 

I live on a dry, chaparral mountain and hot summer days are great for watching grasshoppers. They leap so high I can’t even see where they go. It’s only when they land that I see them again. Their long legs catapult them into the air and their wings extend the leap into flight.

 

I’ve read that if humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would be able to easily leap the length of a football field.

 

Even though Leap Day only occurs once every four years, we have the pleasure of these leaping creatures every day on Earth. Makes me want to leap with joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander except for last photo.

Stotting black-face impala. Photo by Yathin sk, Namibia. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lizard Land — Part 2 of 2

Green Iguana, Belize, native

 

Last week in Part 1 of this series we looked at lizards’ antipredator adaptations, camouflage, and size. Today we look at their skin, and various ways they move, sense, and communicate.

 

For starters, they are gloriously prehistoric. When you watch a lizard, especially the way it moves, it’s almost as if you are watching a dinosaur. The evolution of reptiles dates back 310-320 million years; more info here. 

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

Blue-tongued Lizard pair, entwined, Sydney, Australia

 

Spiny-tailed Lizard, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Skin. Lizard skin is covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, providing protection from the environment. Scales also help prevent water loss, especially important in hot, dry deserts.

 

This photo shows the textured scales.

Western Fence Lizard, California

 

Tough and leathery, lizard skin is shed as the animal grows; they usually eat it for the minerals.

 

Locomotion.  Lizards live on the ground, in trees, rocks, underground, and even water. Therefore, they move in many different ways.

 

Although there are some legless lizards, most lizards are quadrupedal. Their gait has alternating movement of the right and left limbs, requiring the body to bend–shown in this photo of the Nile monitor.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana, Africa

 

One of my favorite lizards for their movement is the common basilisk. When alarmed, basilisks rear up on their two hind legs and skitter across the water, earning them the name Jesus Christ Lizard. I’ve seen them run bipedally on the ground as well.

 

This photo demonstrates the basilisk’s muscular hind legs, necessary for bipedal locomotion.

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Many species of lizards can effortlessly leap two and three times their body length. Lizards with short legs, like the skink, undulate like a snake.

 

Skink, California

 

Some lizards are extremely fast, while others, especially larger ones, are more languid. In addition, how much sun they have stored in their body is directly relational to speed.

 

The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaurus similis) is known as the fastest lizard, clocked at 21 mph (34 kph).

 

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Geckos get the prize for hanging upside down. Their adhesive toe pads allow them to adhere to most surfaces.

 

The Asian House Gecko has the broadest distribution of any lizard in the world.

 

Asian House Gecko on the ceiling, Kakadu NP, Australia

 

Senses. With over 6,000 species of lizards, there are many variations of how lizards sense their environment–here are a few notable ways.

 

Eyes. Many lizard species, especially iguanas, have a parietal eye, a third eye, on the back of their head. It is photoreceptive and regulates circadian rhythm and hormone production for thermoregulation. Although it does not form images, it is sensitive to light and movement, helpful for detecting predators. The eye is difficult for us to see.

 

A chameleon can steer each eye in opposite directions. Geckos do not have eyelids, so they lick their eyes to keep them clean and moist. Geckos, like monitors, have acute vision.

 

Ears. Instead of external ears, lizards have ear holes or openings. The eardrums, or tympanic membranes, are just below the surface of the skin. These two close-ups clearly show the “ears.”

 

Dragon Lizard, Australia. Ear hole is reddish-brown circle below and left of eye.

 

 

This frill-necked lizard’s ear opening is just right of center photo, in an almost straight line below the eye. Australia.

 

Nose. All lizards, like snakes, have a specialized olfactory system for detecting pheromones or chemical signals. They have a vomeronasal organ (VNO), located in the soft tissue of the nasal septum. When you see a lizard sticking out its forked tongue, as in the photo below, what you are witnessing is the transferring of scent information from the tip of its forked tongue to the VNO.

 

Golden Tegu Lizard with forked tongue out, Trinidad

 

Mouth. Most lizards are predatory and hunt small invertebrates and/or insects. We have lizards to thank for keeping the insect population in check.

 

This western fence lizard had a fruitful day in my backyard. As winged nuptial ants were streaming from a rock fissure, he gorged for at least an hour.

 

Western Fence Lizard, California, eating nuptial ants. Notice all the dead winged ants he hasn’t yet had the chance to consume.

 

Here in California we are lucky to have the western fence lizard, because ticks that feed on this lizard do not spread Lyme disease. This lizard’s blood kills off the Lyme bacteria.

 

The marine iguana, found only in the Galapagos Islands, forages on algae, kelp and other marine plants. They will dive up to 98 feet (30 m), and can stay submerged for an hour.

 

While underwater, marine iguanas ingest salt. The salt is filtered from the blood and then nasally excreted. We saw many of them squirt salt out their nostrils.

 

This photo shows the marine iguana’s lovable face encrusted with algae (green) and dried salt (white) on it.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

As squamates, lizards have movable upper jaws, and some lizards, like the green iguana, have very sharp teeth capable of shredding leaves and even human skin. All lizards have teeth, dentition varies.

 

Communication. Lizards make sounds for courtship, territorial defense, and distress signals. Geckos are the most loquacious lizards, with chirps and squeaks that can be surprisingly loud. Sometimes you’ll hear a lizard hiss, a warning.

 

Other forms of communication include:  various body postures like push-ups and head-bobs, as well as the expansion of the dewlap. Tail-flicking is common in territorial disputes.

 

We found this dapper anole with a bright orange dewlap in a Texas swamp.

 

Green anole, Texas

 

This green iguana below, near a river in Costa Rica where it is native, was nearly five feet long (1.5 m) including the tail. An arboreal lizard, they hunt and bask in the trees and can easily break a fall with their hind legs.

 

This photo shows his crescent-shaped, uninflated dewlap under the neck. Dewlaps are muscle-controlled, and help regulate body temperature; also used in courtship and territorial displays.

 

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

 

Leaping Lizards Batman! They are the coolest animal on this planet!

Thanks for joining me in Lizard Land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

 

Great Basin Fence Lizard, Great Basin NP, Nevada

 

Lovable Lizards

Land Iguana, Isabela Isl., Galapagos

There are over 6,000 species of lizards on our planet, residing on all continents except Antarctica.  Here are some basic facts and photos of a few of my favorites.

 

One thing I love about lizards is their adaptability. Depending on the severity of danger, they can sacrifice their tail and grow a new one, change colors, and vanish in an instant.

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

Another thing I love is their solar power. Lizards are ectotherms, they require heat sources outside their body to function. Also known as cold-blooded (not technically accurate), lizards regulate their body temperature according to the sun.

 

Once in awhile I will find a lizard when the sun has been absent, like at dawn on a foggy day, and they are frozen in place. Immobile. I like this about lizards, too — their vulnerability. Of course, that’s not their favorite thing.

 

There are many remarkable features about lizards, read more here:

Lizard Wikipedia

 

Green Anole, Texas

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

With six thousand lizard species, there are thousands of variations. I have watched lizards run across water, eat algae under water, flare out their neck to twice its size, and hang upside down for days.

 

Some lizards change colors to attract mates, some change colors to escape detection (camouflage), and others are bright their whole life.

 

Hawaiian Gecko

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

I live in a hot, dry climate in California. In the spring and summer we have three regular lizard species, each is a home-time favorite and much revered.

Western Fence Lizard, California

The western fence lizard is the most prevalent, we see them every day from May through October. The male does push-ups and displays a brilliant blue belly during breeding season.

Western Fence Lizard, California, gorging on nuptial ants

 

Plus, this lizard has an astonishing feature. They have a protein in their blood that kills the bacterium in the tick that causes Lyme’s Disease.

 

Ticks often feed on lizards’ blood, including the deer tick that carries Lyme’s Disease. When the deer tick feeds on the western fence lizard, the bacterium is killed. My chances of getting Lyme’s Disease are considerably less because of this  lizard.

 

We also have the alligator lizard, named for their resemblance to alligators. They are skittish and infrequent, but when they appear, it is a highlight of the day.

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

Our third reptile is the western skink. They are almost always hidden, their predator list is long. I’ve learned to recognize their sound when they rustle beneath leaves; so if I wait nearby, I sometimes see them.

 

Western skink, Calif.

 

Some lizards, like the skink, move like a snake. They have short legs and wiggle and slither. But most lizards are quadrupedal and move with an alternating gait. Another thing I love about lizards…watching them walk or run, a kind of reptilian sashay that says “attitude” to me.

Nile Monitor, Botswana

 

The marine iguana, the only underwater lizard in the world, lives on the Galapagos Islands. I’ve been snorkeling when they entered the water–that’s a strange thing, to be snorkeling with a large lizard. A true thrill. They sneeze out the sea salt when they return to land.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Lizards bask in the sun, leap through the air, let go of their tail if it’s in the jaws of a predator, and effortlessly change colors. I wouldn’t mind having all of these features, but since I cannot, I’m happy to watch…maybe I’ll learn something.

Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander

 


Frill-necked lizard, Australia

 

Golden Tegu Lizard, Trinidad

 

Nile Monitor

Nile Monitor, Zambia

One of the creatures we don’t hear about much on African safaris is the Nile Monitor. They don’t catch the eye of people seeking the more illustrious lions, hippos, or elephants. But what an interesting and unique animal they are.

 

No higher than your knee and often quietly hidden in the background, Nile Monitors can be found in sub-Saharan woodlands, rivers, and a variety of habitats. Usually they’re hunting, sometimes basking. They are not picky about what they eat, consuming bird or crocodile eggs, fish, snails, frogs, snakes, birds, insects, small mammals, and carrion.

 

Named after the Nile River, you can see from the range map (below) that they still inhabit there.

 

There are Nile Monitors outside of Africa, moved from their native land to satisfy the whims of humans. Wikipedia info. 

 

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose.

As part of a large family known as monitor lizards, the Nile Monitor is one of 79 different species. Monitor lizards in general exist natively in tropical parts of the world: Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The largest monitor in the world is the Komodo Dragon, found in the Indonesian Islands.

 

The word “monitor” derives from the Arabic for dragon.

 

Fortunately there was no water under this precarious bridge we crossed

While in Zambia and Botswana, we saw Nile Monitors almost every day, usually around water.  Varanus niloticus have developed nostrils high on their snouts to accommodate their aquatic nature. In addition, as you can see in the first photo, the tail is shaped with a dorsal keel to propel the lizard in water.

 

They vary in color and size, and although they were often around water, we also saw them in various habitats like the forest floor, and scrambling up trees. On the average, they measured about two feet long (.60 m) without the tail.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana. You can see here how they bend their body when two legs are close together

When they walk, it looks like a swagger because of the opposite-foot gait, characteristic of reptiles. The long tail dragging behind the lizard’s body sometimes etched tracks in the sand.

 

Our guide with an adult Nile Monitor, for size comparison

 

In spring, the female monitor breaks into a termite mound and lays her eggs, where they can incubate in a warm and protected space. Nile monitors have large clutches of up to 60 eggs.

 

A lizard that can co-exist with elephants, swim among hippos, and escape up a tree when an angry crocodile has just found its eggs devoured.

 

I like to think the Nile Monitor is the real Queen of the Nile.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

Nile Monitor with cormorants, Chobe River, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

Nile monitor (varanus niloticus) distribution map.png

Native range of the Nile Monitor

 

Alligator Lizard

Alligator Lizard, Northern California

Alligator Lizard, Northern California

When the spring temperatures start to warm, around April or May, we see the snakes and lizards coming out of hibernation.  But spring was early this year (drought), so it was a joy to come upon this alligator lizard while hiking in mid-March.

 

Alligator lizards are rare where I live, you might see one once in a summer, if at all.  Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata occupy a narrow range along the U.S. west coast.  They are medium-sized lizards usually at about 5-8 inches long.  Their diet primarily consists of crickets, millipedes, spiders, and other insects.   It is thought that their name “alligator” derives from the large head on an elongated body and their powerful jaws.

 

I used to be afraid of lizards.  But I realized when I moved to a rural property where lizards were leaping everywhere, that I had to change my attitude about lizards.  So I did.  And here is one of the many things that I now love about lizards:  many of them can dispense with their tail if necessary, including the alligator lizard.

 

If a snake or other predator catches the lizard, the lizard will detach its tail tip and escape.  The predator is left with only a few inches of tail, while the rest of the lizard has run to safety.  The abandoned tail tip flips and writhes for a few minutes, and then stops moving.  A new tail tip eventually grows back.  That’s got to be one of the coolest things a being can do.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Hidden Canyon Bliss

Great Basin, Nevada

Hidden Canyon, Baker, Nevada

We were guests at a B&B on 375 acres of cliffs and desert, in a deep isolated canyon of the Mount Wheeler range, just outside of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park.  One day we hiked all over Hidden Canyon.

 

Surrounded by rocky cliffs on both sides of a mile-wide valley, we watched a golden eagle; followed a river that emptied into a lake with frolicking warblers and swallows dipping into the water’s surface.  Wildflowers and desert sagebrush surrounded us, wild turkeys ate apples fallen from an abandoned orchard, and the melodious heavenly song of a canyon wren filled the air.

 

Mountain Lion Track

Mountain Lion Track

Enjoy these photos from our hike that day.

Hidden Canyon Ranch, Baker, NV

Hidden Canyon Ranch, Baker, NV

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

Serenading Canyon Wren

Serenading Canyon Wren

Lizard

Lizard

 

Ground Squirrel

Ground Squirrel

Startled Jackrabbit

Startled Jackrabbit