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My father had a muscular, strong foreman on the electrical construction team for which he worked back in the 1950s.   He claimed to be a direct descendent of Robert E. Lee,The foreman had, as far as I could tell, only one fear - Lizards! It seemed a little strange to me. However, almost all of us have some phobia or other and I have had a nurse at a clinic say she could not be in the same room with me because I was wearing a tee-shirt with a spider on it!

Most lizards, in reality, are hardly frightening.  In fact (like most if not all organisms) they are quite interesting creatures. In the arid Southwest, where I grew up, there are a host of species.  This includes one of the handful of known venomous lizards, the Gila monster (which I have never seen in the wild.) The truly dangerous Komodo dragon, a 10-12 foot monitor lizard from Indonesia, is the one frightening lizard for which I could see good reason for fear. The Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard are easily avoided, if encountered, but Komodo dragons have been known to stalk and kill humans much like the velociraptors in "Jurassic Park."  Recently it was discovered that they have venom glands, so they are the largest venomous reptiles by weight.

Among the many life forms that I found fascinating, the lizards were probably just after insects, arachnids, and snakes.  Some were easier to keep alive than snakes (my one attempt at snake keeping, a gopher snake, resulted in the escape of the reptile.)  However I was really successful in keeping only geckos, the Southwestern banded species, and found them to be quite charming. Other lizards were a bit more difficult and I finally gave up on desert iguanas, my only other real effort.  Still I observed lizards, read about them in books (although less so than snakes) and enjoyed chasing the elusive fringe-footed sand lizards over the Algodones Sand Dunes before the prevalence of sand buggies made that endeavor a very dangerous game.  

We have one interesting anomaly involving the local lizards here in the Mesilla Valley area - some of the populations of whiptail lizards (Cnemidophorus spp.) contain only females!  They reproduce by parthenogenesis with each daughter being a clone of the mother.

In Florida I made the acquaintance of the anolis lizards, both the Florida variety and the Cuban, which was abundant in the south.  I found this male anole in a tangle on Grassy Key, in 1977.

Cuban Anole - Florida Keys, FL

A male Cuban Anole (Anolis sagrei) in the Florida Keys.

Common lizards around our part of New Mexico include this greater earless lizard, photographed in the Organ Mountains.

Greater Earless Lizard - New Mexico

Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus) in the Organ Mountains of New Mexico.

Horned lizards are almost emblematic of the Southwest (like roadrunners).  I've found several species, inculting this common Texas horned lizard, also photographed in the Organ Mountains.

Texas Horned Lizard - New Mexico

Texas Horned-Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum in the Organ Mountains of New Mexico.

Collared lizards are voracious predators, sometimes running on their hind legs to capture insects and even other lizards, like miniature dinosaurs. This individual seemed to want to be photographed as it stuck around while numerous photos were taken. We were on a butterfly count along the Pine Tree Trail at Aguirre Springs in the Organ Mountains.

Collard Lizard - Organ Mts., NM

Collared Lizard (Crotophytus collaris) in the Organ Mountains of New Mexico.

Phylogenetically lizards, snakes and the New Zealand Tuatara form a clade (a group of closely related organisms) that is separated from the turtles on one hand and the crocodilians on the other. I once gave a presentation called "Do Reptiles Really Exist" to an Audubon meeting. I'n not sure I got the point across, but in reality our common classification of "reptile," "fish," or "bird" are highly artificial, with birds more closely related to crocodilians than the latter are to snakes and lizards, and turtles sort of off on their own. What we call "fish" are divided into at least four clades of related forms.

In any case, lizards are fascinating in their own right and I hope they will survive the current extinction event that is raising havoc with the planet's biodiversity.  

As usual, all photographs are by me.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun May 26, 2013 at 06:18 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and SciTech.

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