A little voice called me to the door breaking my afternoon meditation. ‘The Littlest Lizard is out and about.’ Without thinking I grabbed my IPhone, opened the door and was disappointed to see that the sun had already left Littlest Lizard’s lair, a rocky crevice in the cactus garden wall.
Disappointed, I turned to re –enter the house and there he was, clinging to the wall like spiderman, just inches away from my face. “Oh, there you are” I exclaimed happily as I snapped a few pictures taking careful note of his girth. He bowed to me three times.
This sagebrush lizard is only about an inch and a half long (with tail) and is the only lizard that has been around for the last ten days. The other three little lizards must have fattened up enough to brumate, but this little guy is so tiny that he has to keep hunting to survive the coming winter.
I am pleased to report that Littlest Lizard is gaining the necessary weight. Every warm day I meet up with him and we have a conversation while he basks in the sun above his crevice or on the adobe wall keeping a sharp eye out for potential prey.
And every day when he appears I run for the camera only to discover that he has disappeared like a phantom. This habit of his has been driving me crazy because I wanted just one good picture of him, a picture that would indicate that he might really be as small as I say he is. Today I may have succeeded thanks to that insistent little voice. I love the way Littlest Lizard turned around to peer at me as if to say – ‘that’s enough’ after I took two pictures.
Most animals I know would prefer not to have a human peering at them through any kind of lens. My dogs are a good example. If they see me coming with a camera they immediately close their eyes or turn their heads away. I’ve followed bears that led me through thick brush and briar patches turning around every few minutes to check on the progress of the annoying human with the black box and never letting me get close enough to get one decent photo.
Don’t ask me why but sagebrush lizards are my favorite reptiles in the world. As a child I do remember going to the circus where my little brother and I could buy geckos for 10 cents that clung to our coats after being attached by a tether and pin. Of course I was too young then to understand the cruelty involved. Most of these hapless lizards soon expired. My mother showed us how to feed them by attaching a bit of hamburger to a piece of thread, and a couple survived for a while. I shudder now just thinking about those poor reptiles hanging on for life on cold winter days…
I’d like to think that my present relationship with sagebrush lizards has helped to even out my unintentional childhood unkindness towards the geckos that I so eagerly bought with my allowance.
When I first arrived back in Abiquiu I was distraught believing that all my house lizards were dead. The first day I ran into a very well fed garter snake that slithered into the cactus garden wall. Normally, I am very fond of snakes but when I spent three days calling for the seven plus ‘house lizards,’ and no one appeared, I despaired. With all the five – foot prickly weeds cascading over the overgrown garden and obliterating the path to the house I figured my sagebrush lizard family had all been eaten. Most of their basking territory was covered in an unruly green jungle.
Imagine my shock the fourth morning when I called out to my friends for a final time while attacking nasty weeds with a pair of clippers (that eventually left me with horrible blisters and bloody hands) when my favorite female lizard suddenly materialized with her very distinct markings. She was so plump! Thrilled to see her I moved slowly towards the wall. When she bowed to me I knew she remembered me and was acknowledging me as her friend. This lizard lets me pet her, and sure enough after a bit of conversation I was able to stroke her velvety back a few times before she moved away. Is she some sort of lizard “watchdog – woman” looking out for her own kind I wondered, because by mid afternoon most of my lizards appeared in their usual spots as if they had been there all along.
Why three days of invisibility? Did these lizards think I abandoned them? If they only knew… I thought about each of them every day all summer long. Unfortunately, I was missing a couple of adults; they never returned. But now I also had four new baby lizards – one of which was barely an inch long.
When the first hard frost hit early in October most of the adults disappeared quite suddenly except my favorite mother, her mate, and another pair that still appeared on warm afternoons. My beautifully marked mother was now so well padded that I wondered how she had room to swallow even one more ant! I last saw the mother who I have now re-named the “watchdog lizard” ten days ago. The four little ones continued to appear until the end of the first week in November. Now I only see Littlest lizard. I am delighted to see how canny this little one is, always keeping close to cover. As long as I am there without a camera he is quite friendly although he will not tolerate my touch (I actually have no idea if this lizard is a male or female because he’s too young to sex).
Now that the days are short and the cottonwood leaves are drifting to the ground even on windless days I know my time with the Littlest Lizard is coming to an end, but I am reasonably certain that this appealing little fellow will see another spring… and I shall be joyously awaiting his return.
A natural history note on bowing:
Bowing is a part of spring mating rituals and I have witnessed this behavior many times, but I have also learned that it is a form of communication that these lizards routinely use with me. I have never read anything in any literature about bowing with respect to general communication. When a lizard bows to me s/he is conversing with me in his/her own language.
A second scientific note about having a personal relationship with lizards:
Both humans and non – human animals have limbic systems within their brains that are closely involved with the regulation of emotions especially in the amygdala. The limbic system was present in the ancestors of reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is an ancient emotional activation system that we share with countless other species. The love I feel for my lizards is real and evolutionarily ancient. I have no doubt that these relationships are reciprocal.