The tiny lizard scoot-skittered past me, an elegant earless lizard taking cover under the nearest mesquite tree. I didn’t identify it at first, but it was not a Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard (Sceloporus slevini), lacking the characteristic side stripe of the Slevin’s–though other than that, it certainly looked the part.
Not that you could make that determination with the naked eye. Even at relatively close range, eight feet or so, these miniscule marauders are hard to see unless they’re out in the open and on the move.
But once the digital photos from the Canon PowerShot (excellent!) and the video clips from the Panasonic camcorder (too much movement–didn’t take time to set up the tripod!) were uploaded into the computer and the images enlarged to Full Screen size, it quickly became clear that we had a puzzle on our hands.
This lizard didn’t quite match any species to be found in the Peterson Field Guide, on Google Images, or on any of the various websites dealing with lizards found in Arizona…at least, not that I could find.
It was “not quite” a Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard. There were similarities to the elegant earless lizard, but no, it was not an elegant, either–or so I erroneously concluded. Looked sort of like a western fence lizard, but those are known for having blue bellies, so no….
Two things were clear, though:
1. This MLS (Mystery Lizard Species) was as beautiful as they came, strikingly marked and highly attractive–if lizards trip your trigger, anyway.
2. We’ve not seen this species here before (I thought, but I was wrong). Our acreage is rich in lizard diversity; we’d already spotted close to a dozen different varieties of the little reptiles within a hundred yards of the Border Fort during the few years we’d been here. But not this one. I was so sure this one was a new discovery.
A few things we noted before realizing we already knew the “mystery” species:
1. Pretty small, not more than two and a half inches from nose tip to tail tip.
2. The markings are quite striking, remarkably bold.
3. Speed is phenomenal. When the lizard went skittering by me, I didn’t even manage to focus on it, really, before it had covered thirty feet or so and gotten under cover.
One thing the Internet research uncovered was very cool. The Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard, which this elegant earless most closely resembles, feasts on ants, true bugs, wasps, and spiders. We certainly don’t wish our larger spiders any harm–the wolf spiders and tarantulas–but the lizards are welcome to all the black widow and brown recluse spiders they can eat.
Normally, the following video would never be published. The production values are okay except for one thing: I made the mistake of rushing back outside with the camcorder, hoping the lizard hadn’t left the area…and left the tripod in the house.
My bad. It won’t happen again.
Not that using the tripod while filming wildlife is any guarantee of quality, but at least a tripod mounted camcorder shakes far less in the wind than it does in my two relatively unsteady hands.
Anyway, I decided to use the video after all, primarily because it does give the viewer a different look at our Arizona mystery lizard.
Thankfully, it’s less than a minute long. (The video, although the lizard isn’t very long, either.)
Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard
Late in the day, Pam and I took a stroll over to the laundry shed. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to get my belt back on. Most of the time when I’m out of the house, the cased digital camera rides at my left hip and a sheathed folding knife at my right. Just possibly, it couldn’t hurt to throw the camcorder bag strap over my shoulder, too, right?
Nah. What are the odds?
Sure enough, as we neared the shed door, a little lizard skitter-skooted away from the shed itself and toward a mowed-short clump of bunchgrass.
“There’s one right there!” I exclaimed.
“Where?” Pam tried to look where I was pointing, but eyeballing a super-camouflaged mini-lizard that’s quit moving and gone into freeze mode…not an easy thing to do.
That lizard disappeared into the grass, but not before another one showed up.
Disgusted with myself, I headed back to the house, calling to Pam over my shoulder, “Keep an eye on him, will you?”
She promised. I think. At any rate, she was cooing love talk in that general direction, so the signs were good.
By the time I got back out–with the tripod as well as the camera–the mini-lizard had definitely moved but had not disappeared. I was in luck.
Of four clips I took, only one was reasonably suitable for publication. The others were “junk” for a variety of reasons: Excessive camcorder movement (the tripod does not pan as smoothly as it should), expletives (that “sticky” trpod was giving me fits), or Pam’s severe coughing fit when her allergies smacked her upside the head.
True, the Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard–this one turned out to be a Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard, light side stripe and all–didn’t do anything except blink its nearside eye. Once. Also, the camcorder did still move some, due both to the wind that refuses to quit these days and to my fumbling attempts to make the camcorder pan the way it should be able to do.
But it’s acceptable. Sort of.
No, I didn’t get any digital snapshots of the Slevin’s. This time, dashing back out of the house with camcorder and tripod in hand, I wound up inadvertently leaving the Canon PowerShot behind, so…no photos.
Our first year on this acreage, 2009, produced sightings of just two lizard species, the desert grassland whiptail and one of the horned lizard varieties. For another year after that, we figured that’s all there were.
2011 and 2012 blew that thesis to Kingdom Come. Lizard varieties started popping up everywhere we went. Three different horned lizards alone, Madragoran snake lizards, whiptail this and whiptail that, including Arizona striped whiptails and those amazing blue-tailed beasties, one of which posed for the camera like a politician at a campaign rally.
Pam has a theory: “The Monument Fire did it.”
Me: “What, all the surviving lizards in the Huachuca Mountains decided things were getting too hot, so they migrated thisaway?”
Me: “They’d have to cross the San Pedro River.”
Pam: “So what’s your point? The river bed is bone dry for most of the year.”
Then, reading up on the Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard yesterday, I came across a scientific critter website that says some of these tiny lizards migrate as much as 200 kilometers this way or that, given time.
Whoa. A two inch animal skitter-scooting on a 200 kilometer journey?
At any rate, it feels like the lizards are “accumulating” here because we’re here. “Take our pictures, Ghost! We wanna be famous online!”
Even if we do have trouble with a species identification every now and then.
Update: Mystery lizard no longer
April 24, 2013: Two of the Field Guides we ordered from Amazon came in today. Both of them clearly identify our “mystery lizard” as an elegant earless lizard, apparently a female.
Dumb me. I could have made the same ID by searching my own earlier work on the elegant earless. That one showed up a year or two ago, much larger (obviously older) and clearly male as signified by the two black marks on each side near the front legs.
We lives and we learns.
They eat insects and spiders and (ugh!) hatchling lizards.
On the other hand Pam and one of the Slevin’s bunchgrass lizards have formed quite a bond. Every time my wife heads out near the laundry shed, that teeny lizard pops up to say Hi, sometimes crossing the path right in front of her shoe, perching an a dried mud clump while listen to the redheaded human’s love-talk.
That’s double awesome when we consider the fact that the Slevin’s does eat insects and spiders, just like the elegant earless–but does not eat other baby lizards. No cannibalism for Pammie’s buddy, thank you very much!