Cochise County Wildlife: Clark’s Spiny Lizard, Sceloporus Clarkii

Any new-to-us lizard spotting is awesome, but the Sceloporus clarkii, Clark’s Spiny Lizard, provided an extra Cochise County wildlife boost. It was still early February, and even at Robert Stoner’s place some two miles or so north of the Mexican border, February is a time for reptile brumation.

Wait. Brumation? What’s that?

The lllreptile.com website explains it this way:

As previously mentioned, brumation can be loosely equated to hibernation among mammals. When a reptile brumates, it becomes lethargic, sometimes not moving at all for the duration of the cold season. In nature, these animals typically find hibernaculums within their environment in which they can be somewhat insulated. A hibernaculum is simply the place where the reptile spends these periods of inclement weather. Burrows, rock crevices, caves and leaf litter are a few examples of hibernaculums documented in nature. Some temperate species can even brumate under water!

Certainly the Clark’s Spiny Lizard found by the Stoners fit that description. It was resting (bromating) in a pile of old leaves, which the humans had moved in order to clean up a bunch of old trash wood. Being aware of my work with wildlife photography on this site (ghost32writer.com), the kids immediately said to their Dad, “We should call Fred!”

They didn’t call, but as Fate would have it, I happened to be driving home at that time. Passing their place just at deep dusk, I couldn’t help but notice multiple burn barrels in action with Robert in attendance. (Three of his kids were also there, busy little wood-packing beavers, but I didn’t see them at first.) Okay, time to turn the truck around, retrace my steps, and pull into their driveway, dousing the headlights politely but rolling the driver’s side window down to let the CD player’s rendition of Mark Chesnutt’s hit, Bubba Shot the Jukebox, roll out in full force.

Multiple burn barrels in action.

Robert Stoner is a good neighbor and an even better friend. He was happy to see me, as I was him; we hadn’t spoken to each other in many months. But before we had a chance to sit down and shoot the breeze, the youngsters simply had to show me the new lizard they’d found. They’d find him a better place to hide, of course, but first I had to hold the critter for a little while–taking note of his bromating state, extremely lethargic yet wide awake, not fussing about being held at all despite the fact that during the heat of summer, he’d have been gone in a flash.

All righty, then. “Maybe I should go get my camera.”

“If you want to,” Robert responded. The kids had a much firmer opinion: “Yeah!”

Away I went, ten minutes round trip to the Border Fort and back. The girl holding him for the photo op asked if I’d like to get a picture of his ventral (belly) side. I said, “Sure, if you can do it without upsetting him too much.” (Not that we knew “he” was a male at the time; that discovery came later.) Overall, the critter–not yet identified as a Clark’s Spiny Lizard but clearly much larger than any other local lizard we’d seen in the area–was a prime specimen. We didn’t measure him, but a good guess at length would be about five and one half inches from nose to vent (excluding the tail). Pointy sharp scales covered the critter from nose to tail tip (hence the “spiny lizard” designation). His color was that of dry earth in the area; put him down, or even on a dry cholla post, and he pretty much “disappeared.” Great camouflage. The iris of the eye appeared to be orange-ish, though with the photos all being taken by firelight, flashlight, or both, the shade could be off a bit.

The underside (ventral) was both striking and a clincher when it came to identification. On a field of belly-white common to many reptiles, this Clark’s Spiny Lizard sported two big blue-green, iridescent patches, along with a matching patch under the chin. There might or might not have been one under the tail; I didn’t get a good look at that. These blue-green patches (which can vary in shade, but were strikingly blue-green on this specimen’s tummy) unequivocally identified him as an adult male, in the upper range of known size for his kind at that.

This photo is ultra-blurry because the camera’s auto focus feature focused on the near hand of the holder, not the Clark’s spiny lizard. However, it was the only picture I got showing the blue-green ventral patches, so it had to be included here.

The best pictures were taken after the Sceloporus clarkii was placed gently on a dead, dry cholla post. Without hesitation, the Clark’s grabbed hold of that “tree” and remained there, motionless, until the end of the evening when I said my goodbyes and the kids moved the winter-gentle but still wild thing to a better hiding place, where it could avoid some of the night’s coming cold and remain undiscovered by rude wood-moving humans. Curiously, although the lizard had been placed on the post with its tail down and its head up, this species is often observed in the wild with its head pointing down.

Which, come to think of it, makes a lot of sense. If a predator such as a hawk came diving at it, it would be a lot faster for the lizard to scramble dive toward the ground than to climb farther up the tree. Although it’s reported that their first line of defense, not unlike that of a squirrel, is often to scoot around the other side of the tree from the threat.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Tail view.

The Sceloporus clarkii remained in this position, unmoving for hours, until the humans shifted him to a safer place for brumation.

Except for the turtle-shell-like head covering, yes indeed, those keeled (overlapping) scales surely do look spiny!

One online site mentions that the Clark’s Spiny Lizard is known to eat its smaller cousin, the Ornate Tree Lizard, from time to time. Most of the Clark’s diet, however, is made up of bugs of all sorts, with beetles predominating but down to and including spiders. So if you don’t like bugs, you gotta love this guy! Also, cooling off during the brumation winter period, scientists have determined, encourages the lizard to fire up more and healthier sperm for the coming spring breeding season. A female Clark’s also becomes more fertile in the same way. My suggestion for those scientists who ran the experiments to find this out is, “Get a life!” But scientists, at least those I’ve known personally, are like that. The strangest things get them all giddy with enthusiasm.

Full body overhead view.

The hard copy field guide and various online sites agree that (a) Cochise County is a known part of the range for the Clark’s, and (b) they can be found at elevations ranging from around 1,300 to 6,000 feet above sea level. Robert’s home is situated at 4,000 feet, more or less, so he’s right in the middle of that range. So why haven’t we ever spotted one of these cool beasties, our acreage sitting at 4,300 feet above sea level as it does?

Most likely, the answer lies in the fact that this species is “highly arboreal” and is “only seldom seen on the ground.” This one wouldn’t have been spotted, either, if the family hadn’t been doing a bit of spring cleanup during the winter. With their known preference for trees, these lizards could–and probably do–spot us coming from some distance as they hang out in mesquite trees and the like. Then, scooting around to keep the tree trunk or branch between us and them, they retain almost perfect invisibility.

This one kept his eyes open when he felt we were showing a bit too much interest in him, but when things were settled down–even though my lawn chair seat was only a few feet away from the cholla post to which he clung–his eyes closed in hopefully blissful slumber. That, and he must have enjoyed the warmth coming from the burn barrel fires, too.

Snoozing away. This photo also shows one of the identifying “bracelet bands” clearly (near the shoulder, though there are others closer to the claws that don’t show in this light at this angle.)

In the final photo (below), the nostrils show up well. They point up, too. Almost straight up. Guess that keeps the critter’s sniffer out of the way when he’s attacking prey. Winter brumation lethargy or not, this fellow would be mighty intimidating, were one to be a beetle–or even a human, if this little guy happened to be the size of a full grown alligator.

Aside from that, the Clark’s is sort of an early Valentine’s Day present, the first new-to-us species for the year 2017–and it’s only February.