Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wall lizard

The mausoleum of Fred Lazarus and family members, Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio. I was down at the cemetery last Wednesday, and snapped this photo as Lazarus is central to this story. Fred was the son of Simon Lazarus, who founded the now extinct F & R Lazarus & Company stores. Fred served as president of the company, and like many of the Lazarus family members, lived part of his life in Cincinnati.

Lazarus later became part of Macy's, which of course still goes strong. I took this photo last Tuesday at a downtown Cincinnati intersection, and the Macy's empire is a dominant fixture of the scene.

Anyway, back in 1952, a then young member of the extended Lazarus clan named George Rau lived in Mt. Lookout, a Cinci suburb. While visiting the area of Lake Garda near Milan, Italy in 1952 on a family vacation, George took a shine to the local lizards and stuffed some in his luggage, importing them back to the Queen City. Upon return to the Mt. Lookout compound, he liberated the reptiles; a species known as the common wall lizard, Podarcis muralis.

They flourished in the Queen City, and have come to be known locally as the "Lazarus Lizards".

Typical wall lizard habitat as seen from Google Earth, this particular neighborhood on Cincinnati's southeast side and not far from the Ohio River.

And here we are at street level. See that wall by the sidewalk? There are wall lizards living in it. And about every other wall, rocky foundation or outcrop, and stony spot in many parts of the city.

Get yourself into a good wall lizard locale, and it won't be long before you see one. Like barely glimpsed wraiths, the wary little lizards scuttle off at lightning speed, causing one to wonder if they were seeing things. Get out on foot and start stalking the little animals and it won't be long before you manage good looks. And a big dose of surprise as to just how many there are.

Herepetologist Jeff Davis holds a wall lizard shortly after capturing it along the street in the previous photo. Ohio has a long and storied history of herpetology, and has been home to some of the country's foremost authorities on amphibians and reptiles. Jeff is one of them, a leading expert on Ohio's herpetofauna and author or coauthor of several publications about the state's amphibians and reptiles.

I was in Cincinnati last Tuesday to speak at a conference, and connected with Jeff beforehand to see if he'd be willing to meet me afterwards to look for wall lizards. Jeff lives in the Cincinnati area and his lab at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History is just ten minutes from the conference I was at.

So it was a go, and thanks to Jeff I was able to add this scaley oddity to my list, and more importantly learn more about wall lizards and how they operate.

The common wall lizard is a thing of great beauty when seen like this. Most people just get glimpses of linear little streaks dashing over the curb, but we were persistent and finally ran one into the grass, where its progress was impeded. With a quick pounce, Jeff was on it.

Note the lichenlike blotchy dappling of the skin. I would imagine this pattern evolved to help the animal better blend with lichen-encrusted rocks.

Those eyes work very well. These lizards are incredibly wary and impossible to sneak up on. Usually, it was tough to approach one within ten or fifteen feet before the animal would scuttle off into a crevice or dense vegetation.

This is a male, its skin highlighted with a row of beautiful blue dots. Upon close inspection - click the pic for expansion - the skin resembles an ornate tapestry of small woven beads.

Here we can see the reason for the lizard's nearly supernatural ability to zip around vertical surfaces in a manner that would put Spiderman to shame. The toes, especially those of the back feet, are abnormally long and a great adaption for clinging to challenging surfaces.

From its humble start of ten lizards in 1952, the Cincinnati wall lizard population has ballooned to perhaps 200,000, maybe more. They are abundant in many neighborhoods and well known to local citizens, and have expanded very locally into neighboring Indiana and Kentucky. How far they get remains to be seen.

The ecological impacts of having perhaps one-quarter million introduced lizards running about can't be good, but it is difficult to ascertain with certainty exactly what damage they have done. Wall lizards, given their success, must have had a role in reducing native lizards such as eastern fence lizard and five-lined skink, which are rare or absent where the wall lizard occurs although both used to occur in this area.

I appreciate Jeff taking me to see some of these curious little lizards, which certainly qualify as Ohio's oddest tale of reptilian introduction.


Lisa at Greenbow said...

What an interesting story. I will be on the lookout for this fellow. I rarely see lizards around here so it isn't likely I will see this one. I rarely get to Cincy but will make an effort to see these the next time I am there.

Anonymous said...

Jim, what fantastic photos of the lizard skin! Life sure is beautiful when we see it up close like that. Thanks for sharing this. Off to grab my macro lens and find some beauty of my own!

Jim McCormac said...

Glad you guys enjoyed the wall lizard, in all its scaly loveliness!

John said...

Makes me wish I still lived in Ohio-- I had no idea. On my next visit home I have to stop in and see this. Amazing.

Buckeyeherper said...

Nice look at the Cincy lizards. I haven't seen Jeff in about 3 years and it was nice to see him pop up. This brought back some good memories of Queen City herping. Did you convince him to take you looking for kirtlands too?

Jim McCormac said...

Yes, Jeff is one of Ohio's great assets. No, we didn't look for Kirtland's snake or anything else - I only had about an hour and wall lizards were all we had time for.

Anonymous said...

I work as a maintenance tech along brotherton rd and allendorf drive. 40 ft from the railroad tracks. I get to see these guys every day in the summer. I've watch them try to mate, I've caught them in my building. They don't go very fast on epoxy coated concrete. They love hanging on the brick building.