Creature Feature: Northwestern Fence Lizard

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Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

western_fence_lizard. Wikimedia Commons. Haha196Do you know that we have lizards that live within the redwoods? It’s true! The Northwest fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis occidentalis), a subspecies of the largest Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), roams the forests of the West Coast from the Puget Sound in Washington to Mendocino Coast. Here in the redwoods, you may be able to find them in rocky outcroppings where the lizard can warm its body in the sun.

The Northwestern fence lizard is often called the “blue-belly lizard” because of the sparkling blue belly of males, which can range from turquoise to a deep, almost navy blue. Looking at the lizard from the top, you wouldn’t expect it to have a gem-like underside. The lizard is well camouflaged, with sandy brown to black scales. Males are territorial and show off their bright bellies in a push-up like display to attract mates.

Blue-bellies feed on insects, like crickets and ticks, spiders, and other small lizards—including members of its own species. Blue bellies have many predators, including spiders, snakes, and small mammals like feral cats and martens.

Many kids have tried to catch a Northwesten fence lizard; few have succeeded. The keen lizard is able to sense approaching threats thanks to a “third eye” on the top of its head which can sense changes in light, such as a child’s shadow reaching down to grab. If caught by the tail, the tail may pop off and muscles in the tail will contract causing the tail to flop around, distracting the predator until the lizard can escape with a bobbed-behind. The tail will eventually regrow, but doing so takes a lot of energy. (Remember, wildlife is best left wild! Don’t attempt to capture or catch wildlife, even if it is as cute as a blue-belly lizard.)

A special protein in the lizard’s blood has been shown to cure Lyme disease. In California, deer ticks are responsible for the spread of Lyme disease, and baby ticks are more likely to carry the disease than adults. When these baby, or nymphal ticks, suck the blood of a Western fence lizard, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease dies. Some have hypothesized that California has fewer reported cases of Lyme disease than the Northeast United States because of our healthy Western lizard population! How many other species like the blue belly lizard contain life-saving secrets that we don’t know about yet? Preserving biodiversity is one means of preserving nature’s medicine.

Thankfully, unlike many critters EPIC focuses on, neither the Western or Northwestern fence lizard is endangered with extinction. If you look in the right places, we are practically rife with them and their playful antics are worthy of a watch.