Speaking with the Western Fence Lizard
I’m hoping that many of you reading this are fans of the outdoors, and explore the wilds often. If you are not, then hopefully reading this may inspire you to go seek out some of the nature around you. Here we will discuss a particular animal you probably will see while walking or hiking through the nature of Southern California. For the more seasoned outdoor pioneers among us, you may have seen some of these scampering scaled beasts before, but I doubt you know all their secrets.
Scales only grow once and must be shed
We will discuss the most common and well known of these modern dinosaurs. Funnily in the time of real dinosaurs, reptiles ruled the land and were the largest creatures to walk the earth. During the same period, some mammals existed, but they were tiny in comparison, mostly rodent-like creatures. Now, the script has flipped, and mammals are the biggest creatures on the planet, while the average reptile is only a few inches long.
The Western Fence Lizard grows to six inches from head to tail at the most. These are hearty species and habitate almost every nook and cranny they can find. They will often be quite happily living in close proximity to humans. Fence lizards can be seen sunbathing on almost every fence in Southern California. Their common name "fence" lizards, may just have something to do with their constant usage of the structure.
Tails can be dropped and regrown. A predator may eat the tail and spare the lizard.
These lizards will persist with the tiniest amount of habitat. I have seen cramped yards in urban areas with just one or two bushes that provide enough habitat for three or four fence lizards. They can get sun by clinging to walls or relaxing atop the bushes. They have shelter from predators in the thick twigs, and a supply of food from the insects attracted to the grass, bushes, and even the porch lights on your home.
These lizards are easy to identify by both looks, and behavior. The lizards feature strong camouflage on the top. Their backs are spiky and rough, and often dark gray, black, or brown. This helps them blend in to rocks, dirt, or hide in the shadows from hungry birds and snakes. However conservative the coloration on top may be, their bellies and underside could not be more flamboyant.
Hidden until necessary are brilliant blue streaks along the belly, as well as bright yellow markings on the inside of their legs. These distinct and flashy markings have formed another of their common names, “blue bellies.” Identifying these lizards takes both their blue markings and their behavior into account. These blue bellies are often used by the male lizards to detail a selection of different messages to other lizards, potential predators, and anyone who might be sitting in their favorite sunning spot.
This lizard is initiating the pushups but hasn't puffed out its belly yet a "half signal"
The fence lizards will utilize their blue bellies to communicate these messages by standing tall on all four legs and puffing out their belly and throat while aggressively doing pushups. This makes the lizards look bigger and more intimidating, and highlights the bright blue. The general communication is the same, although depending on circumstance, has different meanings.
These lizards will conduct this same puffing and bright blueness to communicate in all circumstances. However, the context before the signal details its different meanings. Let's say you see two of these fence lizards of a similar size doing pushups at each other in close proximity, this is most likely two males sizing each other up. Generally fighting is avoided by this display and the smaller lizard sulks off. Although occasionally if the sizes are similar, the lizards may physically battle! This can be a ferocious and dangerous affair, and potentially cause injury or death, so deciding the winner through pushups and display is beneficial to avoid unnecessary injury.
Sometimes you may see one of these lizards seemingly doing the pushups toward you. I am sure you never thought it was directed at you. But if you did, you may have been right. The lizards will show their bellies and puff out their throats in a huff of pushups towards humans. This is a form of communication that is quite important to the lizards, and to you.
The lizards see you as a potential predator, and this is exactly what they are signaling. They are saying, “hey predator, I see you. So if you try to come and catch me, I will run away. You should try and eat someone else, who will be easier to catch.” Predators will listen to this, because in the wild, energy is hard to come by and must be conserved.
So I always thought I could talk to lizards, and well, maybe I can't. But, lizards can, and do talk to me, and you! Keep these interesting behaviors in mind next time you see one of these lizards. Maybe you will discover another way they communicate!
Beautiful photos taken by Alex Havasi, lower resolution photos of lizards doing pushups taken by Isaac Yelchin
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.