Species S. occidentalis
On any cold morning in the Western United
States, go outside and look for blue
You'll find them under rocks, under
lumber, any place that has shelter. Once you've found one, pick it up. If you
got to it early enough, it'll be too cold to move much.
The lizard's scales
are spiny — gently run your finger along them the wrong way. They're like sandpaper.
Now go the right way: like silk. Its skin is paper thin. Most
people are too afraid of reptiles to realize they're some of the softest and
most delicate creatures around. You may as well be handling gossamer.
Break down "ectotherm": outside temperature. Reptiles
are ectotherms. This means they take warmth from the environment rather than generate
it from within. But "environment" is really too broad a term. They
take their warmth from the sun. Normally, this being would muster the
strength to stick its face out in the light and let its blood carry the warmth
throughout its body. Reptiles practice the crudest form of thermoregulation.
Now you're going to do something cool.
Cup the lizard in your hands,
covering it with your skin. Gradually, you'll feel its lungs expanding and
contracting. It will start to move. Your hands expel a lot of heat. The mitochondria in your body produce warmth; normally it dispels in the air.
After a few minutes, open up your
hands and give the lizard a little rub on the belly. It may take a few seconds
for the animal to snap out of the ecstacy
of your heat bath. When you picked it up it
was stiff as a board: now it's a clump of muscles and claws, streaking in
whichever direction is Away.
For a few moments you were someone's
sun. Warmth comes from the sun and your hands.
of the western fence lizard is currently a bit jumbled. Until recently, some
six different species were classified. But recent molecular systematics work suggests that there are four clades
and eleven genetically separate subspecies. They're distributed throughout the
western US, where slight variations in environment, climate, ambient critters
etc. justify the assumption that evolution has done a bit of separation and
These aren't big lizards. Without
tail, they get four inches long — around the length of your middle finger. The
alternate name "blue bellied lizard" comes from the iridescent
blue patches males carry on the sides of the belly and on the throat, which are
used as territorial and mating displays. Because females and juveniles have
little use for such gaudiness, their patches are much less pronounced.
While blue bellied lizards are
associated with desert life, they aren't actually found in the desert. They
settle in the scrub and chaparral of the semi-desert, climbing as high as 2000
meters. The heart of their range is California,
but they're found up into Utah and down into Baja California,
and on the small islands dotting the Pacific
near the North American west coast. In higher elevations they take up residence in
the forests, sunning themselves where light falls through the canopies.
Like most lizards, blue bellies can
alter their color slightly to match surroundings. Put a light lizard on a dark
rock; it turns dark. Interestingly, they tend to stay dark when on light
surfaces, appearing as shadows.
The blue belly is carnivorous,
subsisting on ants and other insects. Its tendency to take up position in high
places makes it easy prey for hawks, but it compensates for the devil-may-care
attitude with lightning fast reflexes. When confronted without an escape route,
males will perform jerky 'push-ups' to display the blue patches and upper body
Mating season is May through June. Eggs are distributed ten or so per
and hatch as early as mid-August.
As hatchlings go, blue bellies are quite large — counting tail, they're about
two inches long.
You can make pets of lots of
Like most reptiles, blue bellied
lizards are pretty low-maintenance pets. And since they're crawling around on
the rocks by the dozens, they're pretty easy to catch — especially early in the
You'll want a five to ten gallon tank,
depending on the number and size of lizards. Since these guys are climbers,
you'll want to include some driftwood and rocks for recreation. Soil makes a good substrate;
some folks use paper towels for easy maintenance, but it isn't nearly as
attractive. Keep lighting simple — a sixty-watter should do the trick if
ambient temperatures aren't warm enough. Spotlights will cause burns. Clean the
tank every two to three weeks, washing driftwood and other playground items
with warm water and mild soap. Males are territorial, so don't house them
together. Provide water in a small, shallow vessel. A dip platter works nicely.
Feed it any small, non-threatening
bug you can catch. If you're squeamish about catching bugs, you can buy
crickets at any reptile supply store. If you've got a small lizard
start it out on ants and work it up to larger vermin as it grows. Feed it in intervals of two or three days up to a week. Reptiles
are slow eaters.
Every now and then let it fall
asleep in your hands. Lizards love warmth.
San Diego Natural History Museum