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June 30, 2009

Wild About Utah: The Lizard and His Tail

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

One of the most beautiful lizards I’ve ever seen lives right here in Utah. The collared lizard has a gold head, a green body and 2 black collar stripes. I stumbled upon one last week during a hike in Professor Valley north of Moab. It was just shy of a foot long from tip to tail, with most of that length in the tail. It bravely stood its ground as I crept closer to admire it. Instinctively, I wanted to reach down and catch it!

The urge to catch lizards seems to be innate. Maybe our ancient ancestors used to eat them and the desire to catch them is a relict evolutionary trait.

When you catch a lizard, you might just cause him to drop his tail. Tail dropping is a defense mechanism. In many species of lizard the tail has weak fracture planes between the vertebra, allowing the tail to detach easily. After breaking off, the thrashing tail attracts the would-be predator, enabling the lizard to escape. Some lizard tails are brightly colored, which enhances the decoy effect.

Unfortunately, there are serious consequences to losing one’s tail. A long tail acts as a counterbalance, enabling a lizard to lift its forelegs when running. This is important because a lizard can move more quickly on two legs than on four. A large lizard running on two legs can sprint up to 12 miles an hour!

Male lizards need their long tails for social status. Low status males have much more difficulty mating. Tail loss also might mean that a juvenile will have trouble acquiring a home range due to low social standing. Finally, fat stored in a tail provides a food source during periods of starvation and reproduction. With this in mind, I hope you can join me in my effort not to catch lizards. Let’s admire these wonderful creatures from a distance.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand

This Wild About Utah topic was adapted from A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country by David B. Williams, courtesy of the Canyonlands Natural History Association.

Thanks to the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa for supporting the development of this Wild About Utah topic. The Ranch offers deluxe lodging and services on a scenic bend of the Colorado River, 20 minutes from Moab in the spectacular Professor Valley.


Images: Photo Copyright © 2005 & courtesy of Jerry Shue, Canyonlands Natural History Association

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Wild About Utah is a weekly nature series produced by Utah Public Radio (link to www.upr.org) in cooperation with Stokes Nature Center (link to www.logannature.org) and Bridgerland Audubon Society (link to www.bridgerlandaudubon.org/index.htm ) . Archives of the program can be found at www.wildaboututah.org.

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