Reptiles in the Garden

Last weekend I gave my last presentation of the spring, and the very next day I seized an opportunity to work in the garden for a change. It was a beautiful day, and of course in my eagerness to be outside, I forgot both hat and sunscreen, and I soon sported my first and hopefully only sunburn of the year. I wasn’t alone out there, either. Basking in the warmth of the day was this beauty, a male Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus).


He was so chubby that at first I thought it must be a female ready to lay eggs, but nope, his markings clearly indicate otherwise. It’s a little hard to see it in this image, but he has light blue stripes along the sides of his belly — females don’t have these.


He wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out, clearly. I’d like to think that if a female were nearby, he suck that chubby belly in, puff out his chest, and do a handsome pose. Clearly he should be practicing those defensive/offensive push-ups male Texas Spiny Lizards are known for (when confronted by other male Texas Spiny Lizards in their territory) — perhaps he could get in better shape. But then again, perhaps this round belly equates to “hot” in the lizard world.


On the other hand, he’s limber enough to do the splits, and to stay in that pose for a while while I took pictures.


Check out the markings on his gorgeous tail.


Yes, yes, you’re a pretty handsome insectivore after all, little big guy. TXspinylizardD-hole04-26-15

My son said he saw the lizard coming out of this hole in one of our raised beds. I wonder whether the lizard was using the little tunnel as a cool haven, or whether a female might be prepping to lay eggs in there. I haven’t had a chance to inspect the spot since then to see whether the hole has been covered up or not. If it is, I suspect there might be little eggs inside.


Despite being described as an arboreal species, I have these Texas Spiny Lizards all over my garden and rarely see them on a tree. I guess they have too much to feast on in the garden area. I imagine they’d blend in much better on the bark of a tree than on the wood of my veggie beds or on the rocks around on the pond. But I’m happy they’re willing to hang out on the ground with me.

Getting back to working on the garden, I decided to tackle the weeding of a small perennial patch in the backyard, and in doing so had to move aside several bordering rocks. It’s best to move such rocks carefully — all sorts of little creatures might be sheltering under rocks to stay cool and out of the light (scorpions, centipedes, snakes, etc.), and one wouldn’t want to get a jolt of surprise or worse, pain, from reaching under a rock blindly. But under one rock, I did find a wonderful garden resident.


It was a Tantilla snake, one of the Blackhead species. Some people call them Centipede Snakes, named for their favorite food. The small snakes also eat scorpions and other invertebrates. Like their prey, they are nocturnal and favor rocks to hide underneath. They are colubrid snakes and are non-venomous.


I think this snake must have realized I’m a Snake Whisperer and completely calmed down in my hand. What a beauty. It was probably about 10-12 inches long.tantillasnakec04-26-15

Of course, as soon as I set it down, the snake scurried off for shelter, making use of its fossorial lifestyle and digging right into the earth. But we were able to get a quick picture — you can see the earthy coloration of the rest of the snake’s body.

And so I went back to weeding that garden bed. Lo and behold, under the very next rock was another snake, a much smaller one. It was a Leptotyphlops snake, or a blind snake, about 6 inches long. It looked almost silver in the sunlight but shows a pinkish undertone in the pictures.


These little burrowing, nonvenomous snakes are often confused with earthworms due to their size and coloration. Their eyes are reduced in functionality, serving only to perceive light — they aren’t truly blind, but very nearly so. They spend most of their lives underground.


The main diet of blind snakes consists of ants and termites, along with their eggs, larvae, and pupae. It is believed that the snakes can follow the pheromone trail left by the insects in order to find their colonies. Sometimes blind snakes will also eat millipedes or centipedes. Their scales are smooth and tightly overlap, helping protect the snake from the bites and stings of ants. The tail ends abruptly, mostly rounded with a small point at the very tip.


This little snake was quite a wiggler, and I used a clear bowl with some leaf litter to hold the snake for a moment while I snapped a couple of pictures. But I didn’t want to stress the little snake out — I quickly returned it to the safe haven of its rock in the garden.

I’m so glad to run across these reptiles from to time in my garden. It means my wildlife habitat is functioning well in terms of the ecosystem —  predators such as lizards and snakes are natural and very important pest control. Of course at night, they have to be careful, too — we have hungry screech owls that are even higher in the food web, and they’d love a chance to catch one of these little snakes. The lizards, being diurnal, might be safe if they have a good place to hunker down at night. Always excitement in our backyard!

What the Geck? O.

In moving dirt and leaves around the garden, we periodically discover a hiding animal. This little creature is a Mediterranean Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus).

mgeckoa06-11.jpgBy the name, I am sure you can tell that it’s not native to Texas, nor to anywhere else in the United States. Its ancestors most likely came from Southern Europe, or perhaps Northern Africa or Southwest Asia. But this gecko’s cousins and siblings have become a common sight in the urban environment in other regions these days, particularly in the southern states and other tropical-subtropical areas. Lots of southern gardeners, so used to seeing Mediterranean Geckos around or even in their house, probably don’t even realize that these wall-climbing lizards with their cute toe pads haven’t always been here. In fact, the first published report of these geckos in Texas was made in 1955.

mgeckob06-11.jpgAs far as invasive animal species go, this one is currently listed as having “minimal impact” on the native wildlife populations. But there are plenty of invasive species muy malos out there — European Starlings, Zebra Mussels, Japanese Beetles, Wild Boars (a.k.a. feral hogs), and a long list of other insect, aquatic, and vertebrate species. Starlings and English House Sparrows, for example, kill or push out Purple Martins and take over their nesting cavities. Feral hogs spread destruction and disease across the countryside and in many urban areas. Introduced earthworms are affecting northern forest ranges. Red-Eared Sliders, turtles native to Texas and considered friendly sights here, are problems in many other states and countries because they adapt easily to the local environmental conditions and affect native turtle populations. I’m not even listing some of the worst offenders.

Does the Mediterranean Gecko displace native lizards? It certainly has a tendency to be territorial, so there probably is a little of that going on. But considering that it likes to co-exist with humans, often hanging around exterior lighting on houses and other buildings — it’s possible that there is minimal overlap between it and other species, but I’m no expert. If it has found its own niche in the habitat, then it seems reasonable that the native lizards won’t be threatened, though studies are certainly incomplete. Far more dangerous to native wildlife, in my opinion, is the use of pesticides to kill off insects, which are food sources to countless animal species.


Mediterranean Geckos (actually one of four introduced gecko species in Texas) are easily distinguished from our native Texas geckos, the Texas Banded Gecko and the Reticulated Banded Gecko (both are found in the Big Bend area). The Mediterranean Gecko has bumpy, spotted skin, sticky toe pads, and tiny claws. Its eyes have vertical pupils but no eyelids — please skip the staring contest with this one. You’ll lose. 

mgeckod06-11.jpgOne of its more fascinating aspects is that it can lose its tail to escape a predator and then regenerate it– such regeneration takes about three weeks. I wonder whether this gecko went through that process — its tail looks distinctly different from the rest of it.

The dark spots help the gecko hide in the leaves, but the gecko can lighten its coloration as necessary to blend into other areas. At night it can be quite pale.

mgeckoe06-11.jpgI will say this about Mediterranean Geckos — they love to eat cockroaches, of which the South surely has more than enough to go around. The geckos love moths, too — you can see why hanging around a house at night is a pretty great place for a gecko to be. Just stay away from my native lizards, gecko, and we’ll get along fine.

Friendly, Adorable, Prehistoric

Our garden has been taken over by dinosaurs.

GStxsplizarde04-05-11.jpgAt least, that’s how it seems.

GStxsplizardb04-05-11.jpgWe’ve got Texas Spiny Lizards all over the place. I wonder if theirs were the little lizard eggs I saw in the brush pile awhile back. There, right there — that’s why we have a brush pile. A place for lizard babies!

GStxsplizardf04-05-11.jpgThey’re sure to have a nice time in our garden. Lots of insects, lots of places to hide.

GStxsplizardc04-05-11.jpgAll of our Texas Spiny Lizards, at least those we’ve spotted, are juveniles. They get rather chubby-looking as adults and can be about a foot in size. Mine still qualify as being “inches long.” 

GStxsplizardg04-05-11.jpgBelieve me, when I find an adult in my yard I’m going to be squealing with pure joy. And I’ll probably take about a thousand pictures.


Because if these babies seem as prehistoric looking to you as they do me, just wait until you see the grown-ups!

One Texas Alligator Lizard, Rescued

txalligatorlizarda12-11-10.jpgIts name implies something much more frightening — something along the lines of a Komodo dragon — but the Texas Alligator Lizard (Gerrhonotus infernalis) only reaches about 2 feet long at its maximum. Even so, it’s the largest native lizard in Texas, and it’s one of the largest alligator lizards period. This one is about 14 inches long.

txalligatorlizardb12-11-10.jpgThe lizard happened to be spotted during a native plant rescue at a construction site near Lake Travis — a lovely habitat that will sadly succumb to development soon, becoming a water treatment plant. Our local Native Plant Society and dedicated habitat volunteers organize plant rescues from such situations whenever possible — some plants are given back to the city for habitat restoration, and the rest go to the volunteers who dig them up. But today, plants weren’t all that were rescued — a City of Austin biologist will be bringing this lizard to a new home, I believe at the Balcones Preserve. It only seemed right — its original habitat is being destroyed.

txalligatorlizardc12-11-10.jpgThe Texas Alligator Lizard likes rocky hillsides. It moves fairly slowly on its short little legs, making it relatively easy for the biologist to capture the one at the plant rescue. Its slow movement also made it easy for me take some, you know, 100 pictures (I’m not joking). You can see by this next expression that the lizard might possibly have been getting annoyed with my zealous image-snapping.

Though not the most colorful of lizards, it’s still handsome in its pale-scale armor.

txalligatorlizarde12-11-10.jpgtxalligatorlizardg12-11-10.jpgIt has a blue, quick-to-flick tongue, and the neatest little digits.


It breaks my heart to know that so many native plants and animal homes are going to be wiped out, but I’m grateful for all the plant volunteers and rescuers and happy that at least the lizard has a chance to survive.

As for me, I managed to rescue some Rusty Blackhaw Viburnums, Silk Tassel, Yellow Passionflower, and Flameleaf Sumac. The soil was incredibly rocky, making it difficult to get plants out without damage to the roots. We’ll see what survives — at least everything is in the ground, watered, and treated with seaweed! I’m particularly excited about the Flameleaf Sumac — I very much admire its fall colors.

We have a big cold front coming through, so I’ve begun the usual massive watering process. I also planted more than two flats worth of 4-inch plants I still hadn’t planted since I bought them in October (all my gardening has been at the school lately). I figure the little plants have a better chance of surviving in the ground than being stuck in my garage, where they would both freeze and suffer from my neglectful watering. In all I planted close to 60 plants this afternoon and evening, including the ones I rescued. What a day — plants rescued, plants planted, lizard saved. I hope you like your new home, little big lizard.