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Looking for Lizards 

So how many lizards are there in L.A.?

Thursday, Oct 21 2010
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Where have all the lizards gone? That's the question puzzling researchers at Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum. Much has happened in the six months since they posed the question to the community at large.

"Which is not to say we want people to bring their lizards here and dump them in the Rose Garden," said Leslie Gordon, coordinator of the Lost Lizards project. But that's just what some folks did: One mailed in a squished lizard, while another left a dead lizard on her desk.

People sent e-mails, letters and photos to report when and where they'd seen a lizard. Gordon has 123 submissions to date. She pulled up a photo of a lizard 17 miles away in Downey sheltering in the crook of a tire, then clicked to a photo of one upside down on someone's hand in Westchester. "Oh, that one's sad."

click to enlarge Intrepid lizard hunters Leslie Gordon, left, Lila Higgins and Neftali Camacho
  • Intrepid lizard hunters Leslie Gordon, left, Lila Higgins and Neftali Camacho

Why? " 'Cause it's dead. It's been run over."

Gordon said she'd been getting enthusiastic phone calls from local residents. "I've got a lizard in a jar," they'd say. "What do I do with it?" She smiled wryly and shook her head.

Perhaps it was time to go out and count them.

The lizard exodus first became apparent when the museum broke ground on a $30 million front garden. The landscape architects requested a list of all animals in the vicinity. Nobody had done a formal head count in quite a while, so museum staffers went back to the archives. Everybody assumed nothing had changed with the animals. But, in fact, a lot had. They realized no one had seen a lizard on the premises in more than 20 years.

"There were rumors," Gordon said. "From the gardeners. But then again, there were also rumors of a giant frog running around."

Partly, no one had seen lizards because no one was looking for them. The museum no longer employs a full-time herpetologist. There was one, a decade ago, but he was often abroad pursuing his interest in Costa Rican frogs. Thus the mundane stuff in the museum's own backyard tended to be ignored. The researchers decided the time had come to take stock of the lizards in the park — if any.

The day of the lizard count was sunny. Museum staff members, Cal State Northridge consulting herpetologist Bobby Espinoza, Gordon, project assistant Lila Higgins, volunteers from the L.A. Zoo, and an amateur reptile hunter and his teen son — 15 people ­— split into teams to canvas the park. They searched high and low. Or rather, low and lower. They turned over leaf litter. They flipped rocks. They rattled bushes with sticks. They knocked next door at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — still no reptiles. "But we saw lots of feral cats," Gordon says. "That's probably why there were no lizards."

In the end, they found two Western fence lizards on the museum's south steps, "right there in the day lilies," Higgins said.

"We were very happy to see those lizards," Gordon said. "Behaviorally, we're guessing they were males. They were chasing each other around."

For many small animals, urbanization is the death of a thousand cuts. There is no single reason why they're disappearing.

Lizards are one of the first species to vanish in a city environment. Their main predators are cats and swimming pools. "They drown. They can't get out of that concrete box. They can't fly like birds," Gordon said, then sighed. "Birds have their own problems."

As for cats, she suggests a lightweight, effective and hilarious $10.49 device called a CatBib that dampens their hunting ability.

Other offenders include pesticides, pavement and "oh, god, turtles," said Gordon. L.A.'s most invasive species is the super-cute red-eared slider, imported as pets and then, when owners tire of them, released into the wild to wreak havoc.

From a terrarium, Gordon lifted a snake, found on the museum's soccer field. "Like, why aren't these taking over?" she said as it coiled around her arm. "It's different for things people hate."

In 1988, a visitor picked up an alligator lizard from the museum grounds and handed it in. This was the last recorded sighting.

"Can we take a look at that last lizard?" Gordon asked Neftali Camacho, who manages the reptile collection. Camacho is slim, with a crest of black hair that makes him resemble an iguana. He tracked down a jar of pickled reptiles, then poured its soggy contents onto a tray and extracted one from the pile.

The impacts of disappearing lizards are so subtle as to seem inconsequential for species not on an all-you-can-eat reptile diet. "But herps in general are a major link in the food chain," Gordon said. "They're either food for or are eaten by something. When they disappear, that's one less food source for larger animals, and one less predator for smaller critters." Who knows how far the ripple may extend.

Gordon said she's been checking the day lilies every day. But thus far, the two male lizards are missing in action.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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