Tuleyome Tales: The Story of a Forest Alligator Lizard

Photo Credit: Kathlene Scavone

As I take a late spring, early morning walk at the edge of the woods not far from the creek in southern Middletown, it feels like a luxury to drink in the sounds of these surroundings. I note the scolding squawks of several blue jays in the oaks. They appear to be distressed at the sight of a pair of crows as they near the jay’s nests. In contrast to the cacophony above, the mellifluous sounds of the creek invite me to come closer. As I arrive at a clearing, a Forest Alligator Lizard is sitting as still as a stone in the sunlight. This is the second one I have seen this month! Wanting to watch this elusive and long-bodied creature I step ever closer. Each step I take is a prayer:  Please stay awhile so that I may admire your beauty. Just look at those stubby limbs in contrast to its long body. If the lizard’s tail has never dropped then regenerated it will be extra long, with its tail being one and a half to two times its body length. Forest Alligator Lizards often grow to 12 inches in length.

The Forest Alligator Lizard is also known as the California Alligator Lizard and wears quadrangular scales that are arranged in lengthy rows. The coloration of these lizards can be brown, yellowish, or even grey. Their distinctive snake-like movements sometimes have them identified as a snake, but they have four legs with which to mobilize themselves near the oak woodlands, chaparral, or grasslands. Secretive, Forest Alligator Lizards can be diurnal, active during the day, crepuscular, or active during twilight or sometimes nocturnal when the weather warms sufficiently. They are often thought of as secretive, since they can hide and blend in so well with their surroundings, usually on the ground among the leaf or twig litter, or among logs and rocks as they search for their prey. They prefer to dine on insects, spiders, smaller lizards, and sometimes bird eggs. Since they are thigmothermic they gather strength and warmth via warm rocks, or by basking in sunlight where there is sufficient and safe cover in which to hide, if needed, nearby.

Alligator lizards are known for their first-rate stalking behavior, as well as their skills in climbing. As an alligator lizard hunts and stalks its prey, it resembles a snake, slithering along the ground while testing the air with a forked tongue. I would love to witness the Forest Alligator Lizard use its tail in a prehensile manner to hold itself safe and sound upon a tree’s branches. Since it can climb, this is the method employed as it sets its sights on a bird’s egg for dinner. What goes around, comes around though, so if the lizard is seized by a predator, it can dramatically thrash about and simultaneously cover itself and an enemy with feces, urine, and nasty-smelling material which they release from their scent glands. These unique creatures will hiss to inform you of their intense discomfort at your presence if you venture too close. Predators include hawks, bobcats, snakes, and more.  If they are caught, they have the ability to drop their tails in order to escape their predator. A new tail can grow in as soon as three to five weeks. This tail loss is known as tail autotomy or tail shedding. Then, the dropped tail will wiggle about for around five minutes acting just like a live creature which allows the lizard to escape. While losing a tail can be a life-saver, the downside is that he has now lost a large store of fat and energy along with an aid to help the lizard keep its balance throughout its hunting and stalking of prey.

All in all, I would consider this a perfect morning. By viewing any of the hundreds of animal species in Lake County I can sense my insignificance in the grand scheme of things, all the while with each natural sighting, be it deer, elk, newt, or lizard a surge of gratitude fizzes and wells within me. Nature’s gifts lay scattered about, unbidden, but thankfully still abundant, creating room for hope to take root.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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