Herps

Herps: Long-nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia-wislizenii Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Gambelia-wislizenii
Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them- we are the herpers, the mighty, mighty herpers!
Stumbling around the desert with fishing poles in hand. Hot, dry, no water within miles. A casual observer might question our sanity. But here’s the deal. We have full control over our mental faculty.

Our defense. First, our fishing poles are used for the capture and release of lizards. Remarkably fast and allusive, these rigs are the answer. A small slipknot noose using monofilament fishing line is attached to the end of the pole. The lizards often freeze as the line is dangled slightly in front of their nose and gently slipped over their heads. A quick upward flip and bingo (with a bit of luck) a lizard dances freely from the line’s end.
“I caught one!” alerts the others within shouting distance, and the crew soon assembles to view the prize. Photos are taken which includes GPS coordinates, then the victim passes multiple hands, and is released to resume its lizard business following the rude interruption.

Herps: Western Banded Gecko, Courtesy NPS
Western Banded Gecko
Courtesy NPS

This has become an April tradition for our USU Wildlife Society students with a keen interest in herpetology. We relish the Mojave Desert surrounding St. George with flowers in full bloom and bird song in full tilt.
Our desert ramblings have revealed many herp treasures- spiny lizards, spectacled rattle snakes, desert iguanas, desert tortoise, chuckwalla, canyon tree frog to name a few. Within the past two years, we have assembled well over two dozen different species. The Mojave is second only to the Sonoran Desert for biodiversity. I’m always amazed how this parched, desolate land can support such a remarkable abundance of life forms. The Mojave Desert hosts about 200 endemic plant species found in neither of the adjacent deserts.

I’m going to end with a brief description of my favorite little lizard that appears so delicate, like a desert flower, it stands in stark contrast to this seemingly inhospitable environment. In good light its paper thin skin covered with minute scales, allows one to see the interior workings of its slender body.
The western banded gecko is secretive and nocturnal, foraging at night for small insects and spiders, often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads. It is one of the few reptiles that controls scorpion populations by eating their babies. If captured it may squeak and discard its tail. As a defense mechanism, it can also curl its tail over its body to mimic a scorpion. Geckos also store fat in their tails. Being they maintain a reduced metabolism at low temperatures, their tail fat can sustain them for up to nine months. Because the western banded gecko restricts its activities to nights, it is often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads.

This is Jack Greene and I’m wild about the banded gecko, all its cousins, and this amazing land we call Utah!

Credits:

Pictures: Banded Gecko Courtesy US NPS
Pictures Leopard Lizard, Courtesy PXHere.com
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, The Lizard and His Tail, Wild About Utah, June 11, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/the-lizard-and-his-tail/

Repanshek Kurt, Western Banded Gecko, Wild About Utah, Feb 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/western-banded-gecko/

Strand, Holly, Gila Monsters, Wild About Utah, Feb 4, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/gila-monsters/

One Biota Network, Noosing Technique for Capturing Lizards, YouTube, May 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkcOpPRfeug

Reptiles, Zion National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Reptiles, Canyonlands National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cany/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Species List, Arches National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/species-lists.htm

Reptiles and Amphibians, Bryce Canyon National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/brca/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Desert Animals-Extreme Survivors

Collared lizard
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Lawrence Gamble, Photographer

Kangaroo Rat
Photo Courtesy US FWS
George Harrison, Photographer

Gila Monster
Photo Courtesy & © Daniel D. Beck
Central Washington University

Couch’s Spadefoot Toad
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Gary M. Stolz, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

The three main deserts of Utah- the Great Basin to the west, the Colorado Plateau to the east, and the Mojave Desert in the southwest corner of the state- are each inhabited by animals that have unique adaptations for surviving the extreme heat, dryness, and sometimes cold temperatures of the desert.

Many animals survive in Utah’s deserts through behavioral adaptations. During the heat of the day, most animals can be found underground in burrows, or simply sitting in the shade of a shrub or tree. Reptiles, such as the desert tortoise and gila monster, spend almost all of their time in a burrow or under a rock. Many birds and mammals are most active near dawn and dusk when temperatures are coolest, yet there is enough light to see. Many bats, snakes, and rodents are nocturnal, and are only active at night!

Morphological adaptations, related to the shape or color of an animal’s body, are also important for living in the desert. The collared lizard has long legs and toes that keep its body away from the hot ground, reducing heat absorption. White-tailed antelope ground squirrels will use their bushy tails as a shade umbrella, and the long ears of the jackrabbit aid in dispersing body heat.

The kangaroo rat has perhaps the most amazing combination of adaptations for desert survival. Not only does it live in a burrow and is nocturnal, but it recaptures it’s own body moisture by storing food within its burrow. Dry seeds absorb moisture from the kangaroo rat’s breath, which condenses more readily in the cooler underground temperatures.

Physiological adaptations relate to a change in body function to aid survival in the desert. The kangaroo rat has such complex kidneys that it is able to retain as much water as possible. It also has specialized tissues in its nasal passages that help it retain much of the moisture that is normally lost through breathing. If the desert gets too hot, many animals will aestivate, which is similar to hibernating, but is usually in response to a lack of water rather than a lack of food. The spadefoot toad spends 10-11 months out of the year buried in the soil, only to emerge to breed and feed during summer rainstorms.

So, while at first glance, it may look like there isn’t much life in the desert, keep in mind that the vast array of adaptations help ensure the survival of a high diversity of plants and animals in such a harsh ecosystem.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy US FWS images.fws.gov
            Courtesy & Copyright Daniel D. Beck, Central Washington University
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.


Additional Reading:

Utah’s Desert Dwellers: Living in a Land of Climate Extremes. Wildlife Review. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
wildlife.utah.gov/wr/0706desert/0706desert.pdf

Deserts. James MacMahon. The Audubon Society Nature guides. 1985. http://www.amazon.com/Deserts-National-Audubon-Society-Nature/dp/0394731395

Natural History of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, Harper, St. Clair, Thorne, and Hess (Eds.), 1994. http://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Colorado-Plateau-Great/dp/0870815113

The Biology of Deserts, David Ward, Oxford University Press, 2009. http://www.amazon.com/Biology-Deserts-Habitats/dp/0199211477