Herps: Long-nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia-wislizenii Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
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!


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

Wildlife dispersal in late summer (Or, It’s time to leave the nest!)

Wildlife dispersal in late summer: Click to view larger image of Adult great-horned owl perched at dusk, hunting for its young, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Adult great-horned owl
perched at dusk,
hunting for its young
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

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

Late summer is the time of change when the rich nature born of spring matures and enters the next stage of its life. Streams and wetlands may dry up in the heat. Wildflowers wither and produce seeds to ensure a plant’s survival into the future. And, young wildlife leave their place of birth to strike out on their own.

Prior to fledging, young red-tailed hawks build flight muscles by hopping and flapping their wings in the nest. Once they are strong enough, the young red-tailed hawks make excursions from the nest, often soaring together, calling to each other while they fly. This time of year, red-tailed hawk fledglings can still be seen perched atop telephone poles, even in the middle of town, calling to their parents and begging for food. As a bird that usually spends the entire year in Utah, the red-tailed hawk must prepare for its solitary, cold winter ahead.

The calls of great horned owls often echo through the late summer nights. The adult owl soars through an open field while the fledgling owlet is perched nearby, calling for food. The parent responds, and faithfully catches a mouse to feeds its young. Aside from their echoing calls, this all happens quietly and almost invisibly. A lucky observer might spy an owlet and its parent at dusk, but the great horned owl’s soft feathers ensure that their flight is silent, even when just overhead.

Some young reptiles disperse in summer, too, just like birds. Tiny garter snakes, no larger in length or width than a pencil, can often be found slithering across meadows or even lawns. Rather than laying eggs in a nest, the female garter snake retains the eggs in her body until they are ready to hatch. While young garter snakes receive no parental care after birth, the mother hedges her bets by producing upwards of twenty young in the second half of each summer. At least two need to survive over the mother’s life to maintain a stable population.

Fledging and dispersal in late summer is a time of great risk, though. It’s very common in Utah to see road kill of young marmots, skunks, raccoons, and mink, among others. Many inexperienced young animals are also taken by predators. In nature, survival to adulthood is relatively uncommon, so the great investment of the parents is essential for a species to survive.

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


Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Danilson, C.D. Post-Fledging Ecology of Great Horned Owls in South Central Saskatchewan. Master’s Thesis. https://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/td/505/

Great Horned Owls. All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/owlp/ghowl

Red-tailed hawk. Hawkwatch International. https://www.hawkwatch.org/blog/item/130-red-tailed-hawk-buteo-jamaicensis

Great Horned Owl, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=bubo%20virginianus

Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=buteo%20jamaicensis

Common Gartersnake – Thamnophis sirtalis. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=thamnophis%20sirtalis

Black-necked Gartersnake – Thamnophis cyrtopsis. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=thamnophis%20cyrtopsis

Terrestrial Gartersnake – Thamnophis elegans. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=thamnophis%20elegans

Thamnophis elegans: Western Terrestrial Garter Snake. Animal Diversity Web. https://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Thamnophis_elegans/

Blind Snakes

Click for a larger view of Western Blind Snake in a bucket, Leptotyphlops humilis. Courtesy and Copyright 2006 John S. Ascher, Photographer, https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20p?see=I_JSA1964&res=640
Western Blind Snake
Leptotyphlops humilis
Courtesy & Copyright 2006
John S. Ascher, Photographer

If you’re unfamiliar with blindsnakes, don’t worry; most people haven’t heard of them. The 400 species of these seriously strange serpents are mostly tropical. Two species do occur in the southwestern United States, including western Washington County in Utah. They are small, many no larger than a shoelace, and have smooth scales and small eyes.

Blindsnakes typically live underground in loose, moist soil, so you are most likely to find one when gardening. If you do, don’t be alarmed – these tiny snakes are harmless and beneficial. Look closely, or you might mistake one for a worm due to its pinkish color. A black light can be used to tell the difference, as Utah blindsnakes glow fluorescent like scorpions. Blindsnakes eat ants, termites, centipedes and spiders. They can help control populations of these invertebrate pests around your home.

Their jaw architecture is unique. The jaws work like tiny scoops to shovel the larvae and pupae of ants and termites into their mouths. Unlike most snakes, who only eat once every few weeks, blindsnakes consume huge numbers of prey items very quickly. One Australian Blackish Blindsnake was seen to ingest over 1,400 ant larvae without pause!

Biologist in Texas report that screech owls sometimes carry live blindsnakes to their nests. Up to fifteen live among the chicks. Nests with blindsnakes have fewer mites, insects and spiders. Owlets in these nests survived and grew faster than owlets from nests without blindsnakes. This amazing mutualism may have evolved long ago. At over 100 million years old, blindsnakes are the oldest living group of snakes. Although considered primitive, blindsnakes are incredibly successful, if secretive, members of our modern serpent fauna.

Today’s program was written by Andrew Durso of Utah State University’s biology department.

Our theme music was composed by Don Anderson and is performed by Leaping Lulu.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright 2006 John S. Ascher, Photographer

Text: Andrew Durso, https://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Screech Owls and Blindsnakes: An Unlikely Mutualism, Life is Short, But Snakes are Long, A blog about snake natural history and herpetology research, Andrew Durso, February 28, 2013, https://snakesarelong.blogspot.com/2013_02_01_archive.html

Western Blind Snake (Leptotyphlops humilis), Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County HCP Administration, https://www.redcliffsdesertreserve.com/western-blind-snake

Feeding Mechanisms of Blindsnakes, Mandibular raking in Leptotyphlopidae, Video Clips, The Kley Lab, Department of Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University, The State University of New York, https://renaissance.stonybrookmedicine.edu/anatomy/people/facultypage/kley/videos