Lizards in our Midst

Now that the blazing hot South Georgia weather has broken and I can once again sit outside on my porch, I have become reacquainted with some old friends. I grew up in Florida calling them chameleons, but they are actually green anoles. These 5 to 8-inch lizards may be either green or brown depending on environmental conditions. I have always admired the pinkish throat fan that anoles display in territorial rivalries or when approaching a potential mate. They are common throughout Georgia and can be found almost anywhere perched on trees, fences, and rooftops from suburban woodlands to urban neighborhoods.

Anoles are active by day in warm weather, sunning themselves on vegetation and occasionally charging away from a basking spot to grab an insect or chase off a rival. During cool weather anoles are often found hiding under tree bark, shingles, or in rotten logs. They eat a wide variety of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. Their ability to change color from bright green to dark brown has given them the nickname chameleon, but their color changing abilities are not nearly as sophisticated as the technicolor changes of true, old-world chameleons.

For the longest time, when I thought of lizards, I thought of the green anole. But as I have grown older I have come to appreciate and enjoy the diversity of lizards in my yard, lizards like the five-lined skink. Although the same size, skinks and anoles are not easily confused. Skinks are gray, brown, or black, in background color with five white or yellowish stripes (two on each side and one down the center of the back). Young have a bright blue tail while adult males often develop reddish or orange coloration on the head. Skinks don’t have the anole’s distinctive pinkish throat fan.

Like the anoles, five-lined skinks also range throughout Georgia, living in almost any habitat, and eating a wide variety of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. They are reported to be equally at home on the ground and in trees, but in my yard, I mainly see skinks scurrying across the ground.  

I have worked with plenty of exotic lizards in my career, including iguanas, tegus, and monitors. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. So, when I saw a lizard that was nearly a foot long basking on the ground outside the door to my garden shed, I thought it must be an exotic. I had never seen anything like it, with its enlarged orange head and powerful jaws. I had a hard time getting a good look at it since it scurried under the shed whenever I approached. It is, I have come to learn, not an exotic. It is a broadhead skink—the largest skink in the southeast, and the largest of the lizards in our region. Female and immature broadheads are similar in appearance to five-lined skinks, but adult male broadhead skinks are unmistakable.

It has been many months since I have seen the big male broadhead. I presume he got tired of my intruding on his habitat and retreated to live in the trees. Although they may be found both on the ground and in trees, broadhead skinks, particularly large males, are more arboreal (tree-dwelling) than any of the other southeastern skinks. When pursued, broadhead skinks generally run for the nearest tree or log and can be quite difficult to capture. Like many other lizards, broadhead skinks will break off their tails when restrained, distracting the predator and allowing the lizard to escape.

One lizard that had me stumped, however, was the small, 4 to 5-inch lizard that I saw scurrying away from my grill when I removed the cover. I managed to get a better look one night when I saw it clinging to the outside of my kitchen window. It was unlike any native lizard, with its sticky toe pads, vertical pupils, and large eyes that lack eyelids. It was the Mediterranean Gecko—an introduced species.

As its name implies, the Mediterranean gecko is what is known as an old-world lizard. It is common in Southern Europe and Northern Africa but has been introduced in many tropical areas worldwide, including urban areas in the Southeastern United States. In almost all areas, this species is associated with human development, and it is seldom found far from buildings with outdoor lights. They are almost completely nocturnal and are generally light gray or almost white but may have some darker mottling. Their sticky toe pads allow them to climb walls and they are often observed perched on walls and windows around outside lights, waiting to grab insects attracted to the light. By day, these lizards hide in cracks, crevices, and under tree bark—or grill covers.

I appreciate the diversity of lizards in my back yard. Anoles scurry around on the ledges and furniture of my porch while the skinks seem to prefer the underbrush of the garden leaf-litter. The giant broadhead skink lurks under the shed while the tiny Mediterranean gecko boldly clings to my kitchen window. They all seem to get along, occupying their own little niche. The lizards may be a metaphor for the diversity of people in my community.

On our evening walks around the neighborhood, we see our neighbors. Some of us are walking alone, some in couples, and a few as families. Young couples push strollers and older folks just stroll. Some ride bicycles. A few drive golf carts with music blaring, drinks in hand, and the family dog along for the ride. Rich and poor; young and old; black, white, Asian, and Latino—we are all just people getting on with our lives clinging to whatever ledge we can find.

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