I don't really speak lizard, but I've been practicing to impress Lee Kats, a friend of a friend referred by another friend as a "frog guy." I need a frog guy, because a good lizard man is hard to find these days. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County no longer has one because of budget cuts. The Los Angeles Zoo relies on Gila monsters to pull in the crowds and directs anyone interested in local lizards to look at the ground as they walk out. The zoo is close enough to Griffith Park to still have good stocks, whereas urban gardens routinely mown, blown and doused with pesticides are less likely to have anything living in them.
It all started in my neighbor's backyard, with a tail, a long scaly tail found by a section of chain link. The sight of it prompted a terrible pang, as if 185 million years of evolution had just ended in my alley. From the Jurassic age to my age, poof. So a recent glimpse of a stubby-tailed creature scuttling across my driveway into the hedge was almost too thrilling to bear. Stubby! My own private dinosaur.
As I stalked Stubby to get a better look at him, the only thing I learned was that he was shy. There were tantalizing rustlings, but not another sighting. I needed an expert to tell me where to look and, barring that, to describe my phantom reptile.
Kats, the "frog guy," turned out to be the dean of research at Pepperdine University and one of the researchers studying the effects of UV radiation on Costa Rican poison dart frogs. This is big stuff in herp circles, but Kats was not so stuck-up that he wasn't willing to lead a tour for a spot of domestic lizard-watching.
When we meet on a Saturday afternoon in a parking lot of Pepperdine's campus in the Malibu hills, he is carrying a pair of binoculars and the Peterson Field Guides third edition of "Western Reptiles and Amphibians." "The bible," he says.
Kats' choice of path is up a storm drain on a hillside not quite denuded of native plants such as coyote bush and laurel sumac. These support native bugs, which support native lizards.
When it comes to human contributions to the landscape, lizards are particularly partial to a nice concrete gully, where they can come out of the safety of the scrub to bask, he adds. To the layman, the lizards need this because they are coldblooded. According to my "Firefly Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians," the herp term is "ectothermic" (getting heat from without). Or maybe not. "They're out thermoregulating," says Kats.
As we approach our first lizard, only Kats spots it. It has soaked up enough rays for the time being and tucked itself below a flopping weed on the edge of the path. Kats stops and trains the binoculars. It's an Uta stansburiana, or western side-blotched lizard, a female, about 4 inches long, he says. He hands over the glasses. There it is, a chic little reptile, a handbag with feet and lovely dark eyes that can blink but don't because Miss Blotch is too busy watching us watch her.
Even with binoculars, and only 5 feet away from her, I still can't distinguish the telltale blotch on the side. I step closer. "She's warm enough that she can get away quickly if she needs to," says Kats. She scrambles into the bush.
If you see one female lizard, it turns out that the only other sort you are likely to see nearby is a male. Ten feet away, there he is, puffed up and doing push-ups. "It's a territorial display," says Kats. "It's a message to predators that says, 'Hey, I see you. I'm in really good shape. Give up now.' "
Maybe it wasn't me Miss Blotch was avoiding.
Fascinating as the two blotches were, I had reptile books at home suggesting that Stubby was something else again, a southern alligator lizard, or Elgaria multicarinata.
These evidently have survived in Los Angeles because they aren't picky eaters. While other native species, such as horned lizards, require increasingly endangered native ants to survive, alligator lizards will consume imported bugs, say, French garden snails.
Kats agrees to look until he finds one. It doesn't take long before he hands over the binoculars. It could be Stubby, except, as Kats whispers admiringly, "He has his original tail." As Stubby's stand-in swims into focus through the glasses, it does indeed have a long tail, a gorgeous one at that. According to the reptile books, alligator lizards can even hook it over a branch and swing from it. The animal's scaling is magnificent. This is a reptile's answer to origami: one long folded coat, except on top of the fashion value, it is also practical. This coppery cladding is what makes lizards water-efficient and so well adapted to hot, dry conditions.
It's hard to equate a weedy slope in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains with my flat yard in central Los Angeles, but Kats quickly makes the connections for me.
The crucial mix from a lizard's point of view, he says, is a nice beach of warm stone next to thick vegetation. Aha! It suddenly seems likely that Stubby has moved into a stack of broken concrete slabs, a former basketball court, that a neighbor gave me about a year ago to make a path. It is near where I saw him. In the time I have neglected to lay the path, the stack has not only filled up with nice juicy insects but also provided Stubby safe haven from predators.
These include dogs, cats, carrion, cars and little boys. No rural western boyhood is complete without learning how to rig a lizard noose, and practically any country child can tell you lizards have no venom. Whatever attacked Stubby, explains Kats, lizards evolved to cope with stalkers by developing breakage points in their tails. When they thrash, it's in part to force a break. The loss of a tail won't kill the lizard, and he'll regenerate a semblance of the original, but it will cost him in energy he needs to cope with drought.
City dwellers interested in lizards should look out for one more relatively common species, says Kats, the Sceloporus occidentalis, or western fence lizard. To find one, he leads us out of the gutter, into a building, through some meeting rooms and around the back of some dormitories to a textbook suburban setting, right down to the redwood garden fence.
Bingo: There it is, sunbathing on a cross post, tail dangling, a stocky, unflappable and faintly superior-looking creature with the most elegant long, slender feet imaginable. Male fence lizards are known for their beautiful blue undersides, so much so that their colloquial name is "bluebelly."
Our three species of urban lizards all survived because they are generalist eaters, says Kats. L.A. lizards eat grasshoppers, beetles, ants, termites, leafhoppers, spiders, black widows, mites, ticks and scorpions, but they are harmless to humans.
It's now or never to deploy some of my best Eliza Doolittle herpetological terminology: "The Elgaria multicarinata is insectivorous." Kats spares me the embarrassment as he concludes the tour. "One thing you should say in your article is that lizards are great for gardens," he says. "They eat bugs."