Profiles in Xeriscaping: Habitat for a Disease-Fighting Lizard

Western fence lizard. Photo: Wikimedia user Calibas under a Creative Commons license.

Creating habitat for a reptile in your backyard could help fight disease. Seriously.

It’s not unusual for conservationists to invoke the old Field of Dreams line when talking about restoration projects: Build it and they will come.

True: if there’s suitable habitat, wildlife will find it.

One of the nice benefits of a xeriscaped lawn – a lawn that focuses on native and drought-tolerant plants to save water – is the wildlife habitat.

In the ten years since we switched to a xeriscaped yard in Boise, Idaho, we attracted many of the wildlife we hoped – hummingbirds, goldfinches, butterflies, bumble bees and other native pollinators.

And our yard has also become a bit of a haven for Western fence lizards.

It’s easy to see how flying creatures can locate the flowers in our yard. But how do fence lizards find us?

Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) do well in a diversity of habitats – from sagebrush to grassland to drier forests, from sea level to 10,000 feet elevation. But before switching to xeriscaping, we didn’t see them around our yard.

Nor do I see them in other yards, or even in the surrounding foothills where it has all been taken over by cheatgrass.

I used to think it was the plants that attracted the lizards, but now I think it’s the diversity of habitats. And also, interestingly, rocks.

We had large boulders placed in our yard because they added a nice look to the landscaping. It also turns out that Western fence lizards really need large rocks to thrive.

They use boulders to thermoregulate – basking on them to warm up when temperatures are cold.

Males are also highly territorial, and they display to both rival males and receptive females on rocks. They bounce up and down, showing a bright blue stomach – their way of showing genetic fitness.

When displaying, the fence lizard gives the appearance of doing push-ups.

We don’t spray, so our yard also has plentiful lizard food in the form of insects and spiders. There are plenty of large grasses and shrubs which serve as convenient hiding spots.

So our yard boulders seem to be important for the lizards. Still, how did they find us? After all, getting here means negotiating neighbors’ yards, roads, pets and other hazards.

I suspect that, like many wildlife, a certain number of lizards disperse from good habitat each year. The habitat can only support so many young animals, so they move (or are chased out) into new terrain. (This is why wildlife corridors are so important).

In the case of fence lizards, if all they find is the standard green grass of a typical suburban yard, chances are they’ll perish.

But if they find some good habitat, with ample food and places to warm in the sun, they’ll take up residence.

I see these cool-looking lizards on many mornings as I head out for work. I have noticed that they all have their full tails, a good sign.

Fence lizards have the ability to shed their tail if a predator latches on. This is a last-ditch effort. Research shows that re-growing a tail requires a lot of energy and is very taxing on lizards.

I’m glad that our lizards appear to be faring fine in the face of free-roaming cats and other neighborhood predators.

The "blue belly" of the western fence lizard. Photo: Flickr user Linda Tanner under a Creative Commons license.
The “blue belly” of the western fence lizard. Photo: Flickr user Linda Tanner under a Creative Commons license.

Lizards Fight Lyme Disease

There’s also a practical reason for encouraging Western fence lizards in your yard: they fight Lyme disease.

According to research conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, the lizard’s blood contains a protein that kills the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

When an infected tick feeds on a lizard, it is cleansed of the disease. When it drops off, the tick may still be creepy, but it won’t pass the disease on to humans.

Ticks feed heavily on Western fence lizards; researchers noted that some lizards contained as many as 30 ticks.

In California, incidences of Lyme disease are almost non-existent where Western fence lizards are present, but there are higher rates of incidence in the eastern parts of the state, which lack the lizards.

Of course, there may be applications of this lizard protein that will help fight Lyme disease outside the lizard’s range.

Lyme disease is not a concern where I live, so I just enjoy seeing these cool animals on our rocks – another benefit of having a xeriscaped lawn.

Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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  1. Matt–thanks for this interesting column. Great thing to xeriscape the yard, I really respect that, and also to note where a species’s normal life cycle also ends up benefiting people.

    Thinking through to possible unintended consequences should these examples be mass proliferated (which is the likely path of any great idea)–can you address these? One is, where do the large boulders come from? I’ve always had a hesitation for bringing rock into my yard, not knowing from what habitat they might have been taken.

    Second, you mention the native range of the western fence lizard. How do we head off importation of western fence lizards, for the purposes of controlling Lyme Disease, into regions where they are not native but could thrive, and where they might quite possibly damage the viability of native fauna that have not co-evolved with them?

    Again, appreciate the great info and story, and would like to hear your further thoughts on conservation strategies for encouraging the appropriate use of these tools.

    1. David,
      Thanks for your comment and question. I am glad you enjoyed the blog. Some of the rocks were already in our yard from the previous home owner. We then incorporated them into our landscape design. We also did use a few rocks, locally collected by a local company. This collection is permissible in the state of Idaho, but requires permitting. So, we used a mix of rocks already here and a few local rocks.
      As far as the Western fence lizard being spread: that is always a concern in a situation like this, that some will believe the answer to Lyme disease is to stock lizards everywhere. I think in many places where Lyme disease is most prevalent, the lizards would pose almost no invasion threat (i.e. New England, New York, Pennsylvania). However, I still think that research into the lizards could help with Lyme disease everywhere. I think strong invasive species laws that prohibit the spread of species offer the best hope. I think it will be fairly easy to keep western fence lizards from being introduced into new lands. It is far harder in other instances, like the forest pests that arrive in shipping containers.
      Thanks again for writing. — Matt

  2. Is this the same as a sagebrush lizard? I’m in Oceanside, CA and have the sagebrush lizards everywhere…

  3. This is an interesting article do you know if the eastern fence lizard has the same properties in their blood (eastern fence lizards look almost identical to the western I think the two may just be subspecies) you don’t see them often because they are really fast & like to hang around the trees they are partially aboral here but ive gotten lucky & have seen them a few times snapped some awesome photos of hatchlings