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