Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ten Feet of Chutzpah: Northern Alligator Lizard

One day, as I heated laundry water on the old woodstove in the barn, I spied a lizard stretched in plain sight on a delammed sheet of veneer beside the hearth. His brown and black check blended in well with the dusty wood, but the ten-year-old I once was immediately detected the outline of his body. A stubby tail and missing rear foot bespoke close calls, and his willingness to bask by a human's fire, in full view and harm's way, betrayed a daring nature. Clearly he was as disgusted with that pseudo-summer as I was.

Like garter snakes, northern alligator lizards (Elgaria cœrulea) are classic Green Side live-bearing omnivores, if somewhat less ubiquitous owing to their love of sunny dry. In sharp contrast to their legless relatives they shun water, though strong swimmers when compelled. Theory has it the common name comes from their crocodilian lines; or maybe the namer simply knew one. For if alligator lizards top out at ten inches, their chutzpah stretches on that many feet. One may sink its seventy-odd fangs, like tiny needle-points, in a capturing hand, grinding its steel-trap jaws back and forth with real malice. As a boy I once had one ride peaceably in my grip for several minutes, only to clamp down suddenly on the web between my thumb and forefinger, chomping with a hateful fury it could apparently summon at will.

For all that they had distinct personalities and active, intelligent eyes, and I enjoyed keeping them as temporary pets. I learned to pin them to the ground with the flat of my hand, rather than grabbing, which might net no more than an amputated tail. It's a more than cosmetic problem; the animal's nutrient reserves are stored there, the loss of which can endanger its life.

My new companion remained by the hearth for an hour, as I moved carefully so as not to spook him off, until the grey ruptured and he slipped back under the west wall. I later found him ensconced in a bent-up corner of the corrugated iron siding, soaking up the fresh-bloomed sun.

He visited habitually thereafter, each time I built a fire. I never saw him enter; I just looked up, and there he was. Always in the same place, always with the same cocked expression of petulant entitlement.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Top photo courtesy of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game; bottom courtesy of Gary Nafis and
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