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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: The Toes Have It | 07-14-2016
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Commentary by Linda Castro
| Thursday, Jul 14, 2016
manytoedlizard04

LindaCastroThe Mojave fringe-toed lizard (Uma scoparia), is a medium-sized, flat-bodied, smooth-skinned lizard that is found only in the Mojave Desert from the southern end of Death Valley to the Colorado River around Blythe and into the extreme western edges of Arizona.

The Mojave fringe-toed lizard is one of three California species of fringe-toed lizards. The other two – Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard and Coachella fringe-toed lizard – have some minor physical differences and smaller ranges in California than the Mojave fringe-toed lizard. There is no overlap in the ranges of the three fringe-toed lizards in California.

Mojave fringe-toed lizards live in sparsely vegetated, arid areas with fine, windblown sand – including dunes, flats with sandy hummocks formed around the bases of vegetation, washes, and the banks of rivers. These lizards need fine, loose sand for burrowing.  They can be found at elevations ranging from about 300 feet to 3,000 feet.

The bodies of the Mojave fringe-toed lizards are about 2-3/4 inches to 4-1/5 inches long, with tails about the same length as the bodies. They are white or grayish with a contrasting pattern of black blotches and eye-like spots. This color and pattern create a camouflage, allowing the lizards to blend well into their sandy habitat.

manytoedlizard01Mojave fringe-toed lizards eat primarily small insects such as ants, beetles and grasshoppers, along with occasional blossoms, leaves and seeds. (They may inadvertently consume plant material when eating insects.) Adult lizards also eat lizard hatchlings.

Mojave fringe-toed lizards are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and sleep at night. That is probably the opposite of what you might expect from a species that lives in the sweltering hot desert. However, the parietal eye – an eye-like structure on top of the head – is thought to help these lizards monitor the amount of solar radiation they receive to help them avoid too much or too little heat.

On waking in the morning, a lizard often basks with just its head above the sand until its body temperature warms sufficiently to allow it to unbury its entire body and continue basking or begin activity. When the temperatures get too hot in the afternoon sun, the lizard takes cover in the sand to avoid the extreme temperatures. They typically sleep in the sand under a bush at night.

manytoedlizard02Mojave fringe-toed lizards are well adapted to living in areas with windblown sands. They have scaly hind toes that resemble snowshoes and keep them from sinking as they sprint through the fine sand and away from predators. Their scales are granular and small, helping them bury themselves quickly in the sand. A countersunk lower jaw, eyelids that overlap, flaps over the ears, and nostrils and nasal passages that work like valves, all prevent sand from getting into a lizard’s orifices and lungs.

Mojave fringe-toed lizard speeds have been clocked at as fast as 23 mph, which is a pretty amazing feat in loose, fine sand. Compare that to a typical tree squirrel, which can run about 20 mph (but probably not in sand).

When scared, this lizard runs quickly on its hind legs to the opposite side of a bush or a small sand hill, and runs into a burrow or dives into the sand. Sometimes they will stop and freeze underneath a bush. Unfortunately, this makes them extremely vulnerable to off-road vehicle activity, particularly in sand dunes that are very popular with some off-roaders.

manytoedlizard03The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has classified the Mojave fringe-toed lizard a species of special concern. However, it is not currently classified as threatened or endangered under either the federal or California Endangered Species Act.

In order to ensure that this unique and fascinating lizard does not end up on either of these lists, it is important for everyone, particularly off-roaders, to obey all laws and rules while recreating on our desert public lands. Most importantly, do not drive off of designated routes and onto any dunes that are not located in OHV areas with “Open” signs.

 

Linda Castro is a nature enthusiast and animal lover.  She is the Desert Field Organizer for the California Wilderness Coalition and serves on the board of the SCV-based Community Hiking Club.  Her commentaries relate to California’s deserts.

 

 

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