Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #13

lizard bannerLizard … Bad Guy or Superhero?

When I started this Treasure Hunt, I began by thinking about whether lizards, like snakes, conjure up negative images and feelings. After some research, I lizard superherodecided that the only reason I even thought about this issue was the expression “Lounge Lizard”; originally coined by the Flappers of the 1920s and used to describe men who hung around bars trying to pick up women … preferably rich ones. Apparently, the term has resurfaced every decade during the past 100 years and is still in use. With this flimsy negative evidence, and what follows, you decide whether the Western Fence Lizard may qualify as a Superhero.

Western Fence Lizards Found All Over California

lizard chestOf the three common lizards found on More Mesa, the Western Fence Lizard, also called Bluebelly, is a fairly well-known and recognized reptile. And it also seems  to have captured the imagination of many northern California residents, as I found some of the most interesting information on this animal in Bay area publications.

Although it occurs in small numbers throughout many western states, California is definitely home territory for the Western Fence Lizard, where we host six separate subspecies; among them the Central Coast’s “Great Basin Fence Lizard”. Moreover, the Channel Islands are the only place on the planet you will find the “Islands Fence Lizard.” (You may remember that the Gopher Snake also had a subspecies found only on the Channel Islands, and we also talked about these remarkable islands in our issue on Western Gulls. Try to get out there if you can.  It’s an amazing place, and it is in our very own back yard!)

Cunning Little Blue Guy

lizard take that
Take that!

Western Fence Lizards are brown to black in color with black stripes on their backs. However, their most distinguishing feature is their bright blue bellies and throat patches. Characteristically, as happens in most of the animal and bird kingdoms, the males have to “dress up” whereas the females and juveniles have faint or no color … very drab indeed! The bodies of these little guys measure 2 ¼-3 ½ inches with a total length (including tail) of about 8 inches. Why do we care about measurements with and without the tail? As it turns out, the Western Fence Lizard has a surprise in store for potential enemies chasing it down. When they get too close, the lizard contracts muscles at weak spots in its tail. Then nerves, blood vessels and muscles break, the tail is left in the mouth of the predator and the lizard makes a very hasty exit. While the predator is confusedly trying to figure out what just happened, the lizard begins growing a new tail.
The “quick release” tail is not the only weapon in the Western Fence Lizard’s arsenal against predators. They are very fast, very skittish, have excellent reflexes and can bite, or even poop on predators as well.

Life Cycle Includes All Regular Activities … and Brumation

Cold-blooded Western Fence Lizards lead a solitary life. They are diurnal reptiles and are commonly seen sunning on paths, rocks, and fence posts, and other high places, which sometimes makes them easy prey for birds and even some mammals. The lizard itself is a carnivore, eating worms of all kinds, caterpillars, spiders, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, flies, ants and ticks. (Ticks are a “big deal” as you will see below.) Like snakes, lizards molt so that they have a new skin, as well as a new tail … as needed.

And in the procreation department …

lizard profileStimulated by an increase in day length, Western Fence Lizards mate in the spring or early summer, and do not breed until the spring of their second
year. It is at this time of year that one is likely to observe the characteristic “push-ups” that many lizards exhibit. Females will lay one to three clutches of three or more eggs (usually eight) between April and July. During the mating season, adult males will defend a home range. The eggs hatch in August. (We should also note that push-ups have other purposes, besides the courtship ritual. They can also be used for domination effect or claiming territory.)

Sleepy Time … Lizards are cold-blooded and do best with daytime temperature between 75-85 degrees F and nighttime temperatures around 62 degrees F. This means that they need to do something akin to hibernation during the winter. What they do is not true hibernation, but a cold-blooded version of slowing down that is called “brumation”; a state or condition of sluggishness, inactivity, or torpor exhibited by reptiles during winter or extended periods of low temperatures.

The average life of a Pacific Fence Lizard is relatively short in a natural setting. Up to 80% of the lizard population may die each year. However, they have the potential to live up to five years under optimal conditions.

A Third Eye?

Remember the Treasure Hunt about Bees? Bees have five eyes; three little ones at the top of their heads to help with navigation and stability, and two huge, compound eyes to give them all the information they need to understand their environment. As it turns out, many lizards have one additional eye, much smaller than their two “regular” eyes. This third eye is located at the midline of the top of their heads. It is formally known as  a “parietal eye” and is hard to see because it is usually covered by a thick, large scale. While the third eye is less developed than the regular eyes, it does have a cornea, a lens and a retina … but no rods or cones … and does not form an image.lizard third eye

So why do they need a third eye? The only job of the third eye is to differentiate between light and dark. And while that seems unimportant to us as warm-blooded mammals, reptiles are cold-blooded and need more specific information than we do for certain phenomena. Research has shown the third eye acts as a calendar of sorts. It sees days getting longer and nights getting shorter and the reverse; thereby transmitting to the reptile brain how the seasons are changing. This information is critical to maintaining body temperature and daily circadian rhythms, and ends up acting as a monitor of most lizard life cycles such as sleep and reproduction

Super Hero Disease Fighter … or Not?

Lyme Disease, identified in the mid 1970s, is the most commonly reported vector-borne disease in the United States. It affects about 300,000 people each year, mostly in the Northeast. One contracts this disease from a bite by a Black Legged (Deer) Tick. A little over 20 years ago, I began following the Lyme Disease saga. At that time, a Berkeley researcher presented evidence that the ticks he tickpulled off Western Fence Lizards … and there are a lot of ticks on the lizards … never seemed to carry Lyme. His conclusion was that the lizard’s blood had unique proteins that killed off the bacterium. Since the incidence of Lyme in California was markedly lower that incidence in the Northeast, where there are no Fence Lizards, the difference was awarded to the tiny Fence Lizard and it became a Super Hero.

I was taking a rigorous statistics course at the time and did a paper that I hoped would shed some light on the issue. One of the things I looked at was humidity … the ticks like it, there is lots of it in the Northeast, we don’t have much of it in Southern California and there is more of it in Northern California … where there is more Lyme than in Southern California. However, there was insufficient evidence to draw any credible conclusions. And, you will find that, to this day, most articles on Lyme and Fence Lizards still reference the early work and credit the lizards as heroic defenders of California from Lyme Disease.

But, as with all things in nature, it’s COMPLICATED! A new research study removed all the Fence Lizards from an area in Northern California and the incidence of Lyme’s went down!

mountain lionWhat really is happening, and why, exactly, does the Northeast have 226 times more Lyme cases than we do in California?  According to a recent article in Bay Nature
Magazine it could be lots of things. For example, overall weather; i.e.seasonality, humidity, dry spells. And, get ready for it … California also has some key species in place … like Mountain Lions.

What could ticks have to do with Mountain Lions? To understand this chain of causality, we have to start with deer. Little critters that inhabit the coats of deer are a favorite “all-you-can-eat buffet” for Black Legged Deer Ticks. And while the feast goes on and on, the deer does not get infected, it supplies food for an ever-increasing tick population and physically moves the ticks to new locales thereby providing fresh individuals to infect. Enter the Mountain Lion! Mountain Lions eat about one deer a week. They do not have Mountain Lions in the east, but we do. As a result, the deer population has exploded in the Northeast, but California populations are kept in check by our thoughtful Mountain Lions. Do we know all the answers? Not yet and maybe never, but remember it’s complicated!

Is our Western Fence Lizard a Super Hero? Maybe or maybe not. But it sure is an interesting little animal!

We are indebted to Gary Nafis ( for all the wonderful
lizard photos in this Treasure Hunt.

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #12

edgeIn the beginning there were reeds and sedges

This Treasure Hunt came to mind from a simple mantra I learned at a water plant class I took many years ago. I though it would be “safe” to start there. The mantra … “Reeds are round and sedges have edges.” But it didn’t take long to figure out I could not have been more wrong!

As I went from source to source I realized I had ventured into a morass of terminology. For starters, the terms reed and sedge were used interchangeably, the mantra above repeatedly replaced “reeds” with “rushes”, and just to make things a little more confusing, some of them threw a catchy addition about “grasses”. Next, literally each of the water plants I researched was, in one reference or another, called a “Bulrush”. “Rush” is the name given to a water plant but no one seems to know where the “bul” came from. (One source offered that bulrush is a biblical word for papyrus.) In many references there was contradiction after contradiction from both extremely reliable sources and amateurs alike. Finally, I decided I would differentiate by using two scientific names. Then found out that one of these had recently been split into 6 or 7 different genera!

stemsBottom Line

For purposes of this Treasure Hunt I will refer to a duo of water plants often found together, as Tule (g.Actus) and Cattail (g.Typha). From the stems in the photo you can tell that Tules are round and Cattails have edges. It doesn’t rhyme … but, it is anatomically correct.

Two Special Water Plants


Tule Flowers
Tule Flowers

TULES: Local species of Tule are native to freshwater settings all over North America and in California as well. These plants prefer full sun and grow in standing water as well as mud. Their thick, rounded gray-green stems can grow as high as 10 feet, with three long, grass-like leaves surrounding the stems. The seed head that emerges from the side of the stem near the tip is made up of tiny, pale brownish flowers that bloom and ripen between June and August. Tule has both male and female organs in its flowers and is pollinated by wind. Many species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals make use of Tule for food, and shelter. Tules also play an important ecological role as they are especially good for stream-bank stabilization, restoring disturbed or degraded areas, reducing erosion and slope control.

Tules on Lake Los Carneros
Tules on Lake Los Carneros

CATTAILS: Since Cattails thrive in the same environments as Tules, they often cohabit in many places in Santa Barbara. Like Tules, they can grow to about 10 feet, and they also have long, green, grassy leaves. But it is the male and female flowers that mark the principal distinction between Tules and Cattails. Toward the top of the Cattail stem is a cattail partslarge diameter, brown, cylindrical female flower with a “fuzzy” appearance. This feature is responsible for the plant’s name and makes it easily identifiable as a “Cattail” … although it really looks more like a “corn dog!”

Atop the female “cattail” is a set of male seeds in a smaller diameter cylinder, and also fuzzy. The seeds are minute, 0.008 inches long, and attached to fine hairs. When ripe, both the heads disintegrate into a cottony fluff from which the seeds are dispersed by wind.

redwing blackbirdCattails are important to tiny fish, waterfowl and animals alike. Birds make use of these marshy plants for food and shelter, as well as a source for nesting material. During nesting season, one of my favorite birds, the Redwing Blackbird often makes its home in thick Cattail patches.

Cattails on Lakeside
Cattails on Lakeside

Water Plants in History

baby in the riverTules: I’m guessing the whole “Bulrush” thing started with the story of “Moses in the Bulrushes”. However, this “baby in the river” tale is not unique to Moses. It may have originated in the legend of Romulus and Remus who were left in the Tiber, or that of Sumerian King Sargon I, who was  abandoned in a caulked basket in the Euphrates.

From these tales and others, it is clear that Tule has been used for millennia in several areas of the world. In fact, the name “Tule” is derived from a Nahuatl word that was first applied by early Spanish settlers who recognized these plants as similar to those in the marshes around Mexico City.

But while the new settlers were baptizing the plant they knew as “Tule”, Native American groups, including the Chumash, had been using dyed and woven leaves and stalks of Tule for millennia*. From this readily available material, they made baskets, bowls, mats, hats, clothing and houses and boats. Raw young sprouts and shoots and boiled unripe flower heads were also part of the vegetable plate of early people in our area. And a very special and unique use was made of the pith (very inside layer) of the Tule stem to caulk Chumash redwood Tomols; the large and famous canoes that were built to enable brisk commerce between the mainland and the Channel Islands. With all this history, we can see that this readily available plant was both extremely versatile and extremely important.

"Tomol Travel" by John Iwerks from "Stories of Arroyo Hondo" by Chris Chapman
“Tomol Travel” by John Iwerks from “Stories of Arroyo Hondo” by Chris Chapman

The term “Tule” is still alive in our culture today. Several places in California recall the Tule; the city of Tulare, Lake Tule, Tule River and Tule Elk. Also, having been trapped in it several times, I am acutely aware of the infamous, ground hugging, impenetrable Tule fog. Also, still with us, is the expression “out in the tules” coming down from the dialect of old Californian families. It implies a place where no self-respecting person would want to live. They should see these locations now … tens of thousands of people live there … and love it!

Cattails: The Cattail is similar to the Tule in habitat, appearance and uses, but has wider leaves. Although the Chumash clearly differentiated the two plants, they used Cattails for many of the same things as they used Tules; for example, the framework and thatch for houses, baskets and mats*. Cattail heads and seeds were eaten and pollen used for medicinal purposes. Parts of leaves, roots and flowers were used to treat various common ailments.
Moreover, the fluff of the Cattail flower was a real boon to Native American moms. It could pad a baby’s cradleboard, function as a diaper, stuff a pillow or mattress, insulate footwear in cold weather and be part of the dressing of a wound. (Johnson and Johnson watch out!)
In more recent history, Cattail leaves were used for rush bottom furniture, baskets and mats and the downy seeds were still used to fill pillows and mattresses. There is also some evidence that Cattail down was used to stuff life jackets as well as the fluff from kapok trees.

Where Can You Find Them?

Both Cattails and Tules can be found in many places in Santa Barbara. My two favorite spots are Lake Los Carneros and Atascadero Creek (beside the bike path). Atascadero Creek is extremely important as it carries flows from four different, watersheds; Atascadero, Cieneguitas, Maria Ygnacio and San Antonio. It is imperative that the flows from these watersheds to the ocean are unimpeded. Therefore, the County periodically removes vegetation from Atascadero Creek before the rainy season to assure that water flowing down the creek can easily reach the Pacific at the Goleta Slough. But you can almost always see these plants at Lake Los Carneros. And if you are a golfer, you can see them at Laguna Blanca Lake at the La Cumbre Country Club.

* For in depth information on the water plants used by the Chumash, consult “Chumash Ethnobotany, Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California” by Dr. Jan Timbrook.