Monday, April 15, 2013

Wildlife in the Garden - Reptiles

For me one of the best rewards of a native plant garden is the wildlife that is attracted. Of course there are tons of birds, but at the moment I don't have many good pics of birds in my garden. There's the hawk picture that I included in the post about the bog planting area, but not much else. So I'm going to focus on insects and reptiles for now.

The dominant reptile in my garden is the Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata). I'm assuming that it is the San Diego subspecies which is E.m. webbii.

Alligator lizards eat a variety of invertebrates. Most of the year they are secretive, hiding under rocks or logs. I have a pile of rocks under my oak tree specifically as a hiding place for alligator lizards. But in Spring they become bold and are seen out in the open in the daytime, sometimes even coming into the house. I've had one under the refrigerator, and one time I was asked by my neighbor to get one out of her dining room. They usually move quite slowly but when frightened they run with a snake-like slither that can be a bit unnerving. Although they don't have real teeth, they can bite in self defense. It feels like a really hard pinch with the fingernails.

They have a somewhat prehensile tail which they can use in climbing. You can see just a bit of this guy's tail which he used to climb up in my Lemonade Berry bush. Lizards are known for being able to lose their tails and grow a new one. His tail was complete, quite long and handsome.

The other lizard that lives in my garden is a really rare one, or at least seldom seen. It is the Silvery Legless Lizard (Aniella pulchra ssp. pulchra). That's right, it is a lizard but it has no legs. It's not a snake because it has eyelids (I'm not making this up). They live mostly underground in sandy soil that has some vegetation on top and some moisture. That's a big part of why they are seldom seen. I find them occasionally when I am digging in the garden. They eat primarily insect larvae and earthworms but will also take some adult insects and spiders. The photo below makes it look large, but it is way bigger than life-size. They are really only about 6 inches long.

File:Anniella pulchra1.jpg

I have never been able to photograph one myself because when I find one I want to get it back into the ground right away. So I am using the above photo which was taken by Marlin Harms and was posted on Wikimedia Commons. Thank you Marlin. The skin is extremely smooth which facilitates burrowing. In the subspecies found in my region, the dorsal side is very silvery. They have tiny eyes because they spend very little time above ground. The most fascinating aspect of their biology is the fact that they are so cold tolerant. Most lizards need sunlight to get their metabolism going, but legless lizards are happy living without the warmth of the sun. They may derive some warmth from the decomposition of surface debris. The loss of legs and cold tolerance are amazing examples of evolutionary adaptation.

The last reptile I want to talk about today is also seldom seen. It is the Garden Slender Salamander (Betrachoseps major ssp. major). It is even smaller than the legless lizard, only 3-4 inches long including the tail. The don't burrow underground but they live under rocks, logs or vegetation. They feed primarily on very small invertebrates.They are in the family of lungless salamanders, so they breathe through their skin. To do this they must have moisture, so you will find them in the more mesic areas of your garden, sometimes even in potted plants.


Again I don't have my own photo to use, so I am using the one above courtesy of Jengod at en.wikipedia. Thank you Jengod. Though seldom seen, the Garden Slender Salamander is pretty common in cismontane southern California. Keep an eye out for them.

In conclusion, one of the main points I want to make about these reptiles is their need for cover. All of these need either rocks or logs or leaves or other ground covering organic matter to provide suitable habitat. Many garden books and blogs will tell you to rake and remove such material every year to eliminate pests. I believe the people who advocate this are trying to grow exotic plants that require way too much water which is encouraging the very pests that they complain about. A great example is hibiscus which in invariably infested with white fly. My opinion is to grow plants that require low to moderate amounts of water, ideally native to the area where you live, and leave their organic material on the ground. The reptiles that will live there will take care of a lot of insect pests. Also, the best mulch for your garden is the leaves from the plants you grow, and this mulch will help your soil retain more moisture. Of course you can buy mulch which is good when you are first starting your garden, but after you get some trees and shrubs established, they are going to manufacture a lot of mulch for you. Just leave it where it falls.


  1. Love all your blogs, very inspiring for anyone who wants to plant Native plants.
    Keep up the good work

  2. Thank you! I haven't written anything new in a couple of years, but your nice comment makes me think I should start writing again.