Go Wild in Suburbia with ‘Texas Lizards: A Field Guide’

Wildlife habitats: surprisingly close to home.

A female rose-bellied lizard with a long tail sits on a tree stump.
University of Texas Press
A female rose-bellied lizard (Sceloporus variabilis) in Hidalgo County.

I was 10, and I was being watched. My family had recently moved to Plano, settling on a street of big brick houses lined with bushes. Although I don’t remember why I was on our front lawn, I recall the moment I noticed the feeling of being scrutinized. I turned too late. From the live oak in the corner of the yard, there was a blur of motion, a scurry of claws on bark. Then, from somewhere in the branches, a small head edged around the trunk, staring once again with alert, golden eyes.

My voyeur was a Texas spiny lizard, Sceloporus olivaceus, the largest and most captivating lizard in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Commonly known as fence lizards, they are remarkably handsome, big and limber, growing anywhere from 7.5 to 11 inches in length, with long tails and solid bodies. Their keeled scales are set in intricate ladder patterns of black, gray and white, burnished with watercolor touches of brown on the tail and, on the bellies of the males, aquamarine blue. But to me their most striking feature has always been those eyes: wary, sardonic, constantly taking in the movements of everything around them.

The suburbs of Plano are not renowned for their untouched nature. They are in many ways the quintessential American environment, a spread of four-lane streets, strip malls and McMansions. And yet the wilderness was there. As I grew up in that suburban neighborhood, wandering the miles of shallow drainage creeks banked by scruffy forests and piles of discarded metal, I noticed lizards everywhere — not just fence lizards, but anoles, geckos, and skinks. Through watching and pursuing them, I began to see the world from their eyes — how a cluster of railroad ties would seem like a mountain, how a stand of unkempt bushes would become a refuge, or a tangle of leaves a maze. The placid neighborhood was tame only from a human perspective. From a lizard’s, it was a wilderness.

Texas Lizards: A Field GuideTroy and Toby Hibbitts’ superlative new book, is an excellent manual for that wilderness. Covering 51 species of lizard — almost one-half of the lizard species in the entire continental United States — it functions as a comprehensive survey of Texas’ lizard zoology.

The authors’ extensive introduction touches on elements of taxonomy, behavior, conservation concerns and best practices for observing and capturing lizards. The sections on specific lizard species are equally thorough, with detailed descriptions of their geographical range and natural history as well as general comments regarding behavior and conservation concerns. The information occasionally veers into the technical, but the writing is crisp and lively enough for a lay audience to appreciate. It’s also a delight for anybody who enjoys simply looking at lizards. The book is thickly illustrated with author photographs of each species, including pictures of animals fighting, displaying and mating, as well as shots depicting common color variations.

But the thing Texas Lizards most emphasizes, in its own quiet way is the shared wildness of both urban and rural lizards. Habitat, after all, is habitat, no matter how affected by humans, and life for the lizards that manage to adapt to city suburbs is as dramatic as it is for any lion on a distant savannah.

The Plano of my childhood was no exception. Fence lizards in the neighborhood hung upside down on tree trunks and house walls, snatching crickets, beetles and cicadas, and signaling with head bobs and push-ups to mates and rivals alike. Males maintained harems in small, bitterly contested territories, with females drifting from harem to harem as the mood took them. During nesting season, the females came down out of the trees to dig egg burrows under stray logs and paving stones, before retiring once again to the shelter of the branches.

Some species in the neighborhood proved more shy. Tiny, velvety brown ground skinks crept through their world of woodchip boulders and massive fallen leaves. At night, every house in the development sprouted a bevy of pink, chirruping Mediterranean geckos. According to Texas Lizards, these foreign invaders have been established in the Metroplex for 30 years. In the suburbs, they lurked on eaves and windows to snatch any moth that landed, light-drunk, on the porch ceilings. Other species were brazen. Color-changing green anoles strutted along garden bushes and drain spouts, deploying their bright-red throat fans in mysterious syncopated rhythms. They were even more territorial than the fence lizards: Often I saw two males circling each other, throat fans flicking, tiny ridges of skin on their backs raised like hackles, before darting forward in snapping, writhing conflict. It was easy to find anoles with missing toes or terrible scars on their skulls and legs. Visits to wildlife management areas within the Metroplex allowed glimpses of rarer things — collared lizards as fierce as tiny dinosaurs, or the unimaginably swift and slender spotted whiptail.

According to co-author Tony Hibbitts, several of the animals described in the field guide as having historic ranges in Dallas are now difficult to find there, driven out by development and shrinking habitat. Predation plays a part, too: Hibbitts told me that cats have an outsize effect on reptile populations. As a result, lizards able to make it in the city tend to be species that either burrow or live in the trees. “Things that are just ground-dwelling lizards, like the Texas spotted whiptails, don’t do well with cats,” he said.

The TEXAS LIZARDS book cover, featuring a lizard on a rock
TEXAS LIZARDS: A FIELD GUIDE
By Troy and Toby Hibbitts
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS
351 pages; $24.95

Brett Johnson, an urban biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Dallas, told me that the diversity of lizard species in the Metroplex is trending downward as more specialized species, including the pancake-shaped horned toad and the voraciously predatory collared lizard, are displaced. In their place come more generalist species able to thrive in a wider range of environments, and exotics, such as geckos. Even these can be threatened by the prevailing aesthetics of the Dallas suburbs. “Dallas folks like big lawns,” Johnson said ruefully. “But, you know, the more we clean things up in neat lawns and gardens, the less diversity there is.” Such well-kept yards make it impossible for specialized lizards, with their fondness for sheltering logs and bracken, to survive. On the whole, though, Tony Hibbitts says the suburbs are excellent for a certain type of hardy, adaptable lizard. “They don’t need a lot of room, so you can have a big yard with three or four types of lizards that can live without bumping into each other,” Hibbitts said. “As long, that is, as it’s a yard with some natural vegetation, brush, and leaf-litter.”

That’s the other thing about habitat: It doesn’t always exist somewhere else, protected in the territories of national parks or inside the borders of distant, less-developed nations. It’s around us, an often unseen living web draped over intensely urban landscapes. Habitat is congested downtown sprawl and manicured suburbia, and its inhabitants are the coyote that haunts the back alleys of a city, the armadillo that trundles across a high school athletic field and the beavers that dam up a municipal creek.

In a world plummeting through the early stages of a human-induced mass extinction, we can no longer afford to look at the wild as a place separate from us. In fact, preservation of habitat and species is becoming a local enterprise. Some gardeners plant only native species or allow their gardens to run wild. And endless tiny campaigns exist across the country to save local creeks and forests from development, to make space for wildlife. Texas Lizards is a book for those people.

I never caught that first fence lizard. But I often sensed it on the live oak, before it disappeared to parts and fate unknown — the closest thing to true wildness I’d ever seen, and the model of it for me ever since. Sometimes I glimpsed it, staring down with its wary golden eyes, waiting to see what I would do.

Asher Elbein is a freelance journalist and fiction writer based in Austin.

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