By Mike Kaczmarczik
For years I have been hearing stories about a wild population of Italian wall lizards (Podarcis sicula). What made this population special was its location—half a world away from its natural range, around the Mediterranean. I’ve always had an affinity for reptiles, especially observing them in the wild. So it was exciting news to hear that I might be able to catch a glimpse of this lizard in the wild.
The first warm, sunny Saturday in April I hopped into my car and headed about 30 minutes to a location several people claimed had an extensive population of wall lizards. After a couple of hours, the only reptile to cross my path was a male garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). A colleague had mentioned another possible location, just a few blocks away. It seemed worth a try!
Almost immediately after arriving at the second location, I spotted a decaying brick wall—the perfect habitat for a wall lizard. I tried to keep my expectations in check. I have often gone out looking for reptiles without seeing so much as a scale. Each step closer to the wall was a little slower than the last.
Suddenly, a flash of green streaked across a rock and into the crevices of the brick wall. At this point my heart was pounding. Fighting the urge to chase after the green blur, I froze. The brick wall was isolated; there was nowhere for the lizard to go. For 10 minutes I did little more than blink and breathe. My patience paid off. As quickly as the lizard had disappeared, it seemed to suddenly materialize again. Basking on a rock, just a few feet away, was an Italian wall lizard.
It is hard to express the feeling of seeing an animal for the first time, let alone in the wild. Most of the world around us seems to have already been discovered. In many ways that is true. But even though others had found this lizard, it was the first time that I had discovered it.
You may have noticed that there is no mention of exactly where I spotted my first-ever Italian wall lizard. This is intentional. I want you to have the same, incredible experience I did. Investigate, ask around, explore. While it is no great secret where this population is, you might have to look past the first page or two of Google to find out.
There are so many amazing aspects of nature. I can’t think of a better way to take advantage of them than to get out and explore. Now it is your turn. Go find something that’s new to you—Italian wall lizard or otherwise. After all, when was the last time you went on an expedition?
Invasive Species: What You Should Know
While considering how to write this article, I felt extremely conflicted. I wanted to share the excitement and joy the following adventure induced, but I felt a deep obligation to clearly and firmly express the dangers of invasive species. Please read the information below and take time to find out how you can help control and prevent invasive species.
Although pythons in Florida and cane toads taking over Australia are the stories that make the news, invasive species are (unfortunately) found just about everywhere. In any location, invasive species can have devastating impacts on native ecosystems and create extreme dangers to human health. For example, Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) may be flying around your backyard. They can carry a variety of diseases that are transferable to humans, including West Nile Virus.
Italian wall lizards are native to France, Switzerland, Italy, and several other countries surrounding the Adriatic Sea. There are several well-established populations in the United States from California to New York. Until a fire likely wiped them out in the 1960s, there was even a population in West Philadelphia. These populations stem from human introduction. Wall lizards are therefore considered an invasive species within the U.S.
The population I went looking for can be traced to a single person. In the 1980s, an individual released around 200 wall lizards to help control insects in his parents’ backyard. Thirty years later they are still well-established. A study in Los Angeles, California, showed that an introduced population of wall lizards competed with two other local lizards for the same food and has largely replaced native lizard species.
Another study of a Long Island population concluded that the lizards eat other non-native species and may not have had a negative effect on the local ecosystem—but that doesn’t mean things won’t change in the future. There is still a great deal more to learn about the wall lizard’s impact, both locally and throughout the country.
Invasive species cost the United States billions of dollars each year by interfering with agricultural and industrial production, and reducing property values. Many aggressively compete with native species for resources, even to the point of destroying habitats, displacing native species, and disrupting the overall health and balance of local ecosystems. Visit invasivespeciesinfo.gov for more information on understanding and identifying native species and to find out what you can do to help.[/color-box]
This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Academy Frontiers. Photos by Paul Kaczmarczik.