Local by Nature: Desert Spiny Lizard

Tucson’s Grumpiest Lizard

Desert Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus Magister)

Tuesday, June 18We called him “Sausage,” and boy was he a spicy little brat (wurst pun ever)! He was the grumpiest lizard we ever had (and we’ve had a lot of lizards in the Walker household)! This is how his story began…

A Special Trip

The light-colored pillars of tuff jutted from the sand like the worn teeth of a giant with dental hygiene issues; Zebra-tailed lizards shot across the scorching desert floor so fast they seemed to be flying.

My boys and I were on a herping road trip to find lizards, snakes, and other animals. We drove into the desert one day to find a species we had so far only seen in books: The Desert Spiny Lizard.

With fishing line nooses tied to the ends of poles, we set out toward the rock outcroppings we knew were the ideal habitat for these chunky critters (up to 14″ in length). We were careful to stay on well-worn paths and not disturb the desert pavement along the way.

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Zach, at 12, nooses a Leopard Lizard on a herping trip in SE Oregon.

As we neared the rocks, I saw something I thought was a ground squirrel running awkwardly toward a pile of boulders. Then I spotted another, this one with bright yellow coloring. I suddenly realized these were large, lumbering lizards!

“Did you see that!?” Zach, then six-years-old, cried out in an excited voice. Lizard pole in hand, he ran over to where we’d seen one of these scaled Sherman tanks dive for cover. It was a big male spiny, hiding in the shade of a crack. Carefully, I helped Zach guide the noose around the neck of the burly fellow (proper noosing doesn’t hurt the lizards). It was challenging, with the lizard shifting positions and the wind blowing the line around, but finally, he got the loop over its head and pulled it taut.

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Sausage (foreground) hangs out on a tuff boulder with friends, including a very big chuckwalla.

Now, some lizard species are pretty docile and calm, even when noosed or held. But this spunky specimen began doing something like an alligator “death roll,” followed by jumping around like an angry bronco! As I grabbed the writhing ball of scales and teeth to take the noose off, he whirled around and clamped his jaws onto my finger! OUCH! Then he did that roll thing again while holding onto my skin–that really hurt!

When we got the big boy pried off my finger, Zach looked at him and said, “I’m going to call him…’Sausage.'” (Looking at the tubby, tube-shaped body, I had to admit the weird name made sense.)

We had a permit to take Sausage home, where we kept him in a tank we designed to be very much like his home habitat. (We plan to teach our #VivaKidsNatureClub how to make realistic rock habitat walls in an upcoming class! Please get an Arizona hunting license and know the rules if you plan to collect any reptiles.)

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One of the tuff habitats we made with styrofoam, grout, and paint.

Sausage was a lot of fun to watch, as he eagerly gobbled up crickets, superworms and grasshoppers–even beetles and scorpions! He was a master of pushups too! But he never got tame enough to hold without trying to bite us! Some lizards, like Desert Iguana and Collared Lizards, can grow quite tame and even eat out of your hand. But Desert Spiny Lizards are like the Incredible Hulks of Southwest lizard species–they’re always angry!

Someone recently posted a picture of a Spiny on a Vail/Rita Ranch Facebook forum, asking if it was a “dangerous” Gila Monster. Well, no. Spiny lizards aren’t really dangerous–they won’t chase you–but they do have pretty bad manners, so handle with care, if at all!

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I see a finger! Yum!

Activity

On Tuesday, June 18, we will be bringing a grumpy pair of Desert Spiny Lizards to Viva Coffee House, right here in Rita Ranch! You’ll be able to pet them and feel the rough, colorful scales that make them one of the most attractive lizards in our area. Don’t worry, I’ll be holding them so you won’t get your fingers chomped! I may not be so lucky.

 

For more information on Desert Spiny Lizards, click here.

Nature Vocabulary

Tuff: A light-colored, porous rock type made from compressed volcanic ash.

Herping: To search for reptiles and amphibians as a hobby or for research.

Desert pavement: A surface layer of interlocking pebbles that protect smaller soil sediments below. Since desert pavements take hundreds or even thousands of years to form and protect desert soils from erosion, it’s best not to disturb them.

Docile: Tame and accepting.

Bronco: A wild, untamed horse.

Habitat: The natural home or environment of an animal, plant or other living thing.

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The author shows off a harmless gopher snake encountered at Purple Heart Park, just down the road from Viva!

About the Author

Kelly Walker is an amateur naturalist, writer, and one of Viva’s owners. He holds an M.S. in Environmental Science from New Mexico State University and a Bachelor’s in English. He’s written a good deal about native flora and fauna over the years, including for Southern New Mexico Magazine, Cascade Business News, the Bend Bulletin, and others. He created a native plant gardening publication, From the Ground Up, and is the creator of Viva Coffee News. Kelly, his wife, Andrea, and their five kids live in Vail, AZ where they enjoy one of the world’s best herping locations!

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