The Trees Have Eyes


HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (11/19/12)—A tranquil stroll through the forests of Hopkins County can be therapeutic and eye-opening, but that natural clarity can quickly turn to curiosity. Did you hear that rustling in the leaves? What was it? Something scurries by on the pathway, but darts behind a decaying log. You take a closer look, but the swift creature seems to have dashed out of sight—or did it? Look again and you just might see that the bark of the fallen sapling is staring back at you. Fortunately, this isn’t some kind of strange dream, and, in this case, it’s certainly nothing harmful. In fact, it seems that you have just encountered a cunning reptile common to both western Kentucky and much of the US: the Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulates).

With a range that stretches from New York, south into central Mexico, and west into portions of Nevada, the Eastern Fence Lizard population is widely distributed across the continent. Yet, as these smaller reptiles are most commonly arboreal (tree-dwelling) in nature, the entire state of Kentucky presents a perfect habitat for the cold-blooded organisms. 

Though the primary color of the lizard’s sharply scaled body can vary depending on geographic location, most are shades of gray or brown with dark striping on their legs, heads, backs, sides, and tails. Additionally, males display light or royal blue patches on their throats and stomachs that are said to become more prominent during portions of the mating season (spring to early summer). Offspring mirror these characteristics after hatching in the late summer, yet measure in at 2-4 inches, while the adults may grow up to 8.25 inches and can weigh between 15 and 20 grams (depending on the length of the warm season and abundance of food). 

Regarding their regular habits, the reptiles tend to live up to their namesake by hiding from pray, hunting for food, and basking in the sunlight on the tops and sides of fence posts, stumps/trees, rocks, or other similarly colored promontories throughout much of the day. Not only do these lofty vantage points give them a heads up on impending danger (i.e. avian predators, snakes, coyotes, foxes, etc.), but they also allow the lizard to pounce on unsuspecting prey, which includes insects such as ants, beetles, weevils, spiders, and centipedes. During the evening and nighttime hours, however, the lizards generally retreat to enclosed areas closer to the ground for rest (both for safety purposes and temperature control). 

But what about the species’ continuation, development, and lifespan? After undergoing a period of hibernation from the late fall (mid-October) until the early spring (late March), the mating season begins almost immediately and sometimes lasts until August.  During this time, the males bob their heads and perform sporadic ‘push ups’ to attract mates and to ward off other suitors. Then, after selecting a suitable mate, mature females will lay and bury a clutch of 3 to 13 elliptical eggs, which can occur 2-4 times each year.  Interestingly, the eggs actually double in size during embryonic development, and in approximately 8-10 weeks, offspring begin to hatch and hundreds of miniscule fence lizards can be found throughout wooded areas. Though the small, newborn herps are somewhat less frightened of human interaction and may allow themselves to be held, they will be fully matured by the following spring/summer season and will likely shy away from close contact. Whereas a definite lifespan remains unknown, some herpetologists believe fence lizards that survive their first year can live 5 or more years. This comparatively lengthy existence may be attributed to the lizard’s ingenious camouflage, its swift movements, and its ability to lose its tail without dire effects. 

In the end, the Eastern Fence Lizard poses no threat to humans, remains as a vital part of the ecosystem both in Hopkins County and beyond, and even helps to reduce the abundance of bothersome or harmful insects in many cases. What’s more, watching the lizard bathe in light can provide a release from stress and may offer the onlooker a flash of beauty sometimes forgotten in the modern age. So, the next time you take a walk amidst the many forests of Hopkins County, keep your eyes open, because there might just be some hidden eyes already opened at you. 

Sugg Street Post
Article and Photos by Luke Short 
Information courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, and Ohio Department of Natural Resources

 
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