Iveragh Lizards: Project Update
It’s been a busy few months since we launched our Iveragh Lizards citizen science project back in May, but now it’s time to provide an update on how things are going. Given how elusive our only native land reptile is, we set the bar high by asking you to look for our scaly little friends. However, as soon as the submissions page went live, we started receiving records – and they kept on coming! As our weather fluctuated from sunny to rainy, it influenced the activity of our Common Lizards (Laghairt choiteann), so there were peaks and troughs in when sightings occurred. Being ectotherms, lizards rely on their surroundings to control their body temperature: they bask in the warm sun to heat up, take shelter in the shade when it’s too hot, and sleep through the colder periods in a deep torpor or hibernation.
Now that Autumn has arrived, our lizards will be thinking about finding a nice little crevice or abandoned burrow to curl up and hibernate for the cooler months ahead. Sightings will slow down but it’s always worth keeping an eye out on warmer winter days as they sometimes emerge for a drink or an opportunistic snack. In spring, the lengthening days and warmth in the air will see them reappear – just in time to begin their annual mating season. Our sightings portal will remain open, so please continue to submit your records. But for now, here is a little of the Iveragh Lizards story so far….
A timelapse of the Iveragh Peninsula records submitted to date
So far, the Iveragh Lizards public records stands at 73 (to end Sept, 2021). Records were submitted from all over Ireland but a whopping two thirds came from Iveragh. When we combine these Iveragh public sightings with those recorded by myself as part of the LIVE Project, we have a total of 101. Add that to the 18 from the NBDC and we now have a total of 119 common lizard sightings for the peninsula! The NBDC total for all of Ireland is 1,081 – from 1904-2020 – meaning we have gathered the equivalent of 10% of the national records. What’s really impressive is that our figures were gathered in just 4 months! Remember, all our records will be submitted to the NBDC to bolster the Irish figures.
One of our aims was to find out more about which habitats our Iveragh lizards prefer. We asked you to choose from a list of habitats where you found your lizard. Figure 2 shows the combined results of both the public records and my own lizard sightings. An incredible 15 records came from gardens (Lizards in the garden! We’re so jealous!). It shows how close we live to lizard habitat in many parts of Iveragh. How many more of us have lizards for neighbours and are yet to see them? A surprising number were found indoors. This may have been down to accidental expeditions, but the comments with these records often indicated that a family pet may have aided the journey.
What was most significant is that around 50% of records were from ‘old stone wall/bank’ habitat. There are an estimated 400,000km of old stone walls in Ireland along with 210,000km of stone earthen banks (1). That’s a lot of potential lizard habitat! While we may think of habitats in terms of woodlands or wetlands, many species live in the cracks and crevices of our walls and banks. Think of all the insects and spiders that occupy these spaces – a vital food source for many animals including lizards and birds. Further up the food chain are carnivores such as stoats (we have our own native Irish sub-species, Mustela erminea hibernica), who have been known to both nest and hunt along old stone walls and banks. The LIVE Project has also conducted a study on the winter foraging habits of the Red-billed Chough (Cág cosdearg) and discovered that these earthen banks are important feeding sites for our rare corvids too. You’ll also find a multitude of pollinators and a whole world of lichens, mosses, ferns and wildflowers in these habitats.
It is these smaller niches in larger habitats that often get forgotten and their importance is underestimated. However, the rich heritage and history associated with many of these iconic stone wall structures across our landscapes is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche, including here on Iveragh. Our farmers still use them as boundaries for their lands just like countless generations did before them. They uphold their shape and mend any weather worn sections. These structures also line many of our meandering walking trails which traverse our peninsula and are maintained by the South Kerry Development Partnership, in conjunction with landowners. We have been building and protecting these old stone walls and earthen bank habitats for years and our lizards, and their neighbours, have been graciously taking advantage.
A typical old stone wall (can you see the lizard?) and a Red-billed Chough on an earthen bank
In terms of what parts of Iveragh we received sightings from, the map in Figure 4 reveals it was largely coastal areas. Does this mean lizards are only found around coasts? Unlikely. It is more probable that it is us that are found mostly around coasts. It is a common occurrence with casual sighting records that we tend to record them from places we frequent and, for most people, this tends to be the beautiful coastlines and their adjoining areas. However, this does not devalue the importance of these records – it merely highlights areas where a more concentrated search needs to be conducted. Figure 2 shows that 14 records came from upland areas – an impressive feat given it is one of the most difficult landscape in which to spot lizards. Come spring, when the lizards have emerged from their winter hibernation, LIVE will look for lizards in these ‘blanks on the map’. If you’ve seen lizards in these areas or will be taking to the uplands yourself, we’d really love to know if you see our elusive reptiles.
We asked you to let us know how often you visited the site at which you saw your lizard (Figure 5). Nearly 20% said it was their first visit to the site, perhaps visiting from further afield or a local on a ‘staycation’ exploring somewhere new to them. 26% said several times a year and 40% of you said daily – a great indication that it was local residents who were curious about their native wildlife that were taking part in the study. The wonderful aspect of citizen science projects is that it often means people learn something new about their surroundings. For us here at LIVE, it was really important to us that we involve the local people of Iveragh in our study. There is already a great awareness of the importance of our natural capital: the landscape, wildlife, culture, and heritage that make Iveragh the unique place that is home to so many. We rely on this natural capital in so many ways, from our own personal wellbeing to some of the businesses and livelihoods that provide for our families. If we wanted to learn about a part of this region then the best thing to do was to ask you.
But we also wanted to make sure that we included you in the results part of this project and show you how important your contribution has been. By providing this update (and more in the future) we hope you will see that citizen science projects can be valuable to communities. You have just read about how we are already making a positive impact on our wildlife by preserving our stone walls and banks and we hope that this will continue. Perhaps you saw your first ever lizard while partaking in this work – a wonderful moment that will likely stick with you. Maybe you learned more about the lizards in your garden, knowledge you can now share with others. Or maybe someone shared their knowledge with you, like a grandchild who heard about the project at school. Knowing more about our only native reptile may also help you add to the natural delights of Iveragh that you share with visitors as part of your local business. The more we understand the nature that surrounds us, the connectivity between habitats and the plants and animals that use these spaces, the more we will value them. Once we value them, we will find it much easier to protect them for future generations.
As well as searching those upland areas, we hope we will finally be able to speak with people in person about our wonderful native lizards. Depending on Covid restrictions, this may be a public talk & walk type of event where we will hopefully show you some of our reptile residents in their natural habitat. We will also be delving a little deeper into what we know about the origin of our lizards in Ireland and which of the European lineages they are most closely related to. As ever, we will try to involve the local communities as much as possible and provide regular updates on our social media accounts. You can also reach out to us at email@example.com if you have any questions or perhaps would like us to run a lizard event near you.
All that’s left to say is a massive thank you to all our participants. It is wonderful that so many of you took the time to submit your records and it is a clear sign that many of us want to protect our wildlife and learn more about our local patch. We also created this short video to thank those who took part, and it includes a montage of some of the wonderful photos you submitted with your sightings. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
A few notes:
You can still submit your lizard sightings, old or new, here.
It is illegal to handle our common lizards without a license. Only do so if they are in danger.
If you find a lizard in your house/garden that needs rescuing, please never catch it by its tail. Either carefully cup your hand over the lizard to secure it around the front shoulders or try to coax it into a container. Once it is safe, place it in a suitable spot – out of sight from cats, ideally in a south facing area, perhaps where you have seen lizards before.
Lizards look similar to our smooth newts so we’ve created this guide to help you tell them apart. Both of them hibernate over winter and will re-emerge in spring.
1 – Georg Müller, 2012. Europe’s Field Boundaries. Published by Neuer Kuntsverlag.