My common lizard story
I still remember the very first time I saw a one. I was around 6 years old. It was on the little boreen next to my family home in Killarney. Just a quick glimpse. The unmistakable scales and then it was gone. I ran home, full of excitement. In school, some of the kids said I made it up, “There are none in Ireland!”, but I knew exactly what I had seen. It was about 20 years before I saw my second one but thankfully I see them a bit more frequently now that I study them. Yes, it may sound a little strange but I’m a zoologist and I study…the Common Lizard (Laghairt choiteann).
When you are lucky enough to see a lizard you will often realise that they have seen you first! They turn their head so they can get a really good look at you.
I’ve been captivated by these enchanting lizards for a very long time and I still get a little rush of excitement every single time I see one. I don’t think I’ve ever caught one off-guard. Each lizard I see has always spotted me first; its little head turned so that one eye is looking right at you. If you stay still, and don’t cast your shadow on them, they will quickly realise you are not a threat and carry on about their business. This may be searching for food (spiders, flies, insects) or they may gently close their eyes and soak up the heat from the sun. Sunbathing, or basking, is vital for lizards. Being ‘cold blooded’, or ectotherms, they are unable to control their body temperature. They live underground in burrows or gaps between soil and rocks, and when they emerge they are cold and slow moving. Basking in the sun allows them to bring their body temperature up and they can then begin their daily activities. However, they can also overheat, so on very hot days they take shelter. You might see a lizard that looks a little flat, with its body stretched as wide as possible. This is a technique to maximise the amount of heat they can capture from the sun.
In late-June and into July, you might see some lizards looking more ‘round’ than usual – these are the pregnant females who spend a bit more time in the sun to help their young develop internally. These young lizards arrive in August and if you are lucky enough to spot one of these bronze-coloured mini-lizards you are doing really well - they are tiny! Only around 3cm long, your best chance of seeing them might be to keep an eye out around basking adults - around 14cm long. You often find family groups living in the same patch and even sharing the same sunny spot.
Babies are born in late July and into August. They are a dark bronze colour and tiny! Females may have clutches of 6-8 of these mini lizards which hunt for their own food soon after birth.
“I never knew we had lizards in Ireland” is still a very common reply I get when I mention them. It’s hardly surprising considering how well camouflaged they are and, given our climate, a native lizard is perhaps not the most obvious animal that springs to mind when you think of Irish wildlife. But the Common Lizard is native to Ireland and it has been here since the last ice-age around 11,000 years ago. A second lizard species called the Slow-Worm (Earcán coach) is a type of legless lizard that can be found in Ireland, but this was introduced in the 1970’s and there have been no records on Iveragh.
“I used to see them when I was young, but I haven’t seen one in years” is probably the second most common phrase I hear. Maybe as we grow up we spend less time climbing and rolling around in the outdoors (not all of us for sure!) and therefore encounter less wildlife, especially the cryptic kind. Or maybe life gets a little faster as we become busy with work. Another reason could be that these enigmatic little creatures are becoming less common. Maybe the old stone wall in the field where you watched them as a child has now been replaced by a building or that cliff section where they sunned themselves was washed away in that storm a few years back? This is known as ‘habitat fragmentation’ and it effects a lot of wildlife, separating populations of species into smaller habitats and maybe even preventing them from finding a mate. These ever-shrinking fragments of habitat can eventually cause local extinctions - by the departure of animals that can move on or the last few individuals dying off from those animals that can’t move to somewhere new.
The species is regarded as the most widespread terrestrial reptile in the world, ranging north to the Arctic circle, south to Iberia and east to some Japanese islands. Ireland is their most westerly point. When you look at the climate in the regions where you find the common lizard you start to realise just how special these little critters really are. Ireland has mild, wet winters while more northern regions have periods where the ground is frozen. No problem to the common lizard - they hibernate over winter, only occasionally venturing out during mild spells or for a little drink. However, they have an even more amazing trick up their scaly sleeves. One of the reasons you don’t find many reptiles in wet and cold climates is that it makes it difficult for their eggs to survive. So how does the common lizard get around this? By giving birth to live young! The female incubates the young internally allowing them to grow safely. When the youngsters are ready to appear, they arrive in a thin membrane that they wiggle free from and are independent from birth. If that wasn’t incredible enough, the common lizards you find in warmer countries often still lay eggs. They really are extraordinary animals and these adaptations are the reason why they survive in areas where no other reptiles can.
Looking at lizard sighting from records on the National Biodiversity Data Centre, it looks like our little common lizards are spread widely across Ireland. They have even made it onto some of our islands, such as the Aran Islands and our very own Valentia Island. How did they get to these islands? Did they swim? Did they arrive in earth or other materials for construction? Did they walk across when these islands were connected to the mainland back around the time of the ice-age I mentioned earlier? These same questions can also be asked about how the common lizard came to our island of Ireland.
Common lizards have excellent camouflage. This may be part of the reason they are under reported in some areas
Questions like these are what I am hoping to help answer. You might remember I mentioned that I am a zoologist. Put simply, zoology is the branch of science that looks at animals, how their bodies work, how animals interact with each other and how they interact with their surroundings. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that a ‘zoologist’ even existed when I was growing up, let alone that I would one day study to be one. I started office work straight out of school and it was my love of wildlife that lead me down a path of taking holidays to various corners of the world. I travelled to see the places and animals I had heard about while watching David Attenborough or read about in books. It was on these trips that I often saw people working, taking notes, watching animals – zoologists! It then clicked with me that all the information I had been reading, all the knowledge and facts about animals that Attenborough and others would teach us, was gathered by scientists. I began to wonder ‘what if….?’. I left behind my 8 years as a travel consultant and enrolled as a mature student of zoology at University College Cork. What a learning curve! Hard work, but fun, and 4 years later I graduated in a cap and gown ready to start a new career.
For my final year project in university I studied, you guessed it, the common lizard. After seeing so many incredible types of wildlife on my global adventures I came full circle to what I consider to be one of Ireland’s most ‘exotic’ of animals. One of my favourite experiences is to show someone their very first common lizard. The excitement, the smiles, the awe at how a lizard – something we are more used to seeing on our sun holidays – can be right here on our doorstep. This doorstep may even be a trail that someone has walked countless times over the years, oblivious that little lizards might have been watching them stroll by all that time.
Through my role as a Knowledge Gatherer with the LIVE project, I’m hoping to increase awareness of lizards on the Iveragh peninsula and learn more about where they can be found. I’ll be using my skills to examine where the species can be observed, if there are any size or colour differences amongst the lizards on Iveragh and most important, I hope to help answer how they got here. I’m also hoping this will be a team effort, and this is where you come in! I’ve designed a little ‘cheat sheet’ that I think will help you to find lizards too. A few tips that you can use when out walking or exploring Iveragh. Hopefully, by using this sheet, you will be able to find lizards (maybe even your first or the first for your kids or grandkids!) and then you can let us know where you found them. Even better if you can share a photo. Via the combined effort of the people of Iveragh, we can then build up a picture of just how ‘common’ the common lizard is on our peninsula. By late Autumn, when the lizards go back into their winter hibernation, we will ideally have a map of where our lizards call home – created by the people of Iveragh. I hope you decide to become involved and that this map can be used to help this charismatic and unique animal. By learning where the lizards can be found we can help ensure they have a future on Iveragh, one that you can help protect and preserve.
Old stone walls are a great place to look for lizards. They can bask on the warm stones, hibernate deep in the cracks and hunt food attracted by the vegetation. There is a lizard in this photo. Can you see it?