An update on the Italian Wall Lizards in Boston

After being gone for all of May I was very eager to get out to the Fenway Victory Gardens to see how the Italian Wall Lizards were doing. We discovered the population last year but this far north we were really not sure whether they’d make it through the winter. Just before the Bahamas trip reports started coming in that at least a few had been seen around the gardens but I never got the chance to get down there to see them myself. What’s more,  I’d offered to give a workshop to the Fenway Garden Society to tell gardeners (and anyone else interested) a bit more about the lizards. I was nervous as the date for the workshop approached about whether we’d see any lizards to use for show and tell.

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Lizards in the gardens! A flier for my talk. (Photo credit to Claire)

A few days before the workshop and just after I returned from Greece, Claire and I walked through the victory gardens. We didn’t find a single lizard. Oh oh. Two friends and I went to the garden the next day to look to see if we could find anybody. We got a good look at a female and a male (whew!) but they escaped into a dense tangle of compost. Alright, so there are lizards but I really wanted to catch one for show and tell during the talk. So, I went searching again the next day and hurrah, I caught a nice male to show people!

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Here I am gesturing at a rock in a cage. I promise the lizard was in there somewhere. Also, evidently I gesture a lot when talking. (photo credits to Claire)

The lizard workshop went really well. Just over 30 people came and asked great questions.

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There! Now you can see the lizard.

Here are a few of the questions that came up:

  • Where did they come from?
    • Well, ultimately these lizards are natively found through much of the Italian peninsula though they’ve been good colonists throughout Europe and parts of North America. Preliminary DNA analysis suggests that the Boston populations are closely related to the Connecticut and New York populations (more on this as soon as we firm up the analyses), which suggests that the Boston populations were taken from NY or CT and brought here.
  • What do they eat?
    • These lizards are insectivorous meaning they’ll be chomping down on the loads and loads of bugs crawling around the gardens. Some of those bugs are pests – excellent – some are pollinators – alas – they’re pretty indiscriminate eaters. Some populations of the lizard have been found to eat plant material but that’s usually only when they’re living on pretty desolate islands where they can’t get enough insects. I suspect this population isn’t going to be going vegetarian while there are so many delicious beetle larvae and caterpillars to be found.
  • How many of them are there?
    • Last year we saw about two dozen but there was evidently a pretty significant die-off over the winter. So far this spring I think I’ve seen a grand total of seven (never all on the same day) scattered around and I’d guess for every one I see there’s another one or two that is too well hidden to find. That’d put the population in the gardens right around 15.
  • How do they survive the winter?
    • Boston locals will know our winter’s aren’t a joke; it can get wicked cold! This is the northernmost population of Italian Wall Lizard that’s been seen anywhere so they must have found some way to escape the snow. My best guess is that the lizards are over-wintering in the big compost piles around the garden, which can stay warm all the way through the winter.
  • Do they have any predators here?
    • Yes and no, so perhaps a strong maybe. Snakes will certainly eat lizards but I’ve only heard of one garter snake in the gardens so I don’t think that’s going to be a major predator. There are lots of birds of prey that frequent the gardens but compared to the dozens of rabbits dozily chewing on vegetables these lizards are a lot of work to catch and what with the fences all over the place not a lot of birds would risk a dive into the thick of the plots. Cats are the biggest likely predator of the lizards but I haven’t seen any in the gardens.
  • Are they a problem?
    • I’d say no. Right now the population is pretty small and it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a chance of it expanding dramatically given the high-density housing all around the gardens. The Emerald Necklace is right around the corner and could provide great habitat but may not offer the same winter hide-outs as the garden does. More importantly, they aren’t extirpating any other lizard species (there aren’t any confirmed in Massachusetts) and they won’t be dramatically impacting local insect populations at this population density, so I’d say, all in all, we shouldn’t worry about the Italian Wall Lizard becoming a noxious neighbor.
  • Can you move one to my plot? Please?
    • No. The lizards may be ecologically benign, and yes, they’re inordinately cute, but moving species around is a serious no-no. If you want to make your garden plot better habitat for the lizards give them rocks to perch on with good sunlight and scamper under when people approach. If they come, enjoy their company and send me a picture!
  • Have you managed to get the Red Sox to adopt them as a Green Monster mascot?
    • Not yet… but if you know someone please let me know!

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