FensFest 2017

This last Saturday was the 75th anniversary of the Fenway Victory Gardens so the Garden society hosted a terrific party. I caught a couple of lizards in the compost pile the day before and had them on display for visitors to learn about the Italian Wall Lizards in Boston.

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I need to work on the signage for next time, but one of the coordinators helpfully spray-chalked this awesome lizard right in front of my table:

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I had a great crowd stop by, admire the lizards, and ask terrific questions. Lots of people were interested to hear about how the lizards were surviving the winter (in the compost I think), where they’d come from (Italy originally but maybe by way of NYC?), what they ate (insects – just about anything they can get their mouths around), and whether they’d be a problem in the gardens (almost definitely not). I had a blast talking about these cool little immigrants.

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I did get a few tantalizing mentions of other lizards around the Boston area so keep your eyes open! If you notice a lizard please, let me know. Preferably with a picture!

For new visitors, want to learn more? I have more posts on the blog and you can read some news stories here. Thanks to all who came out to visit and check out the Green Monster!

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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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The Boston Podarcis (part 2)

So last post was talking about a visit from October 2nd last year. Over the next several days, we made quite a few more trips to check on the lizards, and we kept finding more! Here are a few pictures:

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The whole group sees a lizard!

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The whole survey crew from Harvard, Boston University, and UMass Boston. Photo: Joe Martinez

All in all we’ve found over a dozen animals, pretty well spread out through the whole garden! What’s more, there were juveniles too so we know they’re successfully breeding. While no one can remember if they’ve been there for more than a year, it seems highly unlikely that they managed to spread so far afield and successfully reproduce just in 2016. My guess is that 2016 was their second year in Boston and they survived the relatively mild 2015-2016 winter by hunkering down in the garden’s many warm compost piles.

As to how they got there, now that’s a bigger mystery. The Connecticut and Hastings-On-Hudson populations we’ve previously discovered had railroad tracks right alongside them so the conduit for their northward expansion seemed pretty clear.

hastings-on-hudson-001Just to remind you, here’s a figure showing the Greenwich lizards (magenta dots) and the Hastings lizards (green square) and both are directly on major railroad lines.

The Boston case is less clear cut. Yes, there are lots of railway lines connecting Boston to New York via southern Connecticut, but that’s a long scamper and we haven’t been hearing about sightings in between. It’s entirely possible a lizard hitched a ride on the undercarriage of a train, but for them to then scamper from South Station in Boston to the Fens (walking directions, google doesn’t have an as-the-lizards-run choice) seems like a long shot to me.

I have two more probable ideas, one is that the lizards hitched a ride with someone who grabbed them as potential pets and then released them into the garden when they got tired of feeding them. This is entirely plausible and is the cause of a lot of species introductions all around the world. Another option that I’m excited to test is that the lizards hitched a ride on some compost or mulch that was brought to the Gardens at some point in 2015. Lizard eggs move with plants and mulch all the time, even lucky adults could have made the trip without getting squashed or tumbled. One of my goals for this summer is to track down shipments coming into the garden to see if any might originate from sites with lizards. I’ll be sure to report back!

Another next step is to actually do some genetics work to try to figure out whether this population is related to the other Podarcis already in North America or if it could be a new introduction from the homeland. Those analyses are under way… I’ll report back as soon as we have an answer!

What is clear though is that the Italian Wall Lizard has made itself very comfortable in the Fenway Victory Gardens. Lizards were active all the way into the third week of November! Looking outside though we’ve just had another major snowfall, in amidst a week or two of serious cold snap, so we’ll just have to see if the lizards pop back up in a few months once we hit spring!

As they say down at the railway though, if you see something say something! As always, email me with tips if you see a flash of green in your garden or park!

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There are lizards in Boston!

I was keeping this under wraps while I was publishing the new finding and trying to pitch the story to local journalists. I’m giving a talk to the New England Herp Society this afternoon though so I think it’s time to tell you all about Boston’s newest “Green Monster” – Italian Wall Lizards!

As you may remember, I’ve been chasing Podarcis siculus in Connecticut and New York for a few years now. Upon moving from CT to MA about a year ago I’d resigned myself to having to take the train “all the way back to Connecticut” to see lizards in the wild. That was, until I got this email message:

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Look at that big beautiful male siculus! I was thrilled! After a few back and forth emails I found out that Elizabeth would be going back to her garden plot that afternoon and, as it was sunny and warm I decided to run home, get my gear, and head out there to meet her. Now, as you can see from the email, this was already October and high time for lizards to be hunkering down. I surprised that this one was out and about and I wasn’t sure I’d have many more chances to check out this potentially new population.

So! I ran home, grabbed my camera and telephoto lens (a picture with a confirmed sighting can count as a voucher record if an individual can’t be caught) and grabbed my trusty lizard pole that had caught just about all the lizards from my dissertation. I nearly jogged to the T and was to the gardens just as Elizabeth arrived.

This is when my excitement got the better of me and things started going wrong…

We couldn’t find the male – he’d run off by the time we got to the garden, but looking around in the compost pile next to Elizabeth’s plot I saw a familiar dash and heard the dry-leaf scurry that’s become music to my ears. There were lizards! Many lizards! Lady lizards to go along with that male and, even more exciting, baby lizards! I lined up a great glamour shot of an adult female in the afternoon sun and clicked the shutter. Silence. I’d checked battery levels on the camera before leaving (80% – no problemo!) but I’d left home without a memory card in my camera! (OOF! C’mon Colin!) I was too embarrassed to tell Elizabeth – what a rookie move. So, I knew I had to catch one to confirm the finding!

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(Me, happy to see lizards in Boston but as of yet unsuccessful in the hunt. Note my camera sitting in time-out. Photo credit to Elizabeth.)

Alright, but the female was still there – unperturbed by the lack of picture taking so I lined up, steadied the noose pole… swung… and caught a stick! (internal monologue: “Argh! I caught hundreds of lizards all over Greece… hanging over rock walls and out of car windows… How can I miss the first sighting in Boston?!”).  I collapsed the pole, reset the string, and telescoped it back out for another try. That’s when the pole broke. Seriously. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I managed to separate the final two segments of the pole (18 inches or so) from the remainder, and, here I was, holding two poles, one too short to approach the lizard and the other, incapable of anything more useful than scratching its back.

By this time the lizard had moved on.

I don’t know if I managed to cover this misstep from Elizabeth. In my mind I was sure she was wishing she’d emailed an actual lizard expert. She was unreservedly cheery though as we continued scoping around for more lizards but soon after had to leave for a meeting. I opted to stay and started working on my lizard pole. After a good deal of poking and prodding (and some colorful exhortations) I got piece 1 sufficiently jammed into piece 2 that it was worth giving capture another try. I found that female again, lined up the shot, and…img_4161 caught her!

I didn’t try any more catching that day but in all, saw 7 lizards – a remarkably healthy population!

Next post I’ll tell you about the next visits!