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 Green Monster is back!

It’s Red Sox opening day and we’re finally getting some sun and warm temperatures. Baseball fans aren’t the only ones defrosting down in the Fenway; I just got word that an Italian Wall Lizard, our “Green Monster,” poked its head out of one of the compost piles it most likely over-wintered in.

Go Red Sox and Hurrah for the Green Monster!

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Here’s an Italian Wall Lizard from last Fall in the Gardens. No new pictures yet this spring but stay tuned!

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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More stories around the web!

These little lizards in NY and CT sure are capturing a lot of peoples’ imaginations! The story has been picked up now in quite a few places! Here are a few that you might like to check out:

First and foremost, Peregrine Frissell, the author of the first Greenwich Time piece that started the momentum wrote a terrific follow up after going out into the field with Max, Greg, and I. You should definitely read it here – he had a photographer out in the field with him who got a bunch of GREAT shots!

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That story’s been taken up in the Washington Times and by SFGate all the way out in California. Peregrine’s piece also inspired a post on the Mother Nature Network.

The NYTimes piece by Jim Dwyer really took off, and for good reason. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d highly encourage you to read it.

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You can also catch the story at (e)ScienceThe Barre Montpelier Times Argus, NewsInn.org (with a cool (uncredited) header photo), WorldPrimetime, Singapore News, Headlines News 24, Digital News World, World of Online News. Alright, I’ll admit most of those are just news aggregators scraping off NYTimes headlines, but the Times did send the article out in the day’s Evening Briefing so that’s super exciting!

In searching for all those links (there are about twice that many easily found on google) I did find one gem. According to NewsDiffs, a site that tracks changes in articles after they are first published, the NYTimes article was first called “Immigrants To New York, Small but Fit, Seek New Turf.” I’m glad he swapped to “A Lizard That Made It in New York Heads North.”

I’m excited that these lizards are resonating with people and I’m looking forward to more lizard trips in the future to keep you updated on where they’re going and what they’re doing!

 

 

Another search for Greenwich Lizards

I just returned from another trip down to Greenwich looking for Italian Wall Lizards. They’re still there and going strong! Right now we’re trying to find new populations and figure out just how far up the coast they’ve made it. As near as we can tell, so far, their northernmost extent seems to be right around the Cos Cob train station. If you’ve seen any lizards north or east of Cos Cob harbor definitely let me know!

Here are a few pictures of lizards from these last trips:

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I like this picture – can you see the male hiding behind the female, further up the wall?

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This fellow is trying to get into the basement!

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Here’s Max, chasing a lizard into the vegetable garden.

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