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home : columns : columns January 21, 2018

10/24/2017 1:19:00 PM
The alligator lizard
Two “alligators,” by Dennis McGregor. The Sisters artist will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign for a children’s book based on his series of paintings, “You Stole My Name,” featuring very different animals with similar monikers. photo provided
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Two “alligators,” by Dennis McGregor. The Sisters artist will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign for a children’s book based on his series of paintings, “You Stole My Name,” featuring very different animals with similar monikers.

photo provided

In Al St. John's field guide, "Reptiles of the Northwest," the section on lizards ends with two very similar look-a-likes, the Oregon alligator lizard, (Elgaria scincicauda) and the California alligator lizard, (Elgaria multicarinata), and lists an additional five subspecies. Turn the page after that and the snakes begin, starting with the rubber boa.

Dennis McGregor, a most talented artist and poet, took on a clever project of making renderings of named-a-like animals in juxtaposition. The paintings are a hoot. I especially enjoy his rendering of the "Spider Monkey," and the "Cow Bird" is nothing to sneeze at either, not to pass up the "Bullfrog," and "Bulltrout."

Looking at McGregor's clever rendition of the alligator lizard perched on the alligator's head, there's no problem telling who is who; however, be warned, if you pick up an alligator lizard be prepared for about the same reaction you'd get when picking up a real alligator. You'll get bitten.

But unlike the real alligator, whose tail will stay on no matter what or who grabs it, the alligator lizard's tail is built to detach itself from the main body, and even keep twitching for a few minutes to keep a predator from noticing the tail's owner, who then goes on to live another day and grow another tail.

The alligators of North America will take on just about anything smaller than they are, and usually end up getting it down, whole or in pieces. It's about the same for both Oregon and California alligator lizards, but instead of pigs, goats and chickens, these tiny (by comparison) distant cousins go after insects, spiders, slugs (in season), centipedes, scorpions, earthworms, and smaller lizards - and swallow them whole.

But if you decide to get right down to brass tacks and try to put a positive ID on that alligator lizard, all I can say is, "Good Luck!" Al St. John makes it look easy, sure, he's been gazing into alligator lizards' eyes from the time he left the cradle; the first word Al learned to say was "herpetologist," not "mama."

A herpetologist is a person who studies reptiles and amphibians, and I have no doubt Al began his studies of reptiles and amphibians from the time he first saw a snake in his native land of McMinnville. I know for a fact he was hauling native rattlesnakes out from under the rocks there before he was a teenager; which makes him the best person in the Northwest to ask anything about herps. He's still alive in spite of his early childhood.

Alligators are almost entirely limited to the New World, while alligator lizards are found in the western Americas, both north and south, parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. The belligerent attitude of alligator lizards is quite remarkable really, when one considers their size and lack of venom.

My introduction to their tenacity was down on the southern Oregon Coast near Coos Bay while conducting field trips for OMSI kids in the 1960s.

It was at that time and place I met the equally ferocious-looking tiger beetle, who was all bluff, and staple food for alligator lizards. And those alligator lizards - especially in the afternoon when the summer days got the sandy beaches pretty hot - were quick to take on the first finger that was close to them. While the boys who picked up an alligator lizard and had it clamp down on their finger wouldn't show much reaction, especially the football heroes, many of those high school ladies would squeal and howl pretty loudly.

If you're careful, and keep your eye open, you can run into alligator lizards all along the costal sand dunes down by Coos Bay and North Bend, Wasco and Jefferson Counties, and other places. Wherever you find them, Al St. John would love to hear from you; he's always improving his herp field guides, so send him a note and a good voucher photo. His email is: highdesertal Tell him I said hello.

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