"Taming" a Whiptail Lizard

Doing the Impossible -- "taming" a whiptail lizard

Published Aug 25th 2002 in Wildlife

Kathy Esparza is the “Lizard Lady.” She does not mind the moniker. She wears bracelets with tiny lizards on them, and one leg sports an anklet with a lizard motif. Around her neck is a similarly adorned necklace. That does not make her the Lizard Lady, however – the name has been given to her because she hand feeds a pair of whiptails in her front yard. Spotted whiptail lizards are the fast green lizards that can be seen sprinting down alleyways and sidewalks.

The critters of the Lizard Lady’s garden are her companions. “They see me as I am, so I try to see them as they are. People can be judgmental and not accepting, but the creatures don’t care.” Kathy photographs and videotapes the behavior of the lizards. “They are fascinating. My male and female both use the same hole. He shimmies on top of the hole when she is inside. As he twists his hind legs back and forth, his hips gyrate. He must be leaving a scent or pheromone to warn other males that he is around.” Kathy loves to garden, but in the summer heat, break times are imperative. Instead of going inside, she sits and watches the lizards and the box turtles.

“I feed the box turtles canned dog food. I usually give them just enough so none is left over, but one day I left some on a spoon as I went inside to answer the phone. When I came out, one of the whiptails was nibbling at the dog food.” Whiptail lizards often eat the pupa of beetles buried an inch in the ground, so it is not too surprising that hers were eating inanimate food, despite the fact that most reptiles and amphibians only respond to moving prey objects.

“It is amazing to watch turtles and lizards eat together. Turtles rise up on all fours, stretch their necks, turn their heads and then snap at the food. Once, a lizard was eating the food when it appeared as if the turtle was going to bite him. The lizard darted away – right at the last second.” It might be that the omnivorous box turtles find their food by scent, not by movement.

“The male whiptail is the most active. It will leave the front yard to go to the backyard, and sometimes it goes through the fence onto the street. I see him eat dead bugs on the ground and nibble at the sugar ants. He sometimes walks around kicking dirt, but I never see him catch anything as a result of that. If another male comes into the yard, he runs straight at it and butts its nose, which makes the intruder run away – sort of like miniature bighorn sheep butting heads.”

“The male often basks, finding a sunny spot on the concrete sidewalk, and presses his entire body into the warmth. After a while, he begins lifting his four feet and the tip of his tail up off the ground. He leaves his neck pressed to the ground while his feet and tail are raised. He will often bask in the sun for ten minutes, lifting his extremities every couple of minutes. The female is fatter, but the male is much more colorful. Its spots along the sides are blacker, and the head is a darker green. The scales on his throat are rougher, too.”

As Ms. Esparza responded to my questioning, I was impressed by the careful detail of her observations. After the interview, I looked through all of the books I have at the Sibley Nature Center, and then went online. I could not find a single mention of the hip-wiggling behavior of the male. Her observation supports the contention that non-scientists are often the first to discover the existence of new behaviors in common animals. Millions of dollars are spent studying animals that are pestiferous, but we do not know much about what is right around us.

As wonderful as her discovery of this behavior is, her hand-feeding of the lizards is even more amazing. Whiptails run 25 miles an hour, especially when they see a human or any other large creature approaching. “After they ate the dog food from the spoon a few times with the spoon on the ground, I started holding the spoon. I had to get down on my hands and knees and reach far forward. If I tried any other position, such as kneeling, they would run. But it was amazing – after only a few days, they began to feed right under me. So I began to sit down and hold the spoon above my other hand which rested on the ground, and it crawled right up on my hand! Those tiny little claws are a little scratchy, but not bad!”

The lizards have been eating from her hands for three years. The male does not seem as interested in food this year, and spends a lot more time attending the female. “The first time I saw her this spring, the female came up to my hand and nibbled at it, then held it in her mouth, and pulled at it. I went and got some food and sat on the ground, and the lizard crawled up on my lap, just like last year.” The female takes a pinch of food the size of her head directly from Kathy’s fingers. Once in awhile the lizard bites her hand, but it does not hurt her, and never breaks the skin.

“Last year, if I had not been out in the yard in the morning, by lunchtime the lizards would come to the door and look inside. It was as if they knew I was inside eating, and were saying ‘Where’s mine?’”