Monday, 4 June 2012

A tale of escape

The other morning I found Guilli, our large ginger tom cat, hunched protectively over something I couldn't quite see. He tried to growl menacingly when I bent to look at what he had cornered, but - ever the paper tiger - reluctantly stepped back without a fight to let me view his prize. It was a small, pale brown, ochre-streaked reptile - minus its tail. A common lizard. The first I'd seen in the garden for years. Its dark eyes blinked slowly at me as I picked it up, showing none of the shivering terror, or the pounding heart beat, that I feel through my hands when I  rescue a vole or bird from a cat's clutches.

This is the time of year when it's easiest to catch them in the open. It's still cold enough at night to necessitate a long sunbathe first thing to warm them enough to get moving. I counted dozens one sunny morning recently. They were basking on the dark slats of the Flanders Moss NNR boardwalk, legs splayed, yellow stripes along their backs painting the classic lizardy 'S' curve on the edges of the path.

Common lizards are at the edge of their range in Scotland - the most northerly reptiles in the world. It’s for this reason that the females incubate their eggs inside their bodies to keep them warmer – their scientific species name, vivipara, means ‘live young’, which isn't strictly correct. They hibernate from autumn to spring, when there is not enough warmth in the sun, or enough food, to energise them. Lizards are of course predators themselves, preying on insects, spiders, snails or earthworms, which they stun by mercilessly shaking them in their jaws before eating them whole.

I found a small gap in the dry stone wall of our garden and tucked the lizard well back, out of sight, to recover. Guilli may, or may not, have bitten off its tail. Common lizards have a neat trick of sacrificing their nether regions in order to escape from attackers. Its tail will grow back with time - although it probably won't be as smart or as long as the original. It's a small price to pay for your life.

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