Garden Gremlins of Summer
by Brian Cleary
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It's like a scene out of the movie "Gremlins". You open your front door and step out onto the porch. Hearing a gentle rustling, you look in the direction of the barely audible sound. A couple of branches on a nearby shrub wave gently up and down, but there's nothing there. Your peripheral vision picks up a darting movement down by the base of the plant. You shift your gaze down there, but again see nothing.
Relax. You're not going crazy, nor has your front door stoop been possessed by demons. Most likely the culprits are members of the largest group of reptiles in the Western Hemisphere: the anoles.
Numbering over 200 species worldwide, seven of which occur in Florida, anoles spend much of their time jumping from branch to branch or foraging below shrubbery in search of insects, on which they feed.
The two most commonly seen anoles in the United States are the Green Anole (anolis carolinensis) which is the only anole native to North America, and the Brown Anole (anolis sagrei). Among the other anoles introduced to the U.S. from the West Indies is the Knight Anole (anolis equestris) which came to the U.S. from Cuba and Jamaica and has been established in the Miami, Florida area. The Knight Anole can reach a length of 19 inches and is the giant of the family.
Anoles are egg layers, with adult females laying their eggs about every couple of weeks in the summer. The eggs hatch in about 6 weeks.
Like all lizards, anoles are equipped with movable eyelids and external ear holes, unlike their reptile relatives, the snakes. Like snakes, anoles shed their scaly skins. Adults molt about every month, but unlike snakes, they don't shed their skin in one piece, but cast it off in bits and pieces.
Unlike most lizards, anoles have feet which are well suited to their arboreal lifestyle. Each toe has an adhesive pad on its central portion, enabling the anole to climb and cling to vertical surfaces such as walls, fence posts, trees and leaves, on which they spend much of their time.
The long, slender tail of the anole is designed as a rather clever defense mechanism. Like most lizards, the tail may break off at the slightest pressure and continue to wiggle on the ground. If an enemy gets a grip on the tail and pulls it off, he'll be occupied with this squirming decoy while the anole makes good its escape to a nearby hiding place. Conveniently, a new tail will soon grow to replace the departed one, but it won't be as perfectly formed as the original.
Another striking feature of the anole is its dew lap, or throat fan. Attached to the throat and displayed by means of a flexible rod of cartilage which can be swung downward and forward, thereby revealing a brightly colored patch of skin. Males of the species display their dew lap during courtship and when defending their territory.
This display is often accompanied by a series of head-bobs and push-ups.
Speaking of defense of territory, these little creatures are no shrinking violets when it comes to guarding their real estate. Although encounters between rival males often do not go beyond the display of the throat fan accompanied by a bobbing head before one of the fighters takes flight, I recently spent about 45 minutes and shot an entire 36 exposure roll of film watching a pair of brown anoles battling over a piece of property on the shore of the Halifax River in Daytona Beach, Florida. When it was time for me to leave for an appointment the fight was still going full force.
In the course of his skirmish the fighters ran the gamut of their tactics including throat fans, head-bobs, push-ups, a pronounced ridge along the spine, rushing at each other and grabbing onto each other with their mouths and feet and holding on as they rolled in the dirt..
Anoles are sometimes called chameleons. This is undoubtedly due to the green anole's ability to change its skin color, much like its old world cousin, the true chameleon. While the green anole isn't able to change colors as noticeably or rapidly as the chameleon, it is able to alter its color from green to gray to brown, depending on light, temperature and mood. The brown anole, on the other hand, is always some shade of brown.
In the past, billed as "American Chameleons", these fascinating little lizards were often sold at circuses and carnivals, but because of the time, effort and knowledge required, the capturing and long term keeping of anoles is not always a good idea.
If you'd like to catch and observe an anole, you might want to grab one and install it in a terrarium for a week or two and then return it to the wild at the same spot where it was captured.
In captivity the anole will eat captured worms, flies and other insects, and may even become tame enough to eat from his masters fingers.
It was once thought that a captured anole could thrive on a diet of sugar water, but this is not the case. In fact, it is possible for an anole to die of thirst even with a full dish of water in its cage. Rather than drinking from standing water in the wild, the anole will lap dew drops off of stems and leaves. For this reason it's better to spray a captured anole's environment with a spray bottle than to simply place a dish of water in its cage.
A five or ten gallon aquarium can be set up as a temporary home for a captured anole. Supply a dirt floor, some twig and small branches for climbing, plenty of freshly caught live insects, and an occasional thirst-quenching wet-down, as described above.
But the best place to observe these "gremlins" of the garden is out in your own backyard. the next time you've nothing to do on a lazy summer afternoon, take a cool drink and a lounge chair out amongst your shrubs and sit back to watch your little backyard denizens as they go about their busy lives.
Anoles of Florida - Images by Brian Cleary
All Text and Photographs on this site © Brian Cleary