ANIMALS: Lizards give West Cork a warm feel  The Southern Star

ANIMALS: Lizards give West Cork a warm feel The Southern Star

IF, like me, you haven’t ventured out of the country on an ‘outdoor vacation’ this summer, then feel free to join me in celebrating the common lizard.

Somehow, seeing this lizard brings a sense of the strange and you might think for a moment that you are in a completely different climate. Even if you’re gone this summer, it’s still a miracle to see these sun-seeking creatures at home.

Where you see yourself

I’m not sure if our people in West Cork have been doing well recently, or if it’s because I’m getting this holiday feeling for them, but we’ve certainly seen a lot of these reptiles this summer.

Many times we see them basking in the sun on dry stone walls on the sides of small roads and fields. Lizards are known to populate a range of habitats from wetlands, coastal dunes and grasslands to country gardens and woodlands and we’ve certainly seen them all along the coast where we’ve wandered. Sightings of lizards at Toe Head, Mizen, Baltimore, Cape Clear, Ballydehob and other places give evidence that they are common.

Common lizard seen at Lisheenroe, Castlehaven. (Photo: Nick Haigh)

Be patient

Common lizards are cold-blooded (ectothermic) which means they cannot generate their own body heat, so they must bask in the sun to keep themselves warm. So, to spot them, the trick is to keep an eye on their sunbathing areas, such as logs, rocks or grassy areas. These fascinating creatures also like to dive close to dense vegetation that they can quickly retreat to for protection from predators if necessary. In fact, you have to approach slowly and carefully to get a good look at them, as they tend to be cautious and very quick to jump to hide. Don’t worry if they run away, if you are patient they will come back, as they tend to stick to the bakeries after they have chosen them.

A live birth

Although lizards may start thinking of the tropics, they were born here and are the only reptiles. Known as the common lizard, zootoca vivipara, it has a large distribution in Eurasia, from Ireland in the west to Japan in the east and from arctic Russia and Scandinavia in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.

Interestingly, the more northerners, like ours, adapt to our cold climate. Although most reptiles lay eggs, for most of their range the common lizard produces eggs but keeps them inside to keep them at the right temperature. During spawning, the egg membranes break and the young lizards emerge alive. Because of this, the common lizard is sometimes called a viviparous lizard, viviparous meaning that they give birth to live young. In warmer climates some individuals have been observed laying eggs outside. There is little or no parental care and newborn lizards are independent from birth. Common lizards reach reproductive maturity in two to three years and live an average of five years.

The tail trick

Common lizards are carnivores and their diet consists of spiders, slugs, snails, worms and, especially, insects such as flies and grasshoppers. Lizards are food for birds of prey, crows and other large birds, stoats, foxes and sometimes even hedgehogs. Sadly, pet cats often kill themselves too, even if they are well fed at home.

Lizards have a clever trick to try to outrun these predators. If they are attacked, threatened or grabbed by their tail, they may break away from it. Their tails continue to wrestle for some time and provide distraction while they escape. The tail can grow slowly and it is common to see lizards with short tails in the process of regrowth. This process is known as autotomy and is not like a normal lizard. Other animals such as starfish and certain species of crabs, insects and spiders are also capable of losing and regrowing body parts in response to attempted attacks.

Seasonal cycles

Lizard incubation is officially referred to as brumation and usually occurs from March to October. The places they return to during the winter are known as hibernacula. Hibernacula can include underground burrows, holes between tree roots, tree stumps or rocks. Groups of lizards often nest together and European research shows that they can tolerate temperatures as low as -3 and 4°C for short periods of time and survive when half of their body water freezes within 24 hours.

A study of the common lizard in Siberia showed their cold tolerance and showed that they can survive in a frozen environment for up to two months.

In the spring, the males come out first to establish a territory, which they fiercely defend. When the females arrive, mating is a brutal affair, and the male uses grip to make sure the female doesn’t run away.

Each female can produce six to 12 cubs, basking in the heat of the summer sun while pregnant to promote the growth of her offspring. Females can give birth anytime between July and September, depending on conditions in any given year. Autumn is a busy time when old and young alike look for food to build up their energy reserves before they are depleted.

A common lizard seen on the roadside in Rea, Castlehaven. (Photo: Nick Haigh)

Types of confusion

Lizards are sometimes confused with smooth newts, but smooth newts are not reptiles and are one of three native amphibians. Newts, by comparison, have smooth skin and only four digits on their front legs while lizards have five. Their behavior is different and newts do not like the sun, they are slow to leave and need to be near fresh water to complete their life cycle. Indeed, the Irish name for the common lizard is earc luachra, which translates as the newt or the lizard of the rushes, which seems to reflect the lack of distinction between the two species historically.

Slow-moving larvae

While I have said that lizards are Ireland’s only reptile, they are not our only reptile. We also have a caterpillar that is slow, legless and grows up to 50cm long with the appearance of a small snake.

The fact that they have eyelids, ear holes and a few other differences make them different from snakes and make them legless lizards. They are thought to have been introduced to Ireland from Britain sometime in the 20th century. Most sightings are confined to the Burren, with a few records scattered across the country.

There is currently no recorded sighting of a slow worm in the National Biodiversity Data Center database for West Cork, although one was recorded in Traton in 2020. This strikes me as a great opportunity and challenge to be the first, so keep your eyes peeled! I’d certainly like to find a slow worm, but for now I’ll content myself with visiting our trusty lizard viewing spots and pretending I’m abroad.

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