This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in August 2017.
One day this summer, a group of kids and I were hiking along on a local trail exploring the world of insects, when we came across a lizard. It was basking on a rock, and, we assumed, keeping an eye out for insects as well. The kids were fascinated and full of questions – they would have stayed there all day if we didn’t have to get back to the bus.
Summer is a wonderful time to investigate lizards with kids – and on non-forested trails, you have a better chance of seeing them than most other wildlife. Below you’ll find some fun facts about lizards and ways to get your kids excited about them.
Lizards are reptiles, and snakes are their closest relatives. The easiest ways to tell snakes and lizards apart in our area are to look for legs. Most lizards (and all of our lizards in North Central Washington) get around on four legs, though some lizards in other areas don’t have legs at all. In that case, a lizard watcher can look for eyelids and external ear openings (snakes don’t have them, but lizards do), and take a peek at the belly (belly scales on a snake are broader than on the rest of the body, while a lizard’s scales look more or less the same everywhere on its body).
Lizards are cold-blooded, which means they can’t make their own heat and must rely on the temperature of their surroundings. This is why you will often see them on warm rocks in the sunshine – they’re trying to warm up. Because of this, they’re much slower in cold weather than warm weather, but they also don’t need to eat as much food in chilly weather.
This is a good adaptation for an animal that eats warmth-loving insects, which most lizards do. However, some larger lizards will eat larger prey, and a few (like iguanas) even eat plants.
Lizards have some amazing adaptations. Many people know that chameleons can change their skin color to blend in with their surroundings. Or that many lizards can detach their tails from their bodies when grabbed by a predator. But did you know that geckos use electromagnetic force generated by tiny hairs on their toes to stick to smooth walls and ceilings?
Lizard fun for kids
Look for lizards! The most common lizards seen in our foothills are the northern alligator lizard, common sagebrush lizard, western fence lizard, and western skink. The foothills of our local mountains are great places to search for lizards. Look near rock walls, rock piles or piles of wood (keep an eye out for snakes, which enjoy similar habitat). Lizards are also often found in the middle of the trail – though they will quickly scramble under a nearby sagebrush bush when approached. Move slowly and use binoculars to get a good look.
Try not to disturb them, and if you do handle them, do so gently. Though they can drop their tail to get away, they store their extra energy (in the form of fat) in their tails. If they lose their tails, they have a lower chance of surviving through the winter and may have a harder time escaping the next predator that comes along.
Build a lizard habitat in your backyard. This can be as simply as a pile of rocks with crevices large enough for them to hide. You can also create a more involved lizard habitat by stacking flooring tiles on top of each other with something (small rocks or pieces of tile) to leave space for them to crawl between the tiles. Place the habitat in an area that gets morning sun to help the little creatures warm up in the morning.