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Sep. 18, 2008 by Judy

Lizardland Chronicles:

Your Island Lizard (psssst, they're not from here) Guide

There I was, having the best coconut cream pie ever baked on the Earth. I was sitting in a little eatery perched high above the Kona coast, the expanse of ocean spread before me like the promise of everything sublime. Fat avocados (a fruit native to the southern Americas) hung gleaming in the late afternoon light, coffee (an Ethiopian fruit) swelled and reddened on the slopes below me - slopes that tumbled down to the lovely flat ocean in green rumples.

And an orange-spotted day gecko (Madagascar) was drinking the condensed water droplets off of the outside of my water glass. I held very still, the gecko was very methodical. Orange-spotted day geckos are found all over Kona, in fact, the speed with which they have blanketed that side of the Big Island since their introduction (Deliberate? Accidental? Nobody's sure.) has astonished the locals. This particular café sells images of close-up gecko faces, tongues extended hedonistically into jam.

This flashy gold and green reptile is one of seven introduced geckos currently living on a wall, in a stump, or on a diner table near you. Here's what Explore Biodiversity has to say about them, which I copy and paste here with a couple of edits because they're so fabulously succinct:

"In Hawaii there are currently 7 geckos...all introduced, yet we're unsure which may have been introduced by Polynesians. Presently the suspected Polynesian introductions include the Morning Gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris), the Stump-toed Gecko (Gehyra mutilata), the Small Tree Gecko (Hemiphyllodactylus typus), and the Fox Gecko (Hemidactylus garnottii). ...

(introduced later):In 1940, the Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus), in the 1970's the Gold-dust Day Gecko (Phelsuma laticauda), and in the 1980's the Orange-spotted Day Gecko (Phelsuma guimbeaui)."

So...yeah. Reproduced on t-shirts, coconut pendants, hats and whatnot everywhere as a sign of 'localness,' these chirpy little wall-walkers all hitched a ride here in a canoe or ship or plane sometime in the last 2000 years. They're fantastically efficient colonizers - some species are parthenogenic (see snake blog: click the "previous" link above), which as you now know greatly speeds up colonization. Some gecko eggs are thought to be tolerant of salt water, and whether laid one at a time or in pairs, whether laid in communal nesting areas or solitarily tucked away, whether laid in bark, under leaves, in the cracks of ship or the cargo hatch of a plane or in that pair of shoes at the back of the closet, geckos are good at the hide-the-egg, perpetuate the species thing. My little water drinker in Kona is capable of producing 2 eggs when she's around one year of age, then immediately breeding again. The eggs will hatch in a little over a month, at which point the female will be laying another pair. That's some efficiency for you. Single-mindedness of that caliber will have you established in nearly every corner of the world...well, every warm corner of the world, anyway.

Some people refer to every lizard found here as a 'gecko,' but that's a little like calling every bird a chicken. Hawaii has also become home and host to three other lizard species - skinks, anoles, and chameleons.

Our skink (we've only got the one, the Mottled Snake Eye Skink), is smaller than your middle finger, with a coppery metallic sheen, and it's very fast. You'll see them shooting through the fallen leaves at your feet when you're hiking, or slipping through the rocks of a lava field in a place where you can't believe anything can live. Like the geckos, skinks subsist on insects, and here in Hawaii you find them comfortably living somewhere between sea level and about 3000 ft. Debate rages about their origin, but here are few places on the planet where they've been noted: Eastern Samoa, French Polynesia, New Britain, New Ireland vicinity (Ambitle, Malie), Solomon Islands [McCoy 2000], Gilbert Islands, USA (Hawaii), Easter Islands, and the Society Islands. Click here for a nice image.

And that brings us to anoles. Where I grew up, lo those many eons ago in Texas, anoles were commonly hassled by us kids in this way: Catch a male, hold his legs flat to his body, tap your earlobe with his head, and succeed in getting him to bite hard enough to hold on to your ear. Let go, and viola! Long (8 or 9 inch) dangly angry lizard earring! Kids here don't do this, and I hope I haven't just given them all ideas (but what kids read anymore, anyway, eh?), but the anoles are as common here in Hawaii as they were in Texas - though imported here and native there. Green anoles - Anolis carolinensis porcatus - are the lizards you usually see splayed on a big green leaf, regarding you with cool detachment and looking for all the world like a compact dinosaur. They're commonly believed to have been introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s or somewhere thereabouts, and although people go around calling them 'chameleons' when they're not already calling them 'geckos,' they're actually in the Iguanidae genus, so there. They eat insects, of course, and like all small lizards they usually only live a handful of years. They do turn darkish to blend in better with dark surfaces, but unlike true chameleons they can only sort of shuttle between bright green (on leaves) and sorta brownish (on trunks or walls or cars). Unlike some geckos, which can be in the house quite happily, or skinks, which can live in a lava field quite contentedly, anoles really really REALLY prefer plants. Now that you know where they are, please do not catch them and make angry earrings out of them. I feel guilty enough as it is.

Speaking of chameleons, no childhood here is complete without one usually not-so-successful attempt to keep and breed the Jackson's Chameleon. Imported to Hawaii in the 1970s from Africa, they've spread from their original landing place on Oahu to just about every island. They like it kinda cool and kinda rainy, they grow up to a foot long, and the males sport these three righteous horns that make them look like they stepped out of the past into your mango tree. It's a larger (generally green) lizard with a larger life span, maybe up to 10 years, and unlike our little green anole with its skin repertoire of two-ish shades, this is a true chameleon - Chameleon jacksonii - and it can do some wacky skin shifts in response to stress, or mate choice, or temperature (for example). Jackson's seem to stress really easily, most attempts that I know of to raise them have gone terribly, and most of the lizards are let go again as they get progressively thinner and more miserable looking in response to being cooped up, continually startled, and handled. Jackson's ARE considered a pest in Hawaii, competing with native birds for food and possibly even eating small nestlings (rumored). What you are supposed to do when you find one is kill it. Click here for a nice image.

Recently, we've seen introductions of the interesting-looking but dreaded Veiled Chameleon - at up to 2 feet long they can directly eat birds, native ones already dealing with overwhelming threats, and can wolf down a whole pile of native insects, insects that need to be busy helping propagate native plants (plants that the Veiled might also eat, at least in terms of the tender parts). Here on Maui we were able to control a 'hot spot' of Veileds that broke out in Makawao, but nobody's really sure if every single lizard was found...and then there's the issue of eggs, as Veileds can lay 50-90 eggs at a time, three times a year, and may have seeded the Upcountry area with hundreds of eggs before the adults and juveniles were brought under control. They're native to the area around Saudi Arabia, and look a lot like a Jackson's but have skinnier legs, and a crest where the Jackson's has a set of horns. Eep. You are definitely supposed to kill these if you find them. They're on the Hawaii hot list of PLEASE GOD DON'T LET THESE THINGS ESTABLISH HERE.

So there you go. Lizards in Hawaii. Not all geckos, not all chameleons, and not at all native, not a one. Cute? Sure. Interesting? Always. Helpful? Probably not. Harmful? In some cases, most assuredly. Laying eggs in your shoe right now? You just never know.

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