Saving the Collared Lizard: One Man's Trial by Fire


Collared Lizards: Saving Them With Fire

Templeton, aided by about 20 others, captured lizards and clipped a unique identifying number to each animal, and then released them. In all, they captured 4,545 lizards over several years, and were able to determine if they were moving on to other glades, a critical element in their efforts to survive.

And they were. The experiment clearly was working.

Why did it work? One reason human activities can be so harmful to other mammals is we often leave habitat "islands," which are isolated patches of land that can support animals for a time, but not indefinitely. If the animals don't move on to other areas, they will exhaust their local resources and die.

In the case of the Ozarks, controlled burning had made it possible for dense, woody growth to encircle the glades, in effect isolating each one, like an island, because lizards aren't all that keen on trying to find their way through dark, dank woodlands. The large fire, akin to the natural fires that occurred before human occupation, cleared the way for the lizards to explore new frontiers.

That doesn't mean this strategy will work in other areas.

"This was very specific to the Ozarks," Templeton said. "We're not saying let's burn everything, everywhere. You have to do the hard science."

Even in this case, what turned out to be good for the lizards was a bit hard for some other species.

"Some species were hurt by the fires," said Templeton, whose research is being published in the journal Ecology. "But the species that were hurt were the exotics, the invasive species we wanted to get rid of. It did shift the balance to some species, but the ones that were hurt were not the endangered ones. In fact, it was just the opposite."

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it is that conservation biology is always somewhat risky, extensive monitoring is essential, it may take decades, not just years, to get results, and there will probably be some surprises along the way. If we lessen human impact, or reduce the damages we've already caused, the environment has a better chance of returning to what it was before we took charge.

So for now, at least, the collared lizard seems to be in fair shape, at least in the Ozarks. But Templeton knows better than to expect a thank you note. The lizard is beautiful, at least for a lizard, but it also has a bite. A hard one.

"The bite can be painful, because they crush their prey," Templeton said. "Everybody gets bit, sooner or later.

"But that only happens when we are trying to catch them, or handle them. They aren't aggressive."

Good. Chances are they're going to be around now, for a long, long time.

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