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

Colorful reptile protected by fire, study shows.

Aug. 25, 2011 — -- Alan Templeton was a 13-year-old Boy Scout when he saw his first collared lizard in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. He returned years later with a few advanced degrees to save the lizard that, as he put it, he "fell in love with" on first sight.

All he had to do was burn a mountain, and a few valleys, in a conservation project that many initially thought was crazy. But it worked, and therein lies a great story.

The collared lizard is not your ordinary reptile. It is brightly colored, and Templeton never forgot seeing the curious animal rear up on its hind legs and race two-footed across the hot, dry rock outcropping that stood out from the lush forest around it. They seemed to be everywhere.

So he was a bit startled when a colleague at Washington University in St. Louis told him he was studying the lizard, but was having trouble finding them.

Remembering the days of his youth when he led tours of the lizards' habitat, he told his friend he knew where there were lots of them, Templeton, now a professor of biology at Washington University, said in a telephone interview. He returned to the Ozarks and searched through a series of desert-like habitats, called glades, that had been home to so many collared lizards years earlier, but the colorful animals were nowhere to be found in the area.

In 1987 Templeton transplanted collared lizards to three glades to see if he could repopulate the Ozarks. By 1993 they were still there, but they had not expanded to other glades, even though other rich habitats were no more than 200 feet away. If they remained that isolated, they would probably die out, as others had done before them.

That led to a decade-long "experiment," as Templeton put it, in conservation biology. Every effort to protect, or restore, a critical habitat is an experiment, he said, because not enough facts are known in the beginning, and it's not always clear what the result will be.

One thing did seem clear. Humans had been changing the Ozarks since the first Indians settled in the area, about 10,000 years ago. More recently, some areas had been carved out for ranching, and frequent fires had altered the landscape. And in the 1940s, authorities began controlled burning of forest areas in hopes of reducing the threat of major fires that could wipe out thousands of acres.

But there was something wrong with that picture. That wasn't the way nature had protected the lizard's habitat prior to human occupation. When a fire started, it burned everything. Maybe, Templeton thought, that's the way it should be.

So he, along with colleagues in several other disciplines who had studied the same area, made a radical proposal. Let's burn the mountains and the valleys and everything in between, just like nature did before we came along.

The suggestion was a little like tossing a lighted match into a can of gasoline.

"It was very controversial," he said. "We were getting negative input from people in forestry and some environmental groups who thought burning was a really bad thing."

But the idea slowly caught on, and in the mid-1990s the Missouri Biodiversity Task Force began burning large areas throughout the region, eventually including the three glades where Templeton had reintroduced the lizards.

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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