Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Utah's Great Salt Lake Valley forms an ecological barrier between the Oquirrh Mountains to the west and the Wasatch Mountains to the east, that seems especially hard for lizards to cross; the lizard fauna of the two ranges is completely different. Leopard Lizards (Gambelia wislizenii), Collared Lizards (Crotophytus collaris), Western Whiptails (Cnemidophorus tigris) and Desert Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) populate the Oquirrhs, while the Wasatch Mountains are home to but two species: Sagebrush Lizards (Sceloporus graciosus) and Short Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma douglassii). Also absent from the Wasatch is the most common lizard of all in the arid American west, the Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana). An inconspicuous creature, the Side-blotched is only a couple of inches (50 mm) long, excluding a three-inch tail. Appearing brownish from a distance, many individuals are very beautiful on closer inspection, with shining red or blue speckles. In fact, few lizard species are as variable; some Side-blotcheds are uniformly gray, some are striped, others checked. The one marking they almost always share is a blue-black spot below each armpit. The males of certain California populations come in three varieties. When in breeding condition, the first form has an orange throat. The second type's throat is blue, and the third's is yellow. Orange-throated males are super-masculine, and interact with every lizard they see, attempting to mate with the females and chasing off the males. They establish ridiculously large territories that they can't defend effectively. The behavior of the blue-throated males is less exaggerated; they defend smaller territories that are within their ability to police, but often find themselves out-competed by the larger, fiercer orange-throats. The yellow-throats are the least aggressive. Lacertine metrosexuals, they don't waste their time chasing other males around. Instead, they sneak in and mate with females in the territory of an orange-throat while he's busy chasing blue-throats around. Barry Sinervo, of U.C. Santa Cruz, has observed this game of rock-scissors-paper for many years, and has written a wealth of interesting papers, including analyses of reproductive success and a recent one describing altruism between blue-throats.

Systems where three different morphs each appear to have an edge in competing against one, but not the other, form, are unusual, but strategies of sneakiness in dealing with conspecifics are common, especially in fish, as well as in invertebrates like cuttlefish. Males of the isopod Paracerceis sculpta occur in three different forms. These marine relatives of backyard pillbugs shelter and reproduce inside the bodies of sponges. Large alpha males accumulate a number of smaller females within a spongocoel, and sit in the excurrent pore, blocking the entry of rival males. Two smaller morphs have evolved ways to sneak past the alpha isopod. Beta males look and behave like females, gaining entry by deception, just as Publius Clodius, dressed in drag, entered the home of Julius Caesar, seeking a tryst with Caesar's wife. The third morph, the tiny gamma males, are small enough to slip by unnoticed.
It's not surprising that sneaky male strategies are so common in the animal kingdom--they work. As an undersized male, I learned in early adolescence that while larger, stronger boys often depended on brute force to dominate us pipsqueaks, they were rarely equipped to compete when we played outside of their rulebook. This dynamic has probably been the basis of more Warner Brothers cartoons than any other, and has always been an important factor in political history. Terrorism, the political analog of yellow-throatedness, is the most effective strategy of the politically powerless against an orange-throated political entity. At this point, I'll resist the strong temptation to draw parallels with the overtly orange-throated Bush administration's inept attempts to compete with smaller, sneakier political entities. I'll use instead as an example Saddam Hussein, who finds less sympathy among English-speakers. Hussein was a typical orange-throat, using brute force to effect his policies and ambitions. Predictably, a number of sneaky little yellow-throated organizations appeared within politically disenfranchised groups, among the Kurds, among the Marsh Arabs, among the Shiites, and Hussein's reaction was testbook orange-throatedness. Calculating that terrorism stemmed from insufficient fear and respect within the "problem ethnicities,"he cracked down on them mercilessly, strengthening support for the terrorist opposition groups, and ensuring his own ultimate demise. The same story has been repeated throughout history, modern and ancient Even so, powerful contemporary states seem rarely able to shed their roles as orange-throats. The example of the Brits' defusing of their conflict with IRA yellow-throats by opening up political channels is continually eschewed in favor of that of alpha Israel, who, last time I checked, hadn't quite solved their terrorism problem. I could go on about how the notion of a war on terrorism is classic orange-throatedness and doomed to failure, but like I said before, I'll resist that temptation.
upper: SIDE-BLOTCHED LIZARD (2006) acrylic 7" x 15"
lower: photograph of Side-blotched lizard taken in Beaver Dam Mts., AZ by CPBvK, Aug. 2006


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always wished we had some lizards up in my neck of the woods. However, the way things are going, maybe we should be glad that we that we don't have that orange-throated variety. Hope to be spending some time tripping around in the west sometime soon, so perhaps I'll get my lizard fix for this decade. Wonderful painting of the Side-blotched Lizard.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Hmmm. Not even any skinks, huh? Don't think I could hack life up there.

11:49 PM  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I couldn't manage to get a trackback to work, but I wanted to say I was extremely happy to get this post as a submission to the 20th Carnival of the Liberals. It's a lovely piece of writing with a great moral.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks. It's a privilege to be included.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carel - Actually, we do have one species of skink here in Ontario - The Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus), but I've never found one here at the farm and they are supposed to have quite a patchy distribution across the province. However, a couple of friends have occasionally found them a bit to the west. In case you're interested, here's a link to a page with a list of the lizard(s) and snakes that can be found in Ontario -- but of them, I'd say that only 8 or 9 can be found in my general area. Quite a few of the species are considered "rare and restricted in area", and some are on the Species at Risk list. This page shows 2 species of rattlesnakes, but one has been considered extirpated for quite some time (Timber Rattlesnake), and the other is found in only a very restricted area quite a bit to the west of where I live (E. Massasauga Rattlesnake). And, yup, you would probably find it a little herp-deficient around here.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Well, we have our deficiencies here, too. No turtles and only one salamander: the ugliest subspecies of Tiger Salamander.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, now you've made me curious about these ugly Tiger Salamanders. Must look them up!Just spent some time looking at checklists and species ranges for herps in Oregon as I'll be heading out there for a visit very soon. I was somewhat surprised to see that it seems to be a little deficient in turtle species as well. Looks quite good for everything else though.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Our salamanders are gray with spots of darker gray, and not a hint of the yellow or cream markings of most Tiger Salamanders. I still love 'em, though. The subspecies Ambystoma tigrinum utahensis isn't recognized by everyone, and is often lumped with A. t. nebulosum. I'm sure you'll love Oregon, even though it is well west of the center of American turtle diversity.

10:55 PM  

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