Letter From Jerusalem- Geckos, Hyenas and Skinks.
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
As September gives way to October, the first few raindrops fall in the Judaean Hills and the mornings dawn noticeably later, with just a hint of moisture in the air. It has been a funny summer in many ways: some of them completely un-connected to mankind and “The Great Corona Plague” currently sweeping the earth. For example, as a biologist and keen walker, I take daily mental notes, often quite unconsciously, of the wildlife around and about, wherever I go. This summer, it seems that lizards and skinks, usually so abundant in the sandy, scrubby hillsides around Jerusalem have become curiously scarce. In 2019, if I was out on a walk and something shuffled in the sage bushes or the wild caper plants by my feet, 9 times out of 10, it would be a lizard or a skink. Usually that meant the Lebanon lizard, Lacerta laevis, a greenish grey critter with a broad round streak alongside. The other time– the one in 10 exception– would be something far less interesting, a blackbird perhaps, or a large insect – one of the few that had escaped lizards’ jaws.
This year though, nothing – no skinks about at all – no Balkan Emerald lizards, Lacerta media israelica either and no sign of the Roughtail Rock Agamas, Laudakia stellio, I watched with such joy and so often as they chased moths and bugs just a year ago. So where are they? Is this just a freak fluctuation of the answer lies in the spring having been later and somewhat cooler this year than last – subjectively at least? I do not know the answer to this little riddle but, in parallel this year, there seems to be an abundance of grasshoppers, crickets, locusts and other miscellaneous “hopping things”. Since lizards and skinks eat such bugs, the two events may, of course, be connected.
The dusty lane behind the house is always homed interesting creatures. By day, this means bright orange “Salmon Arab” butterflies, giant Carpenter Ants (Camponotus spp.) and even the odd chameleon (Chameleo chameleon). Then, by night, the hyenas, jackals and Eurasian worm snakes (Typhlops vermicularis) take over. One unexpected perk of the long lockdown Israel endured earlier this year was that the local hyenas and jackal packs moved their range noticeably, audibly, closer to the edge of town. I do not know if this was a consequence of the reduced traffic on the area’s roads or just because the country’s humans were all but banned from stepping outside their front doors one point. Now, it is arguable whether having such creatures in close proximity to humans is a good thing – jackals in particular are known to carry rabies. In fact, every year, the local health authorities scatter food laced with oral rabies vaccine throughout the countryside, in order to keep rabies rates in wild animals under some semblance of control. This is done annually to ensure that each year’s litters of young jackals will consume the vaccine. Similarly, the fleas and parasites of hyenas and jackals are also unwelcome close to human homes. Yet, despite all of this, there is a little bit of a thrill in waking at four in the morning here this kind of wildlife barking, howling and laughing into the forested darkness somewhere not far beyond your garden gate.
This year, though, during daylight almost everything that moves in the back lane seems to be either a red-winged grasshopper (Odeipoda miniata) or a fire bug (Pyrrhocoris apterus). Red-winged grasshoppers, as their name suggests, have brightly coloured wings that only become visible when they are opened and their camouflaged covers (elytra) are lifted out of the way. I am told that there are various colours within the species – some individuals have blue or yellow wings, rather than red ones. That said, all those I have ever seen sported some approximation of red. In general, these grasshoppers flee from an approaching foot much as the chicken does, with a combination of dramatic leg action and a bit of a flap-and-glide to aid their escape. Once they land, their camouflage is so good that it is almost impossible to find them again: it really is a wonder of the natural world.
One of my favourite herps of the region – the Turkish Gecko (a.k.a. House Gecko), Hemidactylus turcicus, is, I am pleased to say, as abundant as I have ever known it to be. These endearing little visitors to homes in the area grow up to 12 cm long, although, that includes the tail which, often as not those around here seem to have lost. One of the most interesting aspect of lizard biology in my view is the way the lizards are able to shed much of their tails to evade predators. In this region, “predators” tends to be code for “stray cats” and there is definite truth in the joke that if you want a pet cat in The Holy Land, all you do is open a tin of tuna and then your front door. All of which is great for cat lovers, but not so good for the region’s birds and lizards. So, in an environment so full of predators, the ability to lose your tail when needed must be a literal lifesaver. When I learned a few years ago that the tail can break in the middle of a specific vertebra (not between bones) in some species, it was something of a revelation. It is one thing to survive without a part of your anatomy, as seven legged spiders the world over manage very well. On the other hand, to be capable of discarding such a large portion of your anatomy as a tail in a pre-planned and neatly orchestrated way is something else again. The way a lizard’s discarded tail may continue to twitch and writhe as a distraction to the predator, even after it is severed is, in my view, a whole extra level of amazing.
As a scientist, I cannot help but be impressed by the curious biology and the intricate physiological quirks of reptiles and amphibians in general. Biologically speaking, herps are a truly remarkable group of organisms- when you consider their varied methods of sex determination, the way certain frogs live seemingly full lives without having any lungs at all, or the way they can shed limbs, as described above or re-grow body parts entirely (for example in the case of axolotls). It takes really only a very superficial understanding of herp biology to see what astonishingly diverse and frankly pretty amazing beings they are. Whether we are talking about the skinks in the hillsides around Jerusalem, the Geckos scaling my walls as I write or your beloved pets at home, all things considered, herps are pretty amazing beings, both subjectively and objectively.
- V. L. Welch,
1st October 2020.
Dr. Welch is a former Oxford University Research Biologist, turned science-writer. She is editor of The Greatest Minds. More information and Contact details : [HERE]
Images by Victoria Neblik. More information [HERE]
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