Monday, February 16, 2009
When you arrive at the El Paso International Airport, you see multiple images of an oh-so-typical southwestern reptile. I’ve been told for years it was a gecko but it doesn’t look like the Geico guy. A lizard perhaps? Maybe, but it looks smooth and sinuous, not scaly or spiky. Our airport is rather tastefully renovated with a southwestern flair. The reptiles curve onto the floor, in the tiles, over the carpet, throughout the decorative features. Everything is the colors of sandstone, dunes, sunsets and turquoise. The little lizard guys greet each other nose to tail, tail to nose all throughout the building.
It was a difficult choice to choose an El Paso animal to research. I thought about the butterflies, the odd moths that are the size of hummingbirds and sound like a helicopter, or the klutzy and rather unattractive Chihuahua raven with its characteristic kraaak instead of a caw. But ultimately I chose an animal that by all reports doesn’t even belong here. It has made its home here in the desert and naturalized, sort of like me. That is the anole. There is apparently some disagreement about which varieties are here in El Paso. Some people say it is the Anolis sagrei, while some say Anolis carolinensis. What’s the difference you may ask? Neither of them originated here. The carolinensis species was originally from Florida and Southern Georgia way. Hey, I lived there too! The sagrei anoles are imports from Cuba who hitched rides on imported fruits. I think we share our home with the Anolis sagrei, but the jury is still out. Apparently there is enough in-breeding that no one seems quite sure anymore which is really which or if we have a hybrid of the two. I need a herpetologist to come and give a definitive answer.
The anoles, whichever kind it is, have probably given us more consistent entertainment than any other local animal other than perhaps the bullfrog that lived in Albert’s koi pond at his old house. In the evenings, we often sit in the breakfast room off the kitchen. It has a huge window on a southwesterly wall. In the summer, the heat stays in the thick stone and stucco walls. We have the light on while we plink away on our computers, read or enjoy a cup of tea. Silhouetted on the window, there might be one or two or even five or six anoles, their graceful bodies clinging with their delicate feet onto the screen. They wait, motionless for a gnat, an unaware flyer, or, please heaven, a mosquito for dinner. They are inveterately patient. I am reminded of the old goblin tale, “they do not wink; they do not blink.” Their body is never straight. There is always a gentle curve nose to tail, the letter “c” or “s” perfectly etched on our window.
The first summer after we bought the house, we didn’t see them. Maybe we were too busy, but I think it’s because we bought a house with a typical lawn groomed with chemical warfare. By the second summer, there were native desert plants, a host of butterflies, moths and other flying things and, my canary in the mine telling me all is well, the bats had appeared, swooping and diving at dusk. So I think they came to our house when it was worth their while to come, when there were more tasty choices on the menu. Since we’ve been watching them, they have calmed us with their patient watchfulness, followed by a snap of their tiny jaws. We watch them as they watch and wait.
This past summer during the last warm days of the season, we were witness to a shocking surprise. On the screen were five of the anoles, each holding its individual position. We were mesmerized watching them because there were also moths fluttering against the window. Someone would eat well tonight. Two anoles, quite far apart, were watching the same moth. Snap! One of the anoles darted forward too fast for us to track and caught the moth in his mouth. Then with no warning, the second anole leaped for the other and bit him. Hard! We had never seen anything like it! There had never been an act of aggression from them and we were dumbfounded. The first anole almost lost his grip on his prize. While he was distracted by the attack, the second anole bit him again and snatched whatever wings and moth parts were hanging out of the first one’s mouth. There then ensued a tiny wrestling match for the moth, which was still alive. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was happening on our window. The aggressor won and swallowed the moth still poised for a second attack. The vanquished one backed away and quickly left the hunting ground of our breakfast room window.
We were amazed that we had this peek into a private alien world. These guys are tiny. Their bodies are perhaps 5 – 6 inches long; add the tail and you get another 2 inches. Never would I have dreamed that their lives included attacks, battles and victory. I suppose I assumed that they lived their quiet individual bug hunting without even being aware of the other anoles except at mating season. Even more surprising was when I learned that my window fighters were most likely females of the species. The males are rather distinctive and have a huge pinkish dewlap under their throat that they like to show off. My hunters are a drab brown, almost transparent in places. Survival of the fittest in a girl fight!
Everyone knows that the sleeping kitten has claws and teeth, but an anole? So now when I walk through the El Paso International Airport and I tread on the carpet with those gentle images nose to tail, tail to nose, I wonder who is the fastest. Who will win when the moth lands at my feet? Within a few weeks it will be warm again, the young ones will hatch and we will watch the watchers on our window with new eyes.
16 February 2009