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Once ubiquitous, Florida's brown lizards scarce after cold winter

Joyce Dunn moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1971, when Carolina anoles, those small, svelte green lizards, ruled the land.

"We didn't have those ugly brown ones," the Brandon resident said, referring to the brown Cuban anole. "They took over and seems like that's all you see anymore."

Used to, anyway.

Dunn, 72, said she was stunned to find thawing lizards on her sidewalks, grass and garden hose after a string of frigid days and nights this winter.

"They weren't all dried up. Just lifeless. I've never seen anything like it," she said.

Throughout the bay area, many have noticed a distinct lack of lizards this spring.

They once were ubiquitous, scurrying around, stalking insects, the males doing pushups and flaunting their orange dewlaps — those flaps of skin under their jaws designed to intimidate competitors or attract mates.

"No doubt the freeze has knocked them way back," said Peter Meylan, a natural sciences professor at Eckerd College. "The few that made it are just lucky. They probably found a warm spot in a garden hose or a potted plant that may have been covered with a blanket."

According to the National Weather Service, this has been the coldest start to any year in St. Petersburg since record-keeping began in 1914, in central Pasco (where record keeping began in 1895) and in Brooksville (1892), and the second coldest in Tampa (1890). The combined average temperature for the first three months of 2010 was 6 to 8 degrees below normal.

For the Cuban anole, a tropical invader that has largely displaced the native green anole, it's Armageddon.

The chilly weather didn't allow them to bask in the warm sun, leading to a depression in their metabolic systems, said Bill Kern, associate professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

"They did not have to physically freeze to be killed. We suspect that many that died after the cold spell were killed by opportunistic infections and weakened immune systems."

Whether green or brown, anoles do consume many different types of insects and spiders. They are dinner for snakes and birds. Cats and dogs think of them as play toys.

But Kern points out that the lack of brown anoles does not mean Florida will be overrun by insects or that birds and snakes will go hungry. Fortunately or not, Florida has no shortage of creepy, crawly creatures that keep in check all the other things that creep and crawl.

The brown anoles first made it to the Florida Keys in the 1880s from the Bahamas and Cuba, but didn't establish a strong toehold until the 1940s at seaports and urban areas, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. They weren't a major presence in Pasco County until 30 years later, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Web site.

Females usually lay one or two eggs per clutch. They are prolific, though, and can lay a new clutch every 14 days if the food supply is adequate. Eggs are normally laid April through July, so babies, hatching four to six weeks later, appear May through August or September, said Kern, who recently spotted a pregnant brown anole with a swollen belly.

Cuban anoles are fast and athletic and can outcompete the green anoles — sometimes eating the smaller ones.

Though they are scarce right now, the browns will make their way back, but it may take some time to reach their former numbers, Kern said.

"The good news is, the cold weather was bad for invasive exotics," Kern said. "Some think that since the brown anoles took such a big hit, we may see the native green anoles showing up in better numbers."

Fast facts

The competitors

Green anoles

Description: A Florida native, the females have a light stripe down their backs. When two males battle for territory or a female, the winner turns bright green and the loser turns brown.

Habitat: All of Florida and as far north as Tennessee. Generally a tree dweller, it will escape predators by running up.

Brown anoles

Description: Gray, black, brown and sometimes speckled. Females have a diamond pattern on their backs.

Habitat: A ground dweller, they are present in most of Florida and the Keys; not cold-tolerant.

What's up with the pushups?

Both brown and green males do pushups as a threat display.

Tails on your tile?

Both brown and green anoles can cast off their tails at will when threatened. The tail piece continues to twitch, attracting the attention of a predator as the anole flees. The tail will grow back.


Once ubiquitous, Florida's brown lizards scarce after cold winter 04/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 2:55pm]
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