For the last year I have been walking around Las Vegas every day with my camera for exercise and to avoid going mental. Over that time period I have accumulated a collection of lizard photos which I thought would make a nice post. Even though there are lots of little lizards in the Mohave desert (more than 20 species), even in the urban landscape of Las Vegas, most photos are fortuitous since they are so quick and usually small. Lizards and iguanas both belong to the reptile group of vertebrates. The Squamata, or the scaled reptiles, are the largest recent order of reptiles, comprising all lizards and snakes. Iguanas are actually a type of lizard. Therefore, they are not very different from lizards in many aspects. However, they are different from most lizard species in several ways including their colors and the foods they eat. Many lizard species are insectivorous. They like eating insects such as cockroaches, crickets, ants, and beetles. Many lizard species are also omnivorous; they eat just about everything including insects, carrion, small tetrapods, spiders, fruits, and vegetables. Iguanas tend to be herbivores. Of the many species of swifts and spiny lizards, 22 species, some with several subspecies, occur in the United States. Others are found southward through Mexico to northern Panama. In the United States, the lizards of this group are found from southern New York, southern South Dakota and northern Washington in the north, to South Florida, the Gulf States and the Mexican border. Several of the fence lizards (which, because of their rapid movements, are colloquially referred to as “swifts”) are familiar backyard species. Others, among them the bunchgrass lizards and Yarrow’s spiny lizard, are denizens of remote montane fastnesses. Like many other lizards, spiny lizards exhibit metachromatism, which is color change as a function of temperature. When it is cooler, colors are much darker than when the temperature is high. Darker colors increase the amount of heat absorbed from the sun and lighter colors reflect solar radiation.
The Boulders Beach African Penguin Colony was established in 1982 by a breeding pair of penguins who settled near Capetown, South Africa after fleeing when a larger colony was devastated. Today there are currently 28 African penguin colonies, only four of these occurring on the African mainland. These colonies run along the coast, from Algoa Bay in South Africa to Namibia’s Penguin Islands. Despite the huge distances between these colonies, it is not uncommon for young penguins to visit, and occasionally resettle, at a different colony from which they hatched. African penguins are clearly resilient animals. They have evolved the behavioral mechanisms to move their entire population to deal with changes in the abundance of food. Despite their wide range and versatile juveniles, African penguin numbers are declining fast – so fast that it is believed they will be extinct within 10 years. Today there are fewer than 21 000 pairs of African penguins left in the wild – 100 years ago there were single colonies that had over a million, like Yzerfontein’s Dassen Island. Dassen Island is, unfortunately, not a unique case. The total breeding population across both South Africa and Namibia fell to a historic low of about 20,850 pairs in 2019. Quite simply, our common seafoods – sardines, anchovies and pilchards – are the products directly linked to the decline in penguin numbers. You may have been unaware, but sardines/pilchards have recently been added to the WWF SASSI Orange List – a seafood you should avoid. These ratings do not only mean that the fish itself is at risk, but also that the practices used to catch it are harmful to other species. I would go a step further in saying seafood of any kind should only be consumed if it is sustainably farmed. Bottom trawling destroys far more ocean habitat than any other fishing practice. In this common fishing method, large weighted nets are dragged across the ocean floor, clear-cutting a swath of habitat in their wake. Some of these scars will take centuries to heal, if ever.
Dragonflies and their relatives are an ancient group. Meganisoptera is an extinct order of very large to gigantic insects, occasionally called Griffinflies. The largest known Griffinfly and/or insect of all time was a predator resembling a dragonfly but was only distantly related to them. Its name is Meganeuropsis, and it ruled the skies before pterosaurs, birds and bats had even evolved. The oldest fossils are of the Protodonata from the 325 Mya Upper Carboniferous of Europe, a group that included the largest insect that ever lived, Meganeuropsis permiana from the Early Permian (300–250 Mya). Meganeuropsis permiana was described in 1939 from Elmo, Kansas. It was one of the largest known insects that ever lived, with a reconstructed wing length of 330 millimetres (13 in), an estimated wingspan of up to 28 inches (710 mm), and a body length from head to tail of almost 430 millimetres (17 in). Nevada designated the Vivid Dancer Damselfly (Argia vivida) as the official state insect in 2009. Sadly, I have no photos of the state insect but Nevada has many eco-zones and the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve has quite a number of equally beautiful species.
When I first moved to Las Vegas there were virtually no mosquitoes and no flies. However as the population has increased and the local climate has changed with more landscaping and water we have seen a corresponding increase in bugs. That is not to say that there were no insects in the desert, as with flowers and plants you just have to look more carefully. There are an amazing variety of specialized insects living in the desert surrounding Las Vegas under conditions that would be considered hostile for any other insects. Again just like flowers and plants, the insects can come and go quickly over specific times like spring or after precipitation and are often found in specific areas suited to their needs. The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is a great place to see lots of unusual insects due to the presence of water and hospitable plants. Bees, wasps, dragonflies and butterflies are diverse and are part of the special ecology of the preserve, both prey and predator for birds and other inhabitants. Fortunately, there are very few mosquitoes, probably due to the dragonflies and the dry heat. Due to carefully selected and strategic native plants, there are a variety of native flowers all summer long which support a diverse and vibrant ecosystem. In this post I thought I would focus on some really interesting bees and wasps which I saw at the preserve.
Across the forests and prairies of Asia, and vast savannahs of Africa, live secret societies of tiny termite architects. They are masters of construction, their sophisticated green-energy designs perfectly adapted to their often hot and arid surroundings. Most homeowners are aware of the destructive power of an army of termites but the fungus termites of Southern Africa are the focus of life and regeneration on the African savannah. With the aid of fungus farms, tended deep within the nest, the termites of southern Africa transform wood and dead leaves into organic nutrients which sustain vegetation and provide shelter and food for the surrounding wildlife. The 33 pounds (15 kilograms) or so of termites in a typical mound will, in an average year, move a fourth of a metric ton (about 550 pounds) of soil and several tons of water. They are not only remarkable architects of their own living spaces but are an essential part of the ecosystem and survival of virtually all the life around them. Termites transform the ecosystem in a variety of complex ways. Termites import coarse particles into the otherwise fine soil in the vicinity of their mounds which promotes water infiltration of the soil. The mounds also show elevated levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. All this beneficial soil alteration appears to directly and indirectly mold the ecosystem far beyond the immediate vicinity of the mound.
The garden at Relais de la Reine is concentrated on succulents and cactus and is one of the more remarkable collections I have seen. They have a collection of the Malagasy succulents Didierea and Alluauda from the famous “Spiny Forest”, a beautiful collection of indigenous Aloe and Kalanchoe, a collection of rare and unusual euphorbia from the Americas and Africa and an equally amazing collection of unusual cactus with the very rare Brasiliopuntia cactus. You will be forgiven if all these names just went over your head, this post will focus on pictures of these unusual plants with a minimal description. Even if you don’t know their names, these plants are something you will not want to miss. The Spiny Forest in the south of Madagascar is a world of spiky octopus trees and swollen baobabs, and almost all its species exist only in Madagascar.