Conservation group discovers record number of endangered bloodthirsty lizards in Alberta

About the size of a chicken wing, Alberta’s only native species of lizard is unprotected from predators. She draws blood from her eye sockets.

And earlier this week, as part of an annual search for endangered bloodthirsty reptiles, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) found eight large short-horned lizards in southeastern Alberta.

This is the highest record of the species that CNC has ever found.

« I don’t think we’ve ever found more than two or three. … So to be able to find that many – that’s pretty amazing to us, » said Megan Jensen, NCC’s Southeast Natural Areas Manager. from Alberta.

« There’s just a deep sense of gratitude to be able to see something that a lot of people don’t even realize exists. »

Large short-horned lizards are often referred to as « horned toads » because of their appearance. (Nature Conservancy of Canada)

Greater Short-horned Lizards are found in isolated areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan. They live in areas with soft soil and depend on grasslands, one of the most endangered areas in Canada.

Jensen says tan reptiles depend on being earth-like and can blend into their surroundings to protect themselves from predators, like birds and coyotes.

But their main defense mechanism? They draw blood from their eye sockets when caught by predators.

« It’s a really disgusting taste, so some species will drop them and it will save them from dying, » Jensen said.

Annual search for cryptic species

Each year, the NCC applies for permits from the government and organizes searches – what they call « surveys » – to find the endangered species in its natural habitat.

She says the lizards are only found in very limited areas that may be prone to habitat loss.

This year, the research team included six interns and two managers, including Jensen. They searched a property managed by CNC.

« You stretch the entirety of the hill and the bottom of the hill and kind of do a sweep for them, » she said.

The NCC team searching for greater short-horned iguanas in southeastern Alberta. (Ania Marcus)

After searching for four hours in temperatures of 35°C, they found eight large short-horned lizards.

« We are very lucky to have a good team of interns helping us that day. »

One of those interns was Ania Marcus. Originally from Toronto, she is interning for NCC in partnership with another program called the Canadian Conservation Corps.

She found one of the eight lizards on Monday.

« It was really, really rewarding because it’s a lot, like, looking around because it’s very, very hard to find them, » Marcus said.

Marcus says she was surprised to learn that she was allowed to hold the lizards and that they are smaller than expected.

CNC intern Ania Marcus holding a large short-horned lizard. (Ania Marcus)

« It was pretty cool to get out there and be able to see such a rare species first hand. I felt like it was a very special experience. »

Bloodstained lizard photographed by an Alberta naturalist

Naturalist Chris Fisher says it’s « absolutely phenomenal » that the NCC was able to encounter eight large short-horned lizards in the span of four hours.

He has been researching lizards in Alberta and Saskatchewan for over 30 years. This year, he says he saw three lizards in Alberta.

“But just three lizards in a calendar year is a spectacular tally for Alberta…Even once in a lifetime is a notch in the belt for a seasoned Alberta naturalist,” Fisher said.

Bloodstained short-horned lizard captured earlier this week. Alberta naturalist Chris Fisher says lizard researchers who have seen more than 500 of this species in Alberta and Saskatchewan have never observed this. (Chris Fisher)

Just a few days ago, he saw one wandering around the Badlands, and it caught his attention because there are very few other signs of life in that environment.

He noticed that his head was red and thought that was unusual, so he approached and took pictures of the red-headed lizard.

« Evaluating the images later, I was fascinated to learn that I was perhaps the first to photograph, in Canada, evidence of the legendary bloody defense of the eyeballs of short-horned lizards. »

Fisher says he looked a bit like a medieval warrior.

« It was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. »

Protecting Short-horned Lizard Habitat

Today’s critically endangered prairie ecosystems were once a dominant ecosystem in North America, but more than 90 percent of that land has been lost to agricultural and industrial use since the country was settled, Fisher says.

Short-horned lizards are relegated to « just a pinch of space », usually around the Badland regions of extreme southeastern Alberta.

The area where the NCC trainees were looking for larger short-horned lizards. (Ania Marcus)

Fisher says very little of this habitat remains, so he’s a strong supporter of NCC’s conservation work.

« It’s just wonderful that the Nature Conservancy is targeting some of these areas in its research and land deals. »

Jensen says NCC will continue to work with ranchers, landowners and other industry members to conserve these areas and the species found there.

She says there is still a lot to learn about short-horned lizards, so they will continue to monitor them in the future.

« We have to keep working together as a team and keep doing what we’re doing to provide that habitat for them, » Jensen said.


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