Cold Blooded Companions

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Reptiles are more than just part of the scenery here, they’re important links in the garden ecosystem. It’s a sure sign that the weather is warming up at Marin Art & Garden Center when the lizards appear. You’ll catch sight of them sunning on a rock or skittering into the shadows, or even doing pushups on the path.

The two most common lizards here are Western Fence Lizards, and Western skinks. Western Fence lizards are often called “blue-bellies,” and indeed have streaks or patches of bright blue on the underside of their abdomen. Their coloring otherwise is usually a light variegated gray, but they can actually change color: when they’re cold and trying to warm up, their skin can turn a much darker shade, almost black to soak up the sun. They eat insects, including mosquitoes, and in turn are often host to ticks. Remarkably, the lizards’ blood includes a protein that neutralizes the bacteria causing Lyme disease, so ticks that feed on them are no longer carriers of this dangerous illness. Good friends to have in the garden!

Skinks are more evasive, and if you happen to see a juvenile with an electric blue tail, all the more startling when you do catch sight of one. Like Fence lizards, they have the ability to regenerate their tail, so it’s not uncommon to see one with just a stump remaining after a run-in with a predator. Their diet includes many insects that are plant pests, so count yourself lucky if you do have them in your garden.

Marin is host to several different species of snake as well. We most often see gopher and gartersnakes, which are well camouflaged with gray to brown coloring, although gopher snakes can grow to five feet long. From their names, you can probably guess their favorite menu items, and welcome them as effective rodent control. The Sharp-Tailed snake is flashier and distinctive with a pinkish-red stripe running the length of its body and a single pointed scale forming the tip of its tail. This snake primarily feeds on slugs, so it’s another asset to gardeners. While no one has reported seeing a rattlesnake here at Marin Art & Garden Center, you should be on the lookout when hiking in open space in Marin, and keep your dog leashed to prevent any surprise encounters.

There’s very little you need to do to help our local reptile pest-controllers make their homes in your garden, fortunately. They need places to hide, such as rocks, mulch, or bushy plants and grasses; they’re very sensitive to chemicals, so eliminate your use of weed killer and apply any chemical fertilizer sparingly.

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