Desert Notes: Lizard Intelligence

Photo by Robin Patten.

Robin Patten

I never thought much about lizard intelligence until the year I camped for several nights in a secluded spot in the Grand Canyon. A small lizard lived near my cooking area. She would appear at both breakfast and dinner, splaying across her rock the way lizards do, as if slightly melted onto the stone surface.

One morning she watched me spooning muesli into my mouth, her head cocked and moving back and forth, getting perspective on this big creature who sat not so gracefully on the neighboring rock.

“Hello, lizard,” I said softly.

Blink. Blink.

Leaning forward, I wagged my finger toward her. Lifting her sinuous body, she inched towards the moving object, then backed off slightly. With that cock of her head, she eyed me, then settled back onto her rock, belly blending into stone.

“Water?” I offered a small bit of water from my bottle, creating a miniature pool in a stone divot next to her. Without hesitation, she darted down and with neck arched, drank from the tiny pond. This became our habit, and every meal she would come out, obviously looking for a drink. I had befriended a lizard. I named her Lily. My thoughts on reptilian awareness and intelligence shifted.

Science too has shifted its idea about the intelligence of reptiles. Recent studies show tortoises can negotiate mazes and anole lizards are able to figure out obstacles to access food. The proof grows: lizards have their wits about them. This epiphany about reptile brains is because researchers shifted how they tested the critters; lizards don’t think like humans, so how to figure out how smart they are?

And lizards most probably don’t have human emotions either. After a few days, Lily proved my guess at her feminine quality correct with certain behavior between her and a male lizard who I called Louie. Their courtship rituals held elegance, and in my journal I wrote about lizard-love. But do lizards love? I would like to believe they do in their own way, and I have no other words to describe what I saw. But their reptilian emotions, just like their intelligence likely can’t be comparable to anything human. At any rate, I became quite fond of those lizards, who were smart enough to come looking for water, waiting like a dog asking for treats.

After meeting Lily, I’ve taken a greater interest in our scaly, four-legged desert friends, trying to identify lizard species, noting when they come out in spring, pausing to click my tongue or say a few words to those who don’t scuttle off. Lizards can hear, better than snakes but not as well as humans, and often they will behave as if they are quite curious about my inquisitive clicks and soft words.

Which is why on one sweet spring day outside Bluff, cool enough to bask in the sun on a secluded bit of slickrock, and warm enough for lizards to do the same, I found myself talking to a side-blotched lizard.

Side-blotched lizards are a common lizard found throughout the western United States, a small species with a body maybe a couple inches long.  They are seen so often in Bluff’s surrounds that it’s easy to take them for granted or even overlook them as they scuttle under a rock to get out of the way. They became a noted presence in my quest to learn lizard types, appreciated for their identifying side blotch right behind their front legs, which can quickly make for positive identification.

That spring day, the side-blotched lizard appeared along the sandstone ledge where I sat munching nuts. He was a light salmon color, delicately spotted with pale dots, that dark splash along his side showing his identity. There was also a curious abrupt line across his tail where the color shifted to a lighter tone.

I clucked to him. “Hello, little one.” His head cocked as he watched me. He agreeably posed while I clicked a few pictures.

“Water?” I poured a bit, letting it run down the rock to his perch. Like Lily, he arched his neck to lap at the moisture, seemingly more out of habit than need, for not far away was a shallow pool brimming with rainwater.

The band across his tail made me wonder if he’d lost the appendage, or perhaps that was just the line where the tail would break off if a predator tried to snatch him up, the plane where the vertebrae are loosely connected. The ability to lose their tail is a quirky lizard survival technique that leaves the hunter with nothing but a writhing bit of flesh as the lizard runs off. Yet tail loss can be catastrophic, for that appendage serves several purposes, from storing fat, to aiding in balance and speedy travel, to communicating. If this was the lizard’s second tail, it would be cartilage instead of bone, but he had survived the attack.

For a time we sat, reptile and human. Then, moving in a lizardy quick-step, he scuttled across the rock, taking a route beneath my legs to the other side of the ledge – obviously, I was no threat. Smart lizard. He did not go far, and stopped, perhaps finding a warmer bit of rock.  A second lizard appeared. And then a discussion began, not a friendly one at all, a territorial conflict between two males. The newly arrived side-blotched scuttled forward, then halted, arched his back like a hissing cat and pumped out several push-ups. My new lizard friend also did push-ups, then with a lifted tail ran off. The other followed. More push-ups, head bobs, tail lifts, back arches.

If I knew more, I could translate this into a grammatically correct conversation, complete with defined syntax. Syntax is how we order words, for example, we say “the lizard ate the fly” not “fly the lizard ate.” In the same way, lizards connect their body movements in particular ways, creating a language of sorts, one that is not so complex as a honey-bee dance or a chickadee song, but enough to demonstrate these animals have a bit more smarts than one might think. And their language can develop, so lizards of different regions have different displays.

In the end, maybe it is just as well I didn’t understand the whole of it, for my friend was the loser, and ducked into the grass below a black brush, while his rival sat on a rock, looking quite triumphant.

Research continues to reveal the intelligence and emotional depths of animals. This is something difficult to unravel, given how any animal – or plant for that matter – thinks and feels is so different from Homo sapiens. Perhaps we need let go of all preconceptions and patterned ways of thinking to truly begin to understand. And so I walk through the wildlands, talking to lizards, whispering to birds, calling to vultures. There is no conversation in the sense of back-and-forth vocalizations, yet often there are connections and I end up with a momentary friend like Lily. The world is all the richer for it.

Robin Patten is a writer, naturalist, and environmental historian. Her first extended stay in Bluff started in September 2020, when the pandemic thwarted her plans to be overseas.  She has been writing the Desert Notes monthly column since March 2022.

One thought on “Desert Notes: Lizard Intelligence

  1. I surely enjoy reading your writings. Your style is reminiscent of Sue Hubbell’s wonderful essays. Your words took me away and I was seeing your world through your eyes. Thank you


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