SciSun: The Recovery Channels   Leave a comment

Day of the Island Night Lizard’ is not the latest made-for-cable movie. (Actually, they’re saving that feature for ‘Reptile Week’ – coming soon!). The Island Night Lizard (Xantusia riversiana)is a story of invasion and struggle; a trapped and apparently hopeless population overcoming desperate odds to survive on an isolated island with few resources. Hey, this IS sounding like a good movie.

The Channel Islands is a string of small islands just 11 miles offshore from the coast of Los Angeles, and home to Xantusia Lizard (as he prefers to be called) and 150 other rare, endangered, and unique species. Many of the individual islets are too small or rocky to be of much interest to anyone other than the native plants and animals living there; but some of the larger isles were populated soon after southern california was ‘discovered’ in the 1700’s. There have never been many humans on the islands – heavy waves and strong tides make it too dangerous for frequent trips, and sharp winds rolling over bare grassland with few trees make it somewhat unpleasant (particularly when the sun and sand of California beaches are just a few miles away. Whoo-hoo!). But wherever possible, accessible land was used for ranching: Horses, cows, pigs, goats, even deer and elk were all transported to the islands and let loose to care for themselves most of the year, until the ranchers returned for the annual round-up. With no large predators, lots of good eatin’ grass, sources of fresh water, and no place to run away, livestock moved in and made themselves at home. Of course no one asked the native wildlife if this was any imposition to their plans and they were stuck with hundreds of hungry mouths and trampling hooves on land that before had known little more than mice and birds and lizards and one type of small fox.

This obviously couldn’t end well and the native animals soon showed effects of the stress. Birds left for other islands; the populations of lizards and mice were severely affected; and the Channel Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis), never too plentiful, found it harder and harder to find food and safe places to live. But totally unknown to all, the most destructive figure in this story wasn’t the cattle or horses or deer or even man; it was the Black Rat (Rattus rattus), a hanger-on who appeared on the island over a hundred years ago – but no one knows exactly how. Maybe they were carried over on boats that brought livestock; or were hiding in crates of supplies shipped to the few men that lived on the islands year-round; or they could have escaped from a shipwreck and swam to the islands. As we know from popular movies, rats can be really clever. And sometimes good cooks, too.

But no matter how good a cook any rat might (or might not!) be, one fact is that rats will eat almost anything they can find (if they’re such good cooks why aren’t they more picky eaters?) Within a short time every native species of plant and animal on the island was suffering because of the ever-growing numbers of rats who had it easy with all that food and virtually no predators. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the US Government began to buy or gain control over much of the islands, forming Channel Islands National Park, and starting on the long path toward restoration and recovery of an environment many feared was lost forever. Over more than 50 years ranchers removed their cattle and horses; pigs, who were totally out of control and destroying anything in their path, were captured; the deer, elk, goats and rabbits which should have never been on the islands in the first place were removed; and eventually the ‘only’ non-native animals that remained were thousands of troublesome rats, eating eggs and lizards and plants until many unique native species were endangered. Only recently, through much hard work and cooperation between government departments; universities; and scientific organizations – along with careful planning and precautions not to harm any of the native animals – authorities feel safe saying the islands are now rat free.

After years of struggle and hardship and questions of species survival, it seem the Night Island Lizard finally does, get his day. And that makes ‘Day of the Island Night Lizard’ more of an uplifting documentary than a sci-fi horror film; but it turns those cute and lovable movies about rats, into the true horror stories. So maybe rather than scheduling ‘Reptile Week’, the network should be planning ‘Rat Week’. Or maybe that would be jumping the shark.

Today, the Channel Islands exhibit a healthy environment of native plants and animals, as seen in this photo.  Of course, the lizards are really, REALLY, well camouflaged.

Today, the Channel Islands exhibit a healthy environment of native plants and animals, as seen in this photo. Of course, the lizards are really, REALLY, well camouflaged.


Michonne Says: Marmots have stories about all sorts of things. But I don’t know any stories about lizards. Or rats. I wonder if the lizards and rats tell any stories about marmots?

Posted August 17, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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