Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
Citizen science for a proposed endangered species
February 12, 2012
Everybody knows about the sand dune lizard. Right? We know little, actually. The lizard was first recognized as a new form in the early 1960s. A ENMU student spent the summer in the dunes west of Tatum, collecting organisms, and when he brought in the lizard, it took a while to work its way through the bureaucratic and formal academic system. It was first considered a form of a species found west, isolated by climate change (the Ice Ages). More students became involved and its range was mapped, and in the 1980s and early 1990s it was decided it had been separate so long that it indeed was a different species, according to the mitochondrial DNA.
Limited range species are often unique to one extreme habitat. Almost no one actually lives in the sand dune habitat. The lizard is extremely hard to find, for it is a master at being invisible. Any movement noted by the lizard is met with immediate precaution -- sprint at 25 miles per hour into the shinoak canopy, then if movement comes even nearer -- well, no one knows. I have never read a description, at least. Does it burrow? Does it hide in the leaf litter? Does it leap into the shinoak canopy and get on the far side of the skinny trunks? Does it just rely on its pale color and just not move?
The lizard specializes in the blowouts in shinoak forests. Blowouts are small areas of open sand. Some are room sized, others are house sized. Blowouts are scattered across the shinoak forest. The densest dotting of blowouts on a landscape is only one per 5 acres, and that was only along a higher ridge of dunes surrounded by a much larger patch of shinoaks with very few blowouts. The cause of the blowouts, how long they last, and the role in the local wildlife ecology is not understood. In a dune field in Cochran County human artifacts are found in blowouts, along with large mesquite roots that are very old and very weathered, like driftwood, yet the nearest mesquite is more than a mile away. Can this lead to a hypothesis that blowouts last a very long time, even centuries?
Do females claim a blowout and never wander, except as a juvenile, looking for a home, having been chased away by its mother? Do males always wander? We know the lizards are most active in the spring during wildflower season, and then after the summer monsoon rains bring another flush of bloom. During drought and the heat of summer they very hard to find, probably only moving if disturbed, or if dew has fallen during the night. What do they eat? Do they eat the funereal dusky winged butterflies that emerge at leaf out to nectar on the spectacle pod and lay eggs on the new leaves of the shin oak? Do they eat the larvae of the giant yucca skipper as they lower themselves from the seedpod to the ground to pupate?
A knowledgeable biologist can think of many questions to ask. There are only a handful of scientists studying the lizard, and most only come to its habitats for brief periods of study. Blowouts create what is known as edge effect, where an organism can go back and forth to two different habitats. Oil field roads that cut through shinoak create more edge effect. If the lizard is an edge effect organism, is its population denser along such roads that have been there 20-50-70 years than in normal habitat?
As citizens that may be affected by stringent guidelines we feel helpless. If it is labeled endangered, money will have to available for regulation and enforcement. If it is labeled threatened, some money will become available for research. I have an out-of-the-box suggestion.
What if the top 100 producers and the 100 top service companies in the "Permian Basin" (from Roswell to Midland) all chip in some money to create a Citizen Science Project? A governing body of landowners, oil producers, university professors, and environmental organizations would oversee the project, and hire a young biologist to do the organizing, traffic directing, event planning, and data collecting. Every child in Monahans, Wink, Andrews, Eunice, Tatum, Lovington junior high and up could compete for monetary prizes of photographs of the sanddune lizard. The first student to bring in photos of unique behaviors would win several hundred dollars. Area businesses might chip in, too, and donate gift cards to their stores. It would be real science, for it might answer some of the questions listed above.What do you think?