Finding Friendly Fence Lizards

Wild animals around Athens must wonder why so many of us are wandering in the woods this year. It’s a safe activity for humans during a pandemic and healing for stressed minds. Last summer, some wild animals even stuck around to observe me! After all, I was taking more time to move slowly, then staying still, and looking at them quietly. Sometimes, I even got a chance to take a closeup photo.

An adorable reptile to find around here is the Eastern fence lizard. To me, it’s our cutest native lizard. No wonder some folks like to keep these arboreal reptiles as pets. Fortunately, many people understand that wild animals should be allowed to live outdoors in their natural homes. Fence lizards are pleasing to gardeners, too. They eat many pesky insects, such as beetles, moths, stink bugs and grasshoppers. 

While hiking, it’s often a surprise to see this lively lizard suddenly scramble up a tree. They are quite shy, so looking at them requires tiptoeing rather than tromping. But being skittish is how they survive. Fence lizards make good meals for many predators. They provide entertainment for pets, as well. Cats like to toy with them, since they don’t offer much of a fight with their small teeth and claws and lack of venom. Who eats these chunky little reptiles? Besides free-roaming cats, snakes and birds do, too.  

Last summer, I watched swallow-tailed kites fly gracefully through the branches of large pecan trees. Later, I learned that it’s not just large insects these raptors seek, but even snakes, tree frogs and fence lizards can be snatched from the trees by these beautiful birds.

Earlier in the summer, I learned about the voracious appetite of the Argentine tegu—a large, invasive lizard now spreading in Georgia. Wondering about the threat they pose to our native reptiles, I contacted wildlife biologist Laci Pattavina with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Conservation Division. She said, “I do know that birders, hunters, hikers, farmers and anyone that spends time outdoors can help us with reporting sightings, especially in the Toombs and Tattnall County areas, by emailing with photos and location information. This short YouTube video also has some good information:”

Then I emailed herpetologist J. Whitfield “Whit” Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology at UGA. He calmed my fears with his reply, “Liz—I’m sure tegus would eat fence lizards if they can catch them.” Then he added that being able to run up trees is a good behavior for fence lizards when it comes to avoiding hungry tegus. Go, fence lizards!