Ode to the Green Anoles: Southern Bug Zappers
by Jenny Nelson, Collin County Master Gardener
My latest Guest Rant appeared on GardenRant.com on September 14, 2022 and is dedicated to America’s green anole lizards, the Rodney Dangerfield of beneficial predators.
They’re cute. They eat bugs. They don’t bite people. And yet, compared to ladybugs and lacewings, they get virtually no respect/press coverage from mainstream gardening media.
The scarcity of garden-centric information about anoles and their relatives is unfortunate considering all the good reptiles can do for those of us who want to embrace Integrated Pest Management principles and enhance biodiversity in our gardens. Sadly, there’s more information on the internet about how to keep anoles as terrarium pets than there is on supporting backyard populations, so I’ve reached out to an anole expert, Dr. Yoel Stuart, an ecologist from Loyola University Chicago.
Taxonomically speaking, green anoles are known as Anolis carolinensis. They arenative to temperate and subtropical regions of Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, so I suppose they have southern accents.
Anoles make excellent gardening companions. Think of them as friends with ecological benefits. Anoles devour cockroaches, spiders, ants, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, moths, basically any arthropod they can fit in their sweet little mouths, along with the occasional slug. What more could a gardener ask?
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
Anoles are gorgeous. Scales along the top side of their svelte bodies are the color of fresh guacamole. Below deck they shift to a sultry buttercream. Their alert expressive eyes are adorned in a powder blue shadow that should never go out of style. For reasons researchers don’t fully understand, special hormones enable green anoles to blush a deep shade of brown, a trick that TV’s insurance flogging gecko from Australia could never pull off.
Slowly turning to rust.
Males are larger than females, up to about 6 to 8 inches long on average. They have a loose flap of skin, a dewlap, beneath the neck that can be inflated into a bright red bubble visible from several yards away. Males may use this colorful display to make themselves appear more threatening to rivals and predators, as well as to be more appealing to females. Like lions, male anoles often have multiple mates within their territories, but I’ve never heard one roar.
You need not worry about hordes of anoles overrunning your home and garden. Females produce only a small number of eggs, perhaps a baker’s dozen, during a mating season that extends from spring through early autumn.
Watching anoles can be just as entertaining as watching hummingbirds and butterflies. I watched an anole hunt recently within the canopy of a dwarf Joe Pye. From the racing stripe down the spine and medium size, I deduced it was a mature female. I had seen her before and knew the boundaries of her territory—a distance of just a few yards, extending from the Sunshine Ligustrum to the fence line.
“Bee, don’t bother me.”
I stepped back to watch. She paid scant attention to me or the bee buzzing above her forehead. She preferred waiting for bite-sized prey to come into the target range of her thick pink tongue. She swallowed her lunch in a single gulp. No need to chew. At one point, she flipped downward with a flourish. Gripping tightly onto the Joe Pye with her strong back toes, she worked the lower flowers, and then she flipped upright once more to grab a quick snack as it flew by her head.
I moved closer, which she didn’t like. She dove into the Mexican petunias, and I noticed something curious. Part of her tail was brown, while the rest of her body remained a cheery green.
Brown tail with a green top.
White shoes after Labor Day?
To solve this mystery, I contacted Dr. Stuart. He said the strange coloring was a sign of autotomy, which is a somewhat gruesome self-defense strategy in which lizards willfully amputate the end of their tails and leave them behind as a wiggly consolation prize for attackers. Dropping tails may help anoles escape predation by birds, cats, dogs, snakes and even other lizards, but replacing them takes time and the new model may not be able to change colors with the rest of the body.
Our female anole is fine and healthy. Her kids, fully independent since the moment they hatched, pop up when I least expect them. I’ve seen them hanging out in a blanket of low growing Texas betony, hunting aphids in the milkweed and hugging the stem of a Texas hibiscus. Seeing their tiny faces every day reinforces my commitment to gardening without pesticides.
Not using pesticides and promoting a healthy insect community is likely the best way for gardeners to support anoles and all the other animals who depend on insect protein to feed themselves or their young. If you have plenty of insects around, Dr. Stuart says the anoles will be happy. You can also help them by planting ground covers and shrubs that offer safe places for young anoles to hunt and hide. If possible, keep your cats indoors, for their safety and the safety of the animals they can’t help but want to catch and lay at your feet. Dr. Stuart also advises gardeners to leave some open areas of loose soil where females can bury their eggs.
Aside from predators, the greatest threat to anoles and other beneficial reptiles is habitat loss. You can help, even if you garden in a small space. Check out Dr. Doug Tallamy’s latest venture Homegrown National Park, to find out how you can create prime habitat.
And, if you would like to learn more about anoles, you can click through lots of information at Anole Annals, a peer-reviewed site that is endorsed and contributed to by Dr. Stuart. I signed up for the newsletter because I do love these little guys.
Reptiles may not be as popular as monarchs or ladybugs, but that does not mean gardeners should appreciate them any less. If you’ve had a close encounter with a beneficial reptile, tell someone about it. Our little green friends deserve more respect!
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