Beginning on September 10, 1955, and continuing for more than 600 episodes over the next twenty years, the television show Gunsmoke ruled the airwaves. Jump ahead 56 years, local author Ben Costello will be joined with author/film historian Julie Ann Ream for “GUNSMOKE NIGHT”. This event will be a tribute to the legendary western TV show. It will be held on Wednesday January 4th from 5:30pm to 8:30pm at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum, 58116 29 Palms Highway, in Yucca Valley. Admission to this Morongo Basin Historical Society event is $5.00. Autographed copies of this book, along with other books will be available.
Ben has wrote several award winning books, this night will be tied to his book Gunsmoke: An American Institution. Also participating will be legendary western actor Bo Hopkins along with famed Gunsmoke writers Jim Byrnes and Paul Savage.
Ben Costello is a self-confessed film and television buff. Starting at the age of five, he has appeared on stage in a variety of dramatic and comedic roles. He also enjoys writing and directing. Costello has played casinos and clubs from New York City to Las Vegas, frequently portraying characters similar to Abbott and Costello (no, Ben Costello and Lou Costello are not related). In fact, Costello performed the classic “Who’s on First” routine at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to kick off the 2000 World Series. His comedy team was the first to do so since Abbott and Costello performed the skit there 44 years earlier.
Costello wrote, produced, and costarred in The Whitley & Costello Show in 1979. In 1987, he took the classic Laurel and Hardy movie Way Out West and adapted it for the stage, with the blessings of Lucille Hardy Price, widow of comedian Oliver Hardy. In 1988, his play titled “Company B” debuted. The show, a slapstick musical tribute to World War II, was so popular that it spawned five stage sequels. For his work on this production, Costello won Best Actor, Writer, Director, and Production awards from the Southern California Theatre Leagues.
Costello has taught seminars on “Hollywood Comedy and Comedians” and is an authority on television and motion picture Westerns. He makes his home in the Mojave Desert community of Joshua Tree, California.
For more information about this event call: The Morongo Basin Historical Society at: 760 364-2000
For more information about the book Gunsmoke: An American Institution, click on the link below:
Don’t miss out on the chance to meet some of the people that are tied to this historic television show.
Some folks say the Mojave Desert is just a bunch of rocks – a “gravel pit.” While other deserts around the world seem to be made of pure sand, those in the American Southwest are a bit rockier. Sand dunes exist, only in sparse locales. The huge monolithic structures that stand out so strikingly from a distance have served as backdrops to many an old western movie.
Why so many rocks? Large megaliths are what remains from the upward movement of molten rock eons ago, forming mountains. Boulders and smaller rocks have resulted from falls and breaks due to gravity, or from being tossed about by water deluges. Smaller particles like sand were washed or blown away. Notice how small pockets of sand and gravel fill the cracks and crevices between rocks toward the bottom of a hill.
What you are left with are large expanses of rocky terrain, with little soil development and little vegetation. A lack of regular moisture means that little chemical weathering can occur. Where in moister regions, soils are bombarded with mineral movement and biochemical processes and are in a constant state of recycling, rocky desert soils tend to stay put, barely changed.
The desert floor is largely made up of rock because it used to be the bottom of the ocean. Huge rocks broke into smaller ones, eroded by water. Some rocks are fossilized remnants of other things. For instance, petrified logs are the mineral replacement of living tissue. And some places in the desert reveal an abundance of fossilized shells and other prehistoric aquatic life.
Those natural piles of rocks have many practical uses. Desert tortoises and other reptiles will aestivate during the hottest, driest months of the summer, usually in burrows but sometimes in the cool shade under rock piles. Ringtails and pikas prefer to live amongst rock piles, too. And many other animals like to hide in them. In the extreme dry heat of the Mojave Desert, cover becomes essential. Just like people coveting shaded parking spots, animals seek out any reprieve they can find.
But what are those other rock piles that you see? Did you ever notice the small piles of rocks along the side of the road as you drive the highways of Nevada?
In days past, various cultures made cairns, or stone towers, that were used to mark stops along trails, or other places of significance. They were usually conical in shape, with one rock balancing on another. Sometimes they were highly decorated.
Inuit peoples made another kind of stone structure, called an inukshuk. These sculptures were made to look like people, signaling directions and landmarks in a welcoming fashion. They were also used to channel caribou hunts.
Nowadays the odd rock piles you see, especially near entrances to parks and other natural attractions, are a type of graffiti. They are made by someone in an effort to leave their mark at an impressive place. In northern Nevada, people take large rocks and make their initials or words with them. It’s rather like carving your initials in a tree, in a place where rocks are the artist’s most accessible medium. It’s pop art in the desert. Now you know.
Imagine the Mojave Desert nearly 12,000 years ago. It was a wetter place but the Ice Age was just coming to an end and many animals were becoming extinct. Mammoths, mastadons, saber tooth cats, giant ground sloths and other animals would soon be wiped off of the face of the earth. At this time one small creosote bush sprouted up through the desert floor and began spreading its mighty roots into the earth; this creosote bush would later be known as King Clone. Possibly at about this same time only a few miles away the ground began to shake, but this was not an earthquake, it was a landslide, possibly the largest landslide that the world and definitely North America had ever seen. This landslide was to be known as the Blackhawk Landslide. I find it quite amazing that these two events occurred at roughly the same time in history and only 4 miles apart in close proximity to State Highway 247 (Old Woman Springs Road), in Johnson Valley, near Lucerne Valley.
Today we know that King Clone is a creosote ring, these rings are the root systems of these ancient bushes. As the central bush dies the root system spreads out and grows new sprouts; as the bush gets older and older the ring gets larger and larger in diameter. If you look at any aerial photograph of this area you will see many creosote rings, the larger the ring the older the root system is. King Clone Creosote Ring has the largest diameter thus making it the oldest creosote bush alive. There is more to this story, these rings outdate the redwoods and bristlecone pines. Creosote rings are considered to be possibly the oldest living organisms on the earth, King Clone is nearly 70 feet in diameter and 12,000 years old.
Four miles away is what looks like an ordinary hill. This hill is 5 miles long, 2 miles wide and between 30 and 100 feet thick. How did this ordinary looking hill get to this spot? All we know is that 700 million tons of rock and soil slid down the mountain on a cushion of air for nearly 5 miles, reaching speeds of 170 miles per hour. Estimates of when this giant landslide rumbled down the mountain range from 10,000 to 55,000 years ago.
It is amazing how these two important places and events are so close to each other and possibly happened so close in the same span of time. King Clone may not have even been a sprout yet when the landslide happened or it might have witnessed the whole event, either way, many of the animals species are gone but these two sentinels that are watching over the Mojave Desert are worth seeing on your next trip up or down Highway 247. Stop and take a look at King Clone and Blackhawk Landslide, these are reminders that the Ice Age wasn’t all that long ago.
Take It Easy – Mojave
Mojave Max, the desert tortoise, emerged from his burrow on March 29, so it must be spring. Granted that the spring arrival is a little late this year due to lingering cool temperatures, still it is welcomed with no less enthusiasm. Max’s girlfriends emerged a few weeks earlier, but Max has the official word. Mojave Max has been the Mojave Desert’s version of the groundhog for many years and lives at Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas. The incumbent is the second in a line of Mojave Maxes that will likely go on into the future.
This last week of March is the first week that temperatures have been consistently over 70 degrees F. The fierce ides of March have finally subsided as well, enticing humans and wildlife alike to get out and get active.
In the garden, honeysuckle is blooming and spring bulbs are developing flowerspikes for their spring show. It’s the time for planting annuals that will flower until the temperatures get really hot. The trees are leafing out and fruit trees have already bloomed. It’s definitely the time for allergies! The pollen of ash and mulberry trees, among others, causes many people misery throughout the spring. You can always go to your allergist and have a panel done to see exactly what you are allergic to. It won’t allow you to prevent the allergies, but at least you can plan for them. There’s a holistic treatment that contains the pollen of common Las Vegas irritants, called the Las Vegas Mix. It depends on the individual to decide if it builds immunity.
Meanwhile, bees are about, along with no-see-ums and aphids. Feeding on the aphids, which seem to have a variety for every plant, are the ladybug larvae that look like little dragons. With the insects come the lizards, seen in the daytime feeding on the fresh food source. They may slip back into cracks and crevices if the warmth is not prolonged. The snakes will be out a little later, when temperatures are warm enough for them to stay out at night and when larger food items are active. Rodents that hibernate come out when plants begin growing again, feeding on new growth and leftover seeds from the winter. Of course the larger mammals (foxes, bobcat, bighorn sheep, deer, cougar) are active year-round, but certainly spring is a time when they have more to feed on and are having young. Browsers like the bighorns and deer take advantage of new growth on wildflowers, sagebrush, ricegrass and even prickly pear cactus. Predators take advantage of the browsers! According to meteorologist Larry Jensen with the National Weather Service in Las Vegas, we haven’t had a lot of rain yet in 2011 – only 0.25” since January. A couple of light storms occurred – early spring rains that supply perennial, or woody desert plants with the moisture they need to bloom. But Jensen said we received 1.77” in December. Winter rains benefit the annual desert plants, including many wildflowers. It probably won’t be a banner year like 2010 for the bloom, but it’s still something to look forward to. Leading the display, brittlebush have begun showing and desert globemallows are just starting. Desert tortoises time their emergence from winter brumation with the blooming of the globemallows.
Birds are everywhere! It’s not uncommon to see an oriole (Bullock’s or hooded in southern Nevada) pass through yards on their way back to more northern climes, and what a brilliant sight they are – unmistakable in the still somewhat bare trees. Migratory house finches and goldfinches are back, also showing off a spot of color in the yard, and cheering us with their lilting songs. Mockingbirds, too, have returned. Hummingbirds are back and busy, getting ready for nesting season. Anna’s hummingbird is a year-long resident, and broad-tailed, black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds live here in the summer. The Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds are true migrants, and may be seen moving through the area. In Lincoln County, a true sign of spring is the return of the turkey vultures.
Spring can’t be taken for granted in the desert. Oftentimes it’s gone just as soon as it gets here. The transition from cold to hot is a pretty quick one. Sometimes you’ll see new leaves on the trees with the dead ones from fall still hanging on. There’s not much time for growing spring veggies. Some people say that there are really only two seasons in the desert – summer and winter. So it’s because of spring’s ephemerality that it’s such a joyous time of year – time to pack in all the activities you can do in the mild weather.
The day that our paths crossed I was quite surprised, immediately Paleface stood out among the crowd, I tried to befriend him but he kept a safe distance from me. He would come around the barn to scavenge the left over food from our burros and goats. Was he here as an omen? If he was then hopefully a good omen. I may have forgotten to mention who Paleface is, he is a Raven that would visit our ranchette on a daily basis. Paleface was not your average Raven, he was completely white, sure he stood out from the rest but he seemed like a friendly guy. We were used to Ravens coming around to scavenge, a previous frequent visitor was a black Raven whose wing looked damaged but he could fly just fine, he got pretty friendly with me but Paleface kept his distance.
Ravens are known to be a clever bird and they frequent many parts of the world including the Mojave Desert. Their population has exploded in the Mojave in the last century thus becoming a common predator of young desert tortoises. Even with this reputation I find Ravens amusing, clever birds and Paleface was especially intriguing. Their qualities and history are quite extensive and the Raven’s intelligence is possibly its most winning feature. These birds can also be trained to speak, this speaking ability and intelligence leads into the legend of ravens being a religious symbol to many people in many cultures.
A lot of the negative symbolism that Ravens have today originates from the fact that they appeared on battlefields, they are scavengers, very curious, and were often seen picking at the remains of fallen soldiers. Though their reputation is questionable today, that was not always true. Look at the Bible for example, in Genesis 8:6-8 says: “And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth”. The Raven was the first animal out of the ark.
Norse legend says that the Raven is symbolic of mind, thought and wisdom, as their god Odin was accompanied by two Ravens. Odin was also known as the Raven God, he had many daughters known as Valkyries who could transform into Ravens. The Greeks and Romans thought of them in a positive way. In spite of its midnight colored feathers, the Raven was a solar animal in this culture, and was associated with both Athena and Apollo, both deities closely affiliated with the sun, and the light of wisdom. There are some Greco-Roman legends that say Ravens were once all white, because the Raven couldn’t keep a secret to save its life, Apollo punished the Raven by turning its bright white feathers black after it divulged too many secrets.
In some Native American tribes, the Raven is considered a trickster because of its transforming/changing attributes. Often honored among medicine & holy men of tribes for its shape-shifting qualities, the Raven was called upon in ritual so that visions could be clarified. Holy men understood that what the physical eye sees, is not necessarily the truth, and he would call upon the Raven for clarity in these matters. Foremost, the Raven is the Native American bearer of magic, and a harbinger of messages from the cosmos. Messages that are beyond space and time are nestled in the midnight wings of the Raven and come to only those within the tribe who are worthy of the knowledge. The Raven is also called upon in Native ritual for healing purposes and is thought to provide long distance healing. The Raven was also considered the keeper of secrets, and could assist us in determining answers to our own hidden thoughts.
The appearance of the White Raven in some Native American cultures was to signal the end of the world. Of course in some cultures the opposite is true, they are considered good luck. As you can see the Raven has quite a history in many legends around the world.
As for my fine feathered friend that I call Paleface, I have not seen him in over a year but I hope our paths do cross again someday. I will be doing a future blog about my neighbor and photographer Julianne Koza, but for the purposes of this blog about Paleface you will be treated to a few of her pictures that she took of him, a few lesser quality pictures of mine are also posted that I was able to snap. Take a look at these pictures and if anyone happens to run across Paleface please let me know, I would love to know where he is now and if he is still mystifying the people that see him.
Take It Easy – Mojave
All I want for Christmas is to get outside…
Christmas Eve – the shopping rush is done. But there is a last-minute gift that you can still give your kids – and you won’t have to wrap it. Give them the gift of the outdoors. It’s perfect, really, since it’s free, it’s available at any time, and it’s a gift that keeps giving. Perhaps you’ve had to cut back on the gift-giving this year, if the difficult economic times have affected you. Those popular electronic gifts for kids aren’t cheap.
Getting your kids outside will be much healthier for them. Or consider combining the outdoors with one of the iphone field guide applications or an educational electronic “toy” that helps kids learn about nature. At any rate, giving your kids access to the outdoors will be a gift that will last a lifetime. There are plenty of options for getting into the outdoors, depending on their interests, and, they might even gain some valuable life lessons from their encounters with nature.
The educational community agrees that contact with the outdoors is beneficial for kids (and adults, too). If you are familiar with Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods,” and his nationwide grassroots movement to get children back into nature, you will have heard that we are suffering from nature-deficit syndrome. For many of us older folks, being out in nature in childhood was taken for granted. These days, kids just aren’t getting that exposure. Research shows that regular time in the outdoors affects mental health, concentration in school, and physical health (increase in immunity and decrease in obesity). It will also give kids an appreciation of their world and teach values such as respect.
So just how do you give the kids this intangible gift? You can start with a simple walk on Christmas day. The weather in southern Nevada is perfect for a stroll in the winter.
Winter is also a good time for bird-watching in the desert. Many birds winter in the Mojave, and still others are passing through. Some of the delightful avian visitors around the Las Vegas valley include flickers, orioles, and many raptors. Make a bird feeder with your kids and put it out. This is the time of year for the Audubon Christmas bird counts. Find out how you can participate. There are many great sites to go birding around Vegas: Corn Creek, Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs, Clark County Wetlands Park, and others. Also have the kids look for nests, which are more easily seen in trees that are bare.
A quick trip up to Mt. Charleston will provide the kids with a change in scenery and a rare opportunity for them to see and play in snow! They might get to see deer or wild horses as well. They can also try their hand at animal tracking.
When spring arrives, take the kids to see the desert’s wildflower bloom and watch for reptiles coming out of hibernation. There are many places with hiking trails.
Try fishing (yes, fishing!) at any number of waterholes in the area. Camp, look for ancient treasures, or play sports.
One of the best ways to give the gift of the outdoors is to present kids with the Nevada Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights. This is a new program whose aim is to help you get those kids outside doing all kinds of things. The brainchild of members from different agencies in southern Nevada, the Bill of Rights was put together as a declaration of things that every child in the state should have a right to do at some time in their childhood. Although it may seem like this should be intrinsic, it’s not anymore. So the initiative puts forth the case.
The Southern Nevada Agency Partnership (SNAP) is the lead agency for this initiative and has dedicated some initial funding for its implementation. The UNLV Public Lands Institute (PLI) is coordinating the effort on behalf of SNAP and serves as the point of contact for the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights Alliance and inquiries from the public.
So what does the Outdoor Bill of Rights provide? If you go to the website at http://www.nvoutdoorkids.org, you will find a list of outdoor activities that kids can participate in, along with itineraries of where to go and when, in order to do them. Could it get any easier? Look at the Bill of Rights and have the kids select an activity that they’ve always wanted to try. The website will give you several options for how you can do those activities. Some sites offer coordinated activities, along with educational opportunities. Other sites are open to a variety of activities that you and the kids can do on your own. Most people are not aware of all of the opportunities for outdoor recreation in southern Nevada. And the kids will never appreciate Nevada’s outdoors unless they get out in it.
Other options for getting your kids outside include family nature clubs or after-school clubs. Organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Boys and Girls Clubs offer many group outdoor activities. Also look for community classes, sometimes at recreation centers and parks. The REI stores have a kid’s outdoor program, too.
But perhaps the most important factor in giving the gift of the outdoors to your kids is to overcome ecophobia in yourself. Kids follow their role models in their attitudes and actions, and parents and caregivers need to show by example. Ask yourself what’s really holding you back from experiencing the outdoors. Is it a fear of dangerous critters? Stranger danger? Or maybe you just think that the desert is too harsh a climate to get outside. Educate yourself. There is really only one time of year that is inhospitable to outdoor recreation in the desert, and that’s in the dead of summer. Winter, on the other hand, is a wonderful time. Get to know the creatures of the desert, and you will learn that most of them are not as scary as you might think. You can also learn how to be safe around those that do pose a certain risk. In fact, learning how to be safe is a basic prerequisite for any outdoor recreation, and includes the areas of weather, terrain, and people. Most outdoors people will agree that the benefits of getting outside outweigh the risks.
So make a memorable holiday by giving the kids the priceless gift of the outdoors. And be a part of the present – keep it going by following-up and making it your new year’s resolution to actually take the kids to those sites. You might find yourself as one of the gift recipients as well.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has so much to offer as long as you look. I wanted to post this picture to share it with the other Anza-Borrego explorers on the site. However, because desertusa.com is not just some photo posting site (not that there is anything wrong with having a flickr photostream), I felt an obligation to have some kind of story or anecdote accompanying the picture.
Along the S-2 (Carrizo Highway)
Just south of Sweeney Pass
Southern Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
Unfortunately, I did not have one. Plus, trying to come up with something good quickly, without use of cliches or trite-isms, was not as easy as I hoped.
I started by thinking about standing at this site, maybe with someone else or maybe alone. My boot crushes some dry twigs or kicks up some dust as I swat away some flying bugs and watch something run across the road too fast to be identified, but slow enough to catch my eye.
As exotic as this starts sounding, it also starts sounding like a big boring cliche and the story goes as nowhere as the road.
So, after whining for one paragraph and using cliches in another, ironically, the photo now has some background.
See you on the trails as you leave behind clouds of dust and sand…
Sometimes business can turn into pleasure which was the case for me when I conducted some personal business with Helen Holloway and her son Jason. Helen was born in 1920 and is currently 90 years old. She was born Helen Blanding, daughter of Harry and Irene Blanding of Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is slightly over 2000 feet in elevation and lies on the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert with stands of the Mojave Desert’s signature tree, the Joshua Tree. This signature tree of the Mojave Desert is dispersed on the landscape surrounding Las Vegas. Immediately I thought about how nice it would be to hear a few of Helen’s stories so we could share them with DesertUSA readers. This is Helen’s account of her childhood in Las Vegas from 1920 to 1937.
Helen is now 90 years old and she was only two years old when her father Harry became the commissioner of Las Vegas in 1922. Local place names at that time were Old Town, which is not the same old town we know of today, the Stock Yard and the Old Ranch which was originally inhabited by Indians. The Old Ranch part of town was to eventually become a Mormon missionary and what we call Old Town today, Fremont Street was originally where the railroad stopped from Los Angeles.
Her father’s ranch, Blanding Ranch was purchased in 1915, he bought the ranch and farmed organically, he would grow clover & plow it under then grow corn to feed the cattle. Helen recalls that In the 1920’s the trees were fully matured so they must have already been pretty old by that time. She also said that her father’s ranch had a pond on the property and it was a great place to play and have picnics, there were 2 wells on the property and it was like a park. Her father Harry would send a hay wagon to the school once a year in the fall and pick up the whole class to picnic at the ranch.
Another annual occasion that Helen looked forward too was Mrs. Bracken’s Christmas party, Mrs. Bracken had no children and would throw this annual Christmas party for the children of her friends. Helen used to go to Mt. Charleston resort before she was 10 years old, the resort had rental cabins, a trout farm and a large social center. The valleys around the resort seemed to always have snow present. Helen recalls that In 1929/1930 the resort was washed away by a collapsing glacier. In her high school years Helen recalls that Las Vegas High School football team was the state champions for four or five years from 1934-1938.
Bridge clubs were a popular form of entertainment and socializing. Friends would get together for social dinners then play poker afterwards. Helen’s mother Irene was raised in a convent and wasn’t aware of the social stigma of a single girl going to a dance by herself. Helen’s childhood girlfriend told her mother about Helen being there by herself so the mother called Irene and told her it wasn’t a good idea for Helen to go alone, so Helen’s mother wouldn’t let her go alone any more. There was one occasion that Helen and a few friends drove out to the desert after they got a hold of some champagne and drank warm champagne out of paper cups at a picnic.
Las Vegas businessmen would grubstake prospectors, one sample from a prospector was a pitchblende so local businessmen staked a claim on uranium. Helens father was once given a piece of ore, he decided to treat it with acid and he got $70.00 worth of gold out of it.
As far as gambling, Helen does remember some illegal gambling and then a few small casino’s popped up . When The Meadows Casino was built, it was the first fancy casino with air conditioning, and it was considered by everyone that the Meadows was built by gangsters, people were concerned about gangsters in the area. The casino’s were only tolerated by most of the townspeople. There was also a 9 hole golf course near current day Henderson, they could not afford to maintain grass so all they did was scrape the sage, oil the sand and put in tees, greens and cottonwood trees.
Helen does recall using swamp coolers in the summer and her memories of Hoover Dam being constructed were vivid, she said that everyone was excited about the Dam and the prospect of all the new jobs. The Dam was built by a conglomerate of six different companies that merged into one called Six Companies because it was so big that one company could not handle this tremendous construction project. As a result of the Dam construction what they called Soapbox City popped up. When it was completed everyone drove out to the Dam for the big ceremony , even President Roosevelt came to visit the new Dam and Helen recalled that The President and his entourage got lost in Lees Canyon.
After leaving Vegas her father sold all the farm equipment and started a very successful business in San Bernardino, she has only returned once over 30 years ago but Las Vegas did not seem like home anymore.
Helen was such a pleasure to talk with and to listen to her stories. Helen is an avid painter and you can see a sample of her work below, the painting is a representation of her family ranch when she was a child. I hope that if I live my life past the age of 90 that I can be as attentive as her, thanks for the chat Helen.
Take It Easy – Mojave
Reptiles get a bad wrap. Slimy, unsavory characters are branded ‘reptiles,’ even though as a rule reptiles are not slimy. Certain occupations are put in the reptile category, presumably referring to their cold-bloodedness. And since I’m from Las Vegas, what about the term ‘lounge lizard’? This refers to guys who hang out in bars. The only reasoning I can think of for this analogy is the picture of wild lizards hanging out in the sun, warming up their normally cold blood. And while observing lounge lizards in the casinos might be fun, I’d like to recommend that you try lizard watching in the desert.
Lizards are fascinating creatures. Although they live in many environments worldwide, they are very often associated with the desert southwest. Most are insect-eaters, but they live in a variety of habitats, from riparian areas to woodlands and of course, extreme desert. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colorations. One thing most of them have in common is the ability to lose their tails if captured. Just about every kid who has grown up in the desert is familiar with this. Lizard tails can break off at a natural weak point, which leaves the predator with a twitching morsel, while the lizard makes a clean, if somewhat damaged escape. Most species can regenerate the missing tail piece, but it’s never quite the same.
Lizards can be seen sunning themselves on rocks, especially in the spring when they emerge from brumation (reptilian hibernation). What people don’t know is that even though they love the heat, they are still vulnerable to overheating in extreme temperatures. Cold-blooded animals need to be able to regulate their body temperature. Wildlife biologists do their reptile surveys when temperatures are amenable, between 60 and 85 degrees, usually at night, when most of these animals are active. Similarly, reptiles don’t like to come out when it’s cloudy or windy. Bear these things in mind when you set out to observe your favorite lizards.
Here’s a summary of some of the favorite lizards to see in southern Nevada:
Common chuckwalla – The chuckwalla, or ‘chuck’ is one of the more interesting lizards. It is quite large, with a body of around nine inches long, and appears to be fat. Actually, it has a good amount of loose skin on the sides of its body, which allows it to inflate itself with air when threatened. Chuckwallas usually slip into a rock crevice, then balloon themselves up so that predators cannot get them out. Of course there are two predators that can puncture and deflate them – the badger and man. Chucks are known for their variety of colorations. Tan, brown, black and orange in varying patterns sometimes lead to confusion with Gila monsters. Juveniles have strong banding on the tail. See these lizards lounging on rocky outcrops, or you may be able to spot one in a rock crevice with the use of a mirror.
Desert horned lizard – The only horned lizard in southern Nevada, it is sometimes called a “horny toad,” due to its body shape’s resemblance to a toad. Horned lizards have a relatively short tail and don’t usually need to drop it because of another defense mechanism –shooting blood out of their eyes. Their other defenses include horned scales on their head and body, and the ability to blend into soil of any color. The desert horned lizard is about three and a half inches long and is well-camouflaged in dry areas.
Desert iguana – Somewhat unlike its green, bearded tropical cousin, the desert iguana is rather bland-looking, grayish-white with brown to black netlike markings. It has a small head and a long tail, almost twice its six-inch body. They are found in low sandy flats, sometimes under creosote bushes.
Desert night lizard – A small lizard, four inches in total length, this night lizard has dark brown spots on a tan background, or can be uniformly tan. Found at the southern edge of the Mojave desert, in chaparral and up into pine woodlands, they are usually under cover. Take care when looking for them, as they easily lose their tails.
Gila monster – Sorry, folks, there’s a slim chance that you’ll ever see this reticent creature in the wild. They spend over 90 % of their lives underground. If you are lucky enough to see one, May is the most likely month for it. They are also active at night during the summer. Of course you can always go to the Springs Preserve to see a captive one. Gila monsters are large, from 9 – 20 inches long, and very thick-bodied. The banded subspecies, which is in southern Nevada, has black and orange mottled stripes on the entire body, and a very thick tail. Gila monsters can survive for a year on the fat stored in the tail, and to lose it would mean certain death. Their legs are short and their movement slow, but they quickly defend themselves with a tenacious bite and they are venomous, so do not handle them! It’s also illegal to do so. These lizards are common at low to mid-elevations in the desert, where they prey on eggs and small animals. Sometimes they are confused with western banded geckos or common chuckwallas. You can find an identification guide at http://www.ndow.org/wild/concerns/safety/snake/NV_Ven_rept.pdf.
Gilbert’s skink – Skinks are different than most lizards, because they have smooth, overlapping, and equally-sized scales, which make for a shiny appearance. They also have a hard exterior, with bony plates just under the scales. Large for a skink, the Gilbert’s is about six and a half inches long and tan in color. Head and tail are red or orange. It is found in sage/pinion-juniper/pine habitats along riparian corridors, for example, high in the Spring Mountains.
Great Basin Collared lizard – A beautiful, medium-sized lizard about six inches long, this lizard has two black collars around its neck, separating a black-spotted gray head from a white-spotted khaki body. They are usually seen basking on boulders, but are easily frightened. If one is captured, it will bite. These lizards have strong jaws and will even prey on other lizards. The tail is sturdy and rarely lost.
Long-nosed leopard lizard – A medium-sized lizard, about six inches long with a tail twice as long, this is one of the most beautiful local lizards. The back is covered with brown leopard-like spots along with yellowish horizontal lines. The tail is striped, but more densely than the zebra-tailed lizard. Females develop orange spots on their sides during breeding season. Mostly found in low, flat desert areas, leopard lizards are known to run to nearby cover and ‘freeze’ motionless.
Long-tailed brush lizard – The brush lizard is very small, only two inches in length, with a very long tail. Gray or light brown in color, it has a wide band of enlarged scales running lengthwise down its back. It can be found in typical desert scrub, especially in the Lower Colorado River area. These lizards prefer to camouflage themselves against shrub and tree branches, so don’t look on the ground for them.
Ornate tree lizard – Another small lizard, this one is two inches with a tail up to twice as long. With distinctive brown and black splotches on the back, they appear darker when cold. Southern Nevada is on the western edge of their range and they can be found on riparian slopes as well as in urban settings. These may be the ones that coined the term, ‘leaping lizards.’
Side-blotched lizard – Another small lizard, about two inches with a tail about as long, the side-blotched is so named for a black blotch on each side of its body, just behind the front legs. But the most striking part of this lizard is the bright blue spots on the males. It inhabits typical desert scrub and is very commonly seen basking or running between bushes.
Western banded gecko – Everyone loves geckos. These little reptiles are different from regular lizards because their skin is thinner and more transparent. To compensate for the greater evaporative loss, they prefer more humidity than most desert lizards. Despite their delicate skin, they have a greater tolerance to heat. They also have vertical pupils and functional eyelids. Banded geckos emit a high-pitched squeak as their first defense strategy, but are also very quick to discard their tails.
Western fence lizard – These small, lizards are about four inches long with a tail one and a half times the body length. Keeled scales give them a spiny appearance. Coloring can be gray to brown to black, with two lengthwise rows of darker scales on the back. Males are known as “blue bellies.” Their habitat varies from to grassland sagebrush to woodland, sometimes at higher elevations. They can live in urban habitats, and like to perch on elevated structures.
Western skink – Another glossy-looking skink, this one is small, with a body only about three and a half inches and a tail twice as long. Brown with three lengthwise stripes in darker colors, the juveniles have a bright blue tail. This skink, too, is found under cover high in the Spring Mountains. It is also found in alpine meadows, grasslands, woodlands and riparian areas and extends into the Great Basin.
Western whiptail lizard – Aptly named, this is one of the fastest lizards around. Its tail is extra-long, more than twice its four-inch body length. The front half of its body appears dark, while the back half and tail are tan or golden brown. This may be the lizard you are mostly likely to see around southern Nevada, because it is extremely common. It is often seen darting under bushes.
Yellow-back spiny lizard – A fairly large lizard, about five inches with a tail as long, and a somewhat stout body, it is easy to recognize with spiny, or keeled, scales on its back. Usually light yellow or tan in color, they have a black color phase when cold. These lizards can be seen up to 5000 feet in elevation.
Zebra-tailed lizard – With a four-inch body and a tail as long, this is another of the fastest lizards in Nevada’s Mojave. It is grayish-tan, with two rows of brown blotches and a very distinctive tail with ‘zebra-like’ stripes. When pursued, it raises its tail to reveal even bolder stripes and runs on its hind legs. Find it in gravelly areas along washes and smaller drainages.
I have to give credit to Polly Conrad, reptile biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, who helped me with the information for this piece and is enthusiastic when it comes to educating the public about reptiles. Conrad authored an entry in the new reference book entitled “Lizards of the American Southwest, A Photographic Field Guide,” edited by Jones and Lovich, 2009, Rio Nuevo Publishers. This is a great source to find photographs of the lizards that I wasn’t able to include. And Polly wouldn’t let me go without telling you about proper reptile etiquette. Kids love to catch lizards, but they need to be careful so as not to make them drop their tails. They should always release them afterwards. Not only do wild lizards not make good pets, but there are laws regulating the collection of them. Lizards are terrific animals to encounter in the wild, and hopefully there will be enough of them left for future generations to enjoy.