A bright green lizard hunted on the railing outside the Camp Salmen office, creeping a few inches at a time until he suddenly jumped to clamp his jaws around a tiny bug. Occasionally he would abruptly stop his forward progress, do some tiny push-ups, raise his head and extend his bright, ruby red dewlap from his throat for all to see. He was notifying any nearby female lizards that he was a stud and available; just in case any were watching, you understand. To any male lizards that happened to be in the neighborhood there was this bold statement: “This is MY territory. Stay away. The girl lizards are mine, too.”
It’s hard to believe that, besides alligators and a handful of other less ubiquitous lizards, this swaggering six-inch critter is all that’s left of Louisiana’s once mighty Reptilia lizard class. The dinosaurs that populated the state and the world with seven-ton monsters that ate 80-ton monsters during their millions-of-years rule are now just bones and Mesozoic ooze in the strata below our feet. However, asteroids and mass extinction have not held back our little friend because he shares many of the same traits and possesses the entire attitude.
The proper name for the lizard is Anole. They are also called chameleons because they can change color. This is courtesy of special cells in their skin called chromatophores that can switch the animal’s appearance from either a shade of brown to a shade of green, depending on the brightness and color of the surroundings and their mood. This is unlike the true African and Asian chameleons, the ones with the curly tails, cocked eyes and smooth moves that have such a larger color palette to work with they can even go polka dot if they have to. Among the anoles there are rare mutations that are blue or yellow but they are a lot easier to spot by predators and tend to get eaten. If a cat or a kid mauls an anole their mood and color darken. They become dark brown, get black circles around their eyes and act morose. Wouldn’t you?
Though the proper name of this creature is Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) most people around here just call them lizards. They are the predominant native variety though there are a half-dozen similar species that were imported from the Caribbean as pets and turned loose. The brown anole from Cuba and the Bahamas is invading the U.S. South and taking over ground level habitats from the Carolina variety, driving them into the treetops. These are recognizable by an orange dewlap and a zigzag pattern on their back. They can also change colors but only into a festive black, how can you tell what mood they’re in? I haven’t seen any at Camp Salmen so far, so little Romeo is free to roam the railings, looking for love and bugs.