More than a dozen types of lizards live in Death Valley, and they scurry and scramble all over trails, rocks, and even dunes. “They’re the one creature almost everyone will see, even on a short visit.” One of park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg’s favorites is the zebra-tailed lizard, which gets its name from its distinctive black-and-white striped tail.
“Sometimes they get so excited that they will stop suddenly and wave their tails back and forth over their heads.” — park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg
“They can get up on their hind legs and dash around on two feet, like little dinosaurs,” says Van Valkenburg. “Sometimes they get so excited that they will stop suddenly and wave their tails back and forth over their heads.” It might look like oddball behavior, but even this wacky wiggle has a purpose: If there’s a roadrunner, coyote, or other predator in sight, the lizard is betting that the predator will make a grab for the flashy tail. If that happens, the lizard—like many of its kind—can miraculously shed the chunk of captured tail and make a dash for safety.
Not all lizards are deft athletes, though. “The chuckwalla is the opposite because it is not fast at all,” explains Van Valkenburg. This odd-looking lizard is big and fat. “The biggest ones are about a foot-and-a-half long,” he notes. “And they’re vegetarians, which is unusual for a lizard. They love to eat flowers.”
In lieu of speed, the chuckwalla relies on defensive maneuvers. When a chuckwalla feels threatened, it will head to the nearest rock and squeeze into a crack. It wedges its thick body inside and starts gulping air to inflate itself, so it’s completely wedged in. That’s good enough to stump today’s predators, but not the native Shoshone Tribe, who once lived in scattered villages in Death Valley. The Shoshone would search for chuckwallas, prized for their their meaty tails. For this, the Shoshone created a specialized tool: a long stick with a backward-pointed hook, which they could slide into the chuckwalla’s hiding place, puncture the lizard, deflate it, and pull it out.