Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Camelback Chuckwalla

Late-spring hiking at Camelback this year has been different: Fewer parking spaces because of the great weather, less time to hike with the new closing hour of 7 p.m. (Jeez, they've gotta to change that!)

One thing is the same: The annual appearance of the friendly chuckwalla.

These handsome, large Sonoran-desert lizards come out when the ground heats up. Last month, On a recent day, I saw what looked like two baby chuckwallas. A couple of weeks later, I spotted this bad boy.

Don't try to catch one or you might hurt it. To escape predators, chuckwallas slip between cracks in the rock and puff up their bodies, wedging themselves in tight. This may work for coyotes (who may just get a drumstick instead of the whole thing) but determined humans would have no problem messing with them.

Seeing a chuckwalla at Camelback is a special treat for nerds like me and out-of-town visitors, some of whom probably wonder if they're Gila monsters. Chuckwallas are much bigger then common fence lizards, more colorful and all-around cooler-looking. They blend in beautifully with Camelback's orange-red hue.

Another neat thing about chuckwallas is their name. Though it sounds like something a hayseed from the Midwest might have thunk up, Wikipedia says it's derived from a Spanish bastardization of a couple of words for the lizard used by two Native American tribes.

The Hohokam, (the group of Native Americans who lived in the Phoenix area for about 1,000 years before leaving a few decades before Columbus' arrival) probably considered chuckwallas a delicious treat -- the Hohokam also ate cholla.

The Wiki article told me something I always suspected: that chuckwallas are basically desert iguanas. No wonder I like them so much: I used to have a pet iguana as a kid. Its name was Whiplash, because it liked to whip people with its tail so hard that it would leave a mark. It also bit me on the nose once. I sold it back to the pet shop I'd bought it from a year later, and found it had gone up in price like a rare coin. I was happy to have the extra money instead of the iguana. But I can't get those sweet little lizard faces out of my head. They're so cute!

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