The Night Shift at Anza-Borrego
Desert banded geckos are unusual as geckos go, whose large, bulbous eyes generally muster only unblinking stares. But the nocturnal Coleonyx variegatus variegatus, with their movable eyelids (and charming little squeaks) make them perfectly qualified to audition for certain late-night insurance commercials. Talent scouts will have to look pretty hard to find them, though. They wear some of the best camouflage out there, blending into the desert floor to give them ultra-stealth ability when bravely hunting spiders and insects, like baby scorpions.
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Anza-Borrego’s night shift features animals that are physically smaller than their counterparts in East San Diego County’s Pacific Crest mountains only a few miles to the west. The sidewinder rattlesnake, Crotalus cerastes, as one example, at an average adult length of about 24″, weighs in at less than a half pound and is approximately half-scale (in length) of the western diamondback and the red diamondback rattlesnakes.
Three other snakes working the Anza-Borrego night shift, seen in the wee hours of the July 4 holiday, were the shovel-nosed, the leaf-nosed, and the glossy. The first two are small species, better suited to survive with lesser food sources than their mountain and coastal counterparts.
The Colorado Desert shoveled-nosed snake, Chionactis occipitalis annulata, is an elegant, living necklace that deserves a more elegant name. They’re tiny, adults are only 11–17 inches long. Be that as it may, they dive forthrightly into the sand in search of protection, and food. It is not so far from the truth that these snakes actually swim in fine granular sand, and in the same sense dive for prey below the surface. Their body contours and smooth scales allow very fast travel on the pulverized sand of desert roads, where they may be observable with higher frequency and, serendipitously, more conveniently by humans studying their nocturnal behavior.
A special note: Californiaherps.com is an excellent website for all California reptiles and amphibians, in fact the highly recommended go-to site for the identification of anything you’re not sure of—herpetologically that is—including such questions as what-is-that-subspecies-anyway? The photo libraries are extensive, featuring some of the best reptile images anywhere, with interpretive documentation from academic, professional and amateur herpetologists who take great care in the dissemination of correct information.
The spotted leaf-nosed snake, Phyllorhynchus decurtatus, is a not-so-friendly predator of the banded gecko. They eat small lizards, lizard eggs and snake eggs. A small snake reaching only 12″-20″ in length, they hang out at the local desert roadside primarily in the month of June, keeping a close association with alluvial areas, sandy bajadas, where they live most of their lives in the ground. Their camouflage is excellent, as stealthy as the banded gecko’s; neither are easily resolved until movement is seen, which may be against a darker background of road asphalt.
An adult desert glossy snake, Arizona elegans eburnata, is 3–4 feet long, giving it a few more options when foraging for food in the night. Sleeping lizards are at risk, as are birds and small mammals, and even other snakes who may have no defense against the glossy’s constrictions. They’re not poisonous and considered harmless to humans.
Photos by Barbara Swanson unless noted
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