Most people probably don't think of Ohio and lizards in the same breath; maybe Florida or Arizona, where anoles, geckos and racerunners dart about the landscape. Lizard abundance does decline as one moves north to the latitude of Ohio, but we've got five native species.
Most of them are uncommon and local, and take some work to find.
A fairly common Ohio lizard, at least within its southern Ohio range, is the Eastern fence lizard. Spend enough time hiking around dry woods in any of the counties in which they occur and you'll eventually stumble across one. Chances are, you'll hear it first.
Fence lizards blend with the dried leaves of the forest floor remarkably well and skitter away when disturbed. A fleeing fence lizard moves so fast, you might miss it, but you'll hear the crackle of leaves as the animal races off.
If you do spot a fence lizard at rest, you'll be rewarded by the spectacle of a darn good-looking reptile. A mature adult tapes out at around 7 inches in length and is grayish-brown overall. An ornate pattern of tan chevrons outlined in black decorate the back. Incredibly long spindly toes aid the lizard's frequent forays into trees or over jagged rocks.
While fence lizards may appear somber in tone up top, an adult male's underside offers a jarring contrast to its earth-toned upper side. The throat and sides of the belly are trimmed in swaths of brilliant, iridescent blue.
When the lizard is in its typical hunched posture, its flashy blue undercarriage is invisible. However, when the fence lizard stilts upwards on its long legs, the bright blue coloration flashes into view.
This colorful display presumably impresses the girl lizards.
The natural inclination of many a naturalist is to catch a fence lizard when they spot one. Good luck. These scaly speedsters generally dart to the nearest tree, and race up the trunk. Quite cleverly, the lizard will then stay on the opposite side of the trunk, making its capture nearly impossible.
Such agility serves them well when running down prey, which includes everything from beetles to crickets to grasshoppers.
Fence lizards are very active now, following their winter hibernation. The males' blue bellies are at their brightest and they're chasing the females and mating.
Before long, breeding females will lay up to 15 tiny eggs under a rotting log or in some such hiding spot. A month and a half later, the little lizards will hatch, looking like mirror copies of the adult but only 2 inches in length. If all goes well, an Eastern fence lizard can live to eight years of age, if not longer.
Good places to find fence lizards include Lake Katharine State Nature Preserve in Jackson County, Shawnee State Forest in Scioto County and Waterloo Wildlife Area in Athens County. for more information about fence lizards.
Jim McCormac is a naturalist with Ohio Division of Wildlife.