Thursday, October 30, 2008

An unlucky lizard's lucky day

I was at the arboretum for a tour this morning, and when it was over, I was doing a little bug-hunting. I heard something scuttling in the leaf litter under a tree. It figured it was a lizard, because we have lots of lizards, and the weather is warm enough that they are still active. But as I sought out the source of the scuttling sound, what I saw didn’t move quite like a lizard. A mouse perhaps? I thought I saw a pair of beady eyes before it submerged itself in the leaves. I waited a bit. The leaves began to twitch as the creature surfaced again. It was a lizard, with its entire head stuck fast inside what looked to be a palm kernel shell!

I picked up the lizard, and pulled gently on the shell. There was no way I could pull it off without wringing the reptile’s neck. There was no telling how long it may have been stuck, but I didn’t want to leave it to suffer for days or even weeks before it slowly died of thirst or starvation. So I brought it to the attention of a couple of the garden staff working nearby, Greg and Jonathan. They were appropriately impressed by the lizard’s predicament, and immediately began brainstorming about the best way to remove the shell, which was smaller than a golf ball, but extremely hard, like a coconut shell.

I tagged along (I found the lizard, after all) and we all went to the service yard, where an array of tools were available to try to crack the shell without cracking the poor lizard’s tiny skull! First they put it in a vice, but the roundness of the kernel made it hard to tighten without it shifting around in the clamp. I suggested that maybe we could use a drop or 2 of olive oil and "lube" it free, much as a person might work a too-tight ring off their finger. I don’t know if there was even any olive oil in the arboretum’s little kitchen, and I didn’t want to chance using soap on a lizard, but it didn’t matter, because the guys had already moved on to the next piece of hardware: a hacksaw.

Carefully and slowly, Jonathan sawed on the tough kernel shell with one hand as he held the lizard in his other hand. Every few seconds he would stop and check the progress of the shell. It was slow going. The lizard was squirming a little, but not as much as I was! Finally, the saw just barely broke through, but the shell was still intact. The next step would be to hold a chisel in the cut and tap it with a hammer. They set the lizard down, held its captive head steady and began tapping, tapping….

Suddenly the kernel shell gave way and split apart, and in that same instant the lizard dashed across the yard at an incredible speed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lizard move that fast! We all thought we might have seen something on its head. Whether it had been injured, or whether it was just a bit of shell still stuck on its head, we will never know because that little guy just kept running, but the fact that it could run so dang fast was encouraging.

Tools, empty shell halves and a long-gone lizard.
Photos by Greg Pongetti

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