Reptiles in the garden? Let’s hope so!
You may see a lizard scurrying for cover under your lettuces, or a snake slithering across your strawberry patch, but what are they doing in your garden? Are they pests or helpers? And what’s the difference between reptiles and amphibians?
Reptiles v. amphibians
Reptiles and amphibians are both cold-blooded. This does not mean that they are insensitive or cruel, it simply means that they cannot keep themselves warm. If you want to attract reptiles and amphibians to your garden, this is helpful information. The difference between reptiles and amphibians is seen in their skin. Reptiles have dry, scaly skin, while amphibians have smooth, moist skin. Also, amphibians start their lives in water, breathing through gills, while reptiles do not. The classification of reptiles and amphibians may surprise you…
Reptile and amphibian classification
Reptiles (Reptilia) include crocodiles, lizards, turtles, and, wait for it - birds! Before you lose your mind, hear me out. The classification system you grew up with, the Linnaean system, was developed in the 1730’s by Carolus Linnaeus. [I was allowed to pick up and read one of Linnaeus’ first edition copies of Systema naturae, sive regna tria naturae systematice proposita per classes, ordines, genera, & species (1735), during my visit to the Missouri Botanical Gardens!] Linnaeus’ work was based solely on physical characteristics, which meant birds and lizards were in two separate clades. [Clades are subdivisions of a class, descendants of a common ancestor.]
In the 1940’s, a biologist named Willi Hennig came up with a different classification system. His system is based on genetic ancestry, and it is called phylogenetics. Using this more accurate method, birds are members of the reptile class.
What are reptiles?
So what makes a reptile a reptile? First, all reptiles are descended from 4-legged, cold-blooded vertebrates. The reptile clan includes lizards, snakes, and turtles. Skinks are a type of lizard. Most reptiles hatch from eggs (oviparous), while some give live birth (viviparous). Reptiles can range in size from the tiny gecko, at just over 1/2 an inch in length, to the giant, 20-foot saltwater crocodile. Reptiles shed their skin as they grow, so you may find signs of a resident lizard, even if it is too shy to let you catch it out in the open.
What do reptiles eat?
Most reptiles are carnivores or insectivores, though there are a few exceptions. This is what makes [most of] them so useful in the garden. Local reptiles will feed on aphids, ants, beetles, flies, wasps, grasshoppers, slugs and snails, smaller reptiles, baby voles, mice, and rats, sowbugs, earwigs, and practically anything else they can grab, including beneficial spiders and worms, and even baby birds
Why attract reptiles to the garden?
Creating habitat for native reptiles in or near your garden is an easy way to limit pest populations without any chemicals or effort on your part. Just be sure that you do not release an invasive pet reptile into your yard - this is how ecological disasters often start. Please don’t do it. In California, native lizards may not be captured or sold, so you can’t buy them. What you can do is create a welcoming habitat. They will find it, sooner or later.
To attract reptiles, use these tips to provide healthy habitat for reptiles and their prey:
Nearly all reptiles found in California are harmless, with the exception of rattlesnakes, Mexican bearded lizards, gila monsters, and a handful of others. Since reptiles are mostly shy, conflicts are rare. Creating habitat for these elusive garden helpers is a great way to cut back on your work load, while increasing biodiversity in your garden.
Did you know that crocodiles are more closely related to birds than they are to lizards?
Now you know.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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