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The New Forest Reptile Centre

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Back in May this year I visited the New Forest Reptile Centre (Holidays Hill, near Lyndhurst, New Forest National Park, Hampshire, UK). I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time – I think I last went there some time during the late 1990s – and the very hot and sunny weather meant that it was a great day to go look at reptiles. This article is mostly a brief showcasing of various of my (poor) photos, but I figure I may as well share them, in part to help make the place better known. Some of the text used here is recycled from old Tet Zoo articles.

Anyway, if you’re a British herp nerd, the New Forest Reptile Centre is definitely worth a visit. If you’re not… well, it’s still worth a look. If you’re lucky, you can see all native British reptile species there in the one visit (how lucky was I? Read on). There are a few amphibians as well. Admission is free: there is a small charge for parking, but that’s it. The site isn’t large – you can look at everything in less than an hour, should you wish – and the animals are contained within ten (or so) concrete-walled enclosures, or ‘pods’. There are bird-themed things to look at as well (including a raptor nest-cam).

The ‘pods’ are mini habitat biomes, nicely landscaped and enclosing microhabitats tailored for the respective species. Let’s look at some of the animals…

Emma (my daughter) was particularly taken with this apparently bold and tame Viviparous (= Common) lizard Zootoca vivipara that spent ages climbing round the netting on the top of the enclosure. The Viviparous lizard is a northern specialist of temperate and even Arctic places. It has a tremendously wide distribution, occurring from western Europe all the way east to the coast of the Pacific. It occurs throughout Britain, being most easily found in upland moors, heathland, cliff edges, sand dunes, and uncultivated field edges, roadsides, railway embankments and gardens. In gardens, members of the species are heavily predated upon by domestic cats and, believe it or not, by Blackbirds Turdus merula. Viviparous lizards are variable in colour, usually have a brightly coloured underside, and are born black and – despite being born live – still bearing an egg-tooth.

Viviparous lizard, with obviously autotomised tail. Photo Darren Naish.

You might know of the Viviparous lizard as Lacerta vivipara. However, Mayer & Bischoff (1996) argued that the traditionally conceived version of the genus Lacerta is polyphyletic on a semi-industrial scale and hence that all those lineages not grouping together with Lacerta sensu stricto (L. agilis and close kin) need to be removed and given their own generic names. This rampant non-monophyly of traditional ‘Lacerta’ has been quite widely recognised (e.g., Arnold 1989, Fu 1998, 2000). As is so often the case, names already exist for many of the respective lineages, so it isn’t that ‘new’ names are in need of creation; rather, old ones have been resurrected from synonomy. Indeed, Zootoca itself isn’t a new name, but was coined by Wagler in 1830.

Female Sand lizard. Males are more brightly coloured, with green flanks. This individual might be gravid. Photo by Darren Naish.

Here’s another native British lizard – this time a female Sand lizard L. agilis (a ‘proper’ member – the ‘proper’ member – of Lacerta). I saw two females, but no males, unfortunately. And, yes, this fat, (comparatively) slow, short-limbed lizard is stupidly named Lacerta agilis. Good work, Carl. Sand lizards are not uncommon on the European continent (from France eastwards into Asia), but in Britain native populations are restricted to fragile heathland sites in Dorset, Surrey and Merseyside and many colonies are known to have gone extinct. There are, however, reintroduced populations in numerous other places, including south-west and south-east England, Wales and Scotland (Beebee & Griffiths 2000).

Marsh frog (I think). Photo by Darren Naish.

This, of course, is one of those goddam Western Palaearctic water frogs (Pelophylax). Which one? As you might recall from the article I published about these frogs back in July 2011, working that out can be tricky. Actually, I think this is a Marsh frog P. ridibundus, a large, comparatively long-legged member of the group that has been widely introduced across south-eastern England. A smaller, shorted-legged species, the Pool frog P. lessonae, was long thought to be an alien species to the UK but is now known – thanks to fossils – to be a native that we carelessly allowed to go extinct (consequently, Scandinavian Pool frogs are now being reintroduced to the country).

While I didn’t get good photos of all of them, at the end of my visit I had seen Viviparous lizard, Sand lizard, Adder Vipera berus and Grass snake Natrix natrix. No Slow-worm Anguis fragilis – unsurprising because they’re semi-fossorial and generally spend the daytime hiding beneath cover – and no Smooth snake Coronella austriaca. Frustrating, since Smooth snakes are neat. Constricting, viviparous colubrids. Yes, in Britain, I kid you not. So, four out of six species. This doesn’t count the non-natives, of which we have a few.

Male green lizard exacts revenge on my hand, ouch. Photo by Jon McGowan.

On the subject of those, I’ve been meaning for a long time to revisit the whole Western green lizard L. bilienata issue (yes, green lizards are close relatives of L. agilis and hence ‘proper’ members of Lacerta as well).

A famous breeding colony of these large and beautiful lacertid lizards is established at Boscombe in Bournemouth (Dorset, southern England), and – if you know where to look – it’s very easy to find them. The colony was only officially ‘discovered’ in July 2002 when local herpetologist Chris Gleed-Owen noticed it while on his way to work one morning (Gleed-Owen 2003, Naish 2010); apparently the lizards were illegally dumped. I’ve had close encounters with several individuals, and here’s one of the closest (thanks to Jon McGowan for the photo: more here, on Jon’s blog). Did it hurt? I’ve been bitten by lots of animals now [some evidence] and the answer is: bloody yes, it did… disproportionately so, given the animal’s size.

The New Forest Reptile Centre’s website is here. For previous Tet Zoo articles on European reptiles (and amphibians), see…

Refs – -

Arnold, E. N. 1989. Towards a phylogeny and biogeography of the Lacertidae: relationships within an Old-World family of lizards derived from morphology. Bulletin of British Museum of Natural History (Zoology) 55, 209-257.

Beebee, T. & Griffiths, R. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles. HarperCollins, London.

Gleed-Owen, C. P. 2004. Green lizards and Wall lizards on Bournemouth Cliffs. Herpetological Bulletin 88, 3-7.

Fu, J. 1998. Toward the phylogeny of the family Lacertidae: implications from mitochondrial DNA 12S and 16S gene sequences (Reptilia: Squamata). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 9, 118-130.

- . 2000. Toward the phylogeny of the family Lacertidae – why 4708 base pairs of mtDNA sequences cannot draw the picture. Biological Journal of Linnean Society 71, 203-217.

Mayer, W. & Bischoff, W. 1996. Beiträge zur taxonomischen Revision der Gattung Lacerta (Reptilia: Lacertidae). Teil 1. Zootoca, Omanasaura, Timon und Tieraals eigenständige Gattungen. Salamandra 32, 163-170.

Naish, D. 2010. Tetrapod Zoology: Book One. CFZ Publishing, Bideford (UK).

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. LeeB 1 11:20 pm 08/15/2012

    That Blackbirds eat lizards is not surprising at all.
    They have been introduced to New Zealand and I have seen them attacking copper skinks here in Auckland.
    I suspect they would be a major predator of smaller juvenile skinks in gardens here, along with cats of course which I have also seen predating on skinks.
    Although one of the skinks turned the tables and got a mouthful of cat fur, the cat was surprised and shook itself, the lizard let go and and got away.

    I would not be surprised if song thrushes, which have also been introduced here, and commonly feed on the ground, also ate small skinks.

    LeeB.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Dartian 3:24 am 08/16/2012

    Darren:
    polyphyletic on a semi-industrial scale

    I like that turn of phrase! :)

    Good work, Carl.

    It’s actually rather surprising that Linnaeus didn’t choose the viviparous lizard as the ‘proper’ member of Lacerta – it is by far the most common and most widespread species of lizard in Linnaeus’ native Sweden. But then again, Linnaeus was notoriously uninterested in ‘reptiles’…

    Link to this
  3. 3. naishd 4:22 am 08/16/2012

    Thrushes are smart, adaptable, fairly robust passerines that can indeed take small vertebrates without problem; blackbirds ate huge quantities of the Common frog tadpoles in my pond last year… But, then, this sort of flexibility is present in many muscicapoid passerines. Have you ever seen the photos of the Eurasian robin Erithacus rubecula that took to catching small fish?

    Darren

    Link to this
  4. 4. David Marjanović 4:56 am 08/16/2012

    and, believe it or not, by Blackbirds Turdus merula.

    ~:-| How does that work size-wise?

    L. bilienata

    L. bilineata, “with two lines”?

    I like that turn of phrase! :)

    Seconded!!!

    It’s actually rather surprising that Linnaeus didn’t choose the viviparous lizard as the ‘proper’ member of Lacerta

    Linnaeus didn’t do type species. The very concept didn’t exist yet.

    Remember: the point of designating type species is that it fixes which species a genus name sticks to in case of taxonomic rearrangements; Linnaeus didn’t believe this could ever happen, to him everything was plain obvious.

    The type species of Vultur was chosen because it happens to be the first one that Linnaeus listed, for whatever reason. It’s Vultur gryphus, a New World vulture (the Andean condor).

    Likewise, the type species of Vespa is a hornet, not an ordinary wasp; those have been given the new genus names Vespula and Dolichovespula

    Link to this
  5. 5. LeeB 1 5:21 am 08/16/2012

    I hadn’t seen photos of the robin catching fish; I have however seen photos of a confused small songbird that was feeding insects to goldfish that came and gaped at the side of a pond.

    LeeB.

    Link to this
  6. 6. naishd 5:26 am 08/16/2012

    Yes, a famous photo of a Northern cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis, ‘duped’ by a visual sign stimulus it cannot resist…

    Darren

    Link to this
  7. 7. Dartian 7:01 am 08/16/2012

    David M.: Thanks for the correction.

    Regarding lizard-eating thrushes: The rock thrushes Monticola (although they aren’t real thrushes, according to the latest phylogenetic analyses) would almost seem to be lizard specialists. In any case, as a Google Image search will reveal, they do get photographed remarkably often with lizard prey in their beaks.

    Link to this
  8. 8. RoryD 9:08 am 08/16/2012

    Thanks for this post Darren. I was only made aware of this place by yourself a while back and I’m itching to go there. Too bad a dissertation on our Anguids has got in the way this summer.

    “And, yes, this fat, (comparatively) slow, short-limbed lizard is stupidly named Lacerta agilis. Good work, Carl.”

    Smith (1951) Claims Mr Carl Linnaeus thought common and sand lizards were one and the same, and so the name “agilis” would have applied to the common lizard (which makes far more sense)Lacerta Agilis was subsequently applied to the common lizard in the literature until Charles Bonaparte’s “Fauna Itallica” in 1836, (and the name first applied ‘correctly’ by an English Author in Bell’s 1839 “A History of British Reptiles”.)

    Smith,M.(1951) The British Amphibians and Reptiles. London, Collins, p.184

    Link to this
  9. 9. Tayo Bethel 6:56 am 08/17/2012

    Piscivorous robins?

    Reminds me of the anecdotes of Bahama mockingbirds catching crabs. And greater kiskadees also take fish.

    Link to this
  10. 10. David Marjanović 8:50 am 08/17/2012

    and so the name “agilis” would have applied to the common lizard (which makes far more sense)

    Ah. That’s what we get because Linnaeus didn’t even use type specimens. That concept, too, postdates him.

    Link to this
  11. 11. David Marjanović 8:54 am 08/17/2012

    Another example: Linnaeus lumped all crocodylians into Lacerta crocodilus. The specimen he seems to have used the most for his description, or something, happened to be a caiman, so when it was later declared the type specimen, the species became restricted to a species of caiman, Caiman crocodilus, while all other crocodylians got new names, even the culturally stereotypical Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus with its stupid y).

    And then that name was apparently misunderstood as meaning that that caiman is particularly crocodile-like, leading to the German name Krokodilkaiman.

    Sic transit gloria Linnaei.

    Link to this
  12. 12. vdinets 12:56 pm 08/17/2012

    Well, the common name of L. agilis isn’t a very good one, either. While there are hundreds of lizard species associated with sandy habitats, L. agilis is not one of them, at least in the parts of its range that I’m familiar with.

    Link to this
  13. 13. RoryD 2:04 pm 08/17/2012

    @vdinets

    It is in the UK. Namely because we are towards the Northern limit of its range, so only dry sandy areas provide high enough temperatures for the eggs to incubate, and perhaps for adult survival as well.

    A similar situation exists with the smooth snake Coronella austriaca. In Britain it is only found on dry heather heathlands or adjacent habitat (and thus very rare) but seems to live all over the place on the mainland.

    Link to this

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