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“The Symbol” Part 4: Our Lizard Saga Comes to an End

Image gallery from our expedition in Spain. Click the image to enter the gallery and see some of our favorite photos.

Earlier this summer, National Geographic Young Explorer Dr. Neil Losin and his colleague Dr. Nate Dappen traveled to the Spanish Mediterranean islands of Ibiza and Formentera to create a book about the endemic Ibiza Wall Lizard (Podarcis pityusensis), the symbol of these islands. Learn more about Neil and Nate’s work at www.daysedgeproductions.com.

My colleague Nate Dappen and I have been back home for nearly two months now, but we’re still working through the thousands of images we captured during our 1-month photographic expedition on the Mediterranean islands of Ibiza and Formentera. We were there to create a photographic book about the Ibiza Wall Lizard (Podarcis pityusensis), which is only found in the Pityusic Archipelago of the western Mediterranean. (See our previous updates here: Update 1, Update 2, Update 3.) You can see a gallery of some of our favorite images from the expedition here.

During the expedition, as I approached the project one day at a time, I don’t think I fully appreciated the diversity of the lizards. But now that the adventure is over and I look back on our photos from dozens of different islands, the variation from one population to another, particularly the diversity in color, is stunning! Some of the most amazing inter-island differences occurred between islands that were barely separated at all. Even between islands just a few meters apart – islands that shared similar terrain, climate, and biological communities – there were often stark differences in the color, size, or behavior of their lizard inhabitants.

We decided we needed a standardized approach to document this diversity, so we adopted the white-background “Meet Your Neighbours” style of photography (you might have seen this approach used in the recent National Geographic / National Parks Service “BioBlitz” held in Rocky Mountain National Park). We had research permits that allowed us to capture a couple of lizards from each island population and hold them long enough to photograph them in the Meet Your Neighbours “field studio” before re-releasing them at their site of capture. I think these simple studio portraits do a great job demonstrating the population differences in color!

A selection of lizards we photographed in the white-background Meet Your Neighbours style.

By the end of the month we spent in the Mediterranean, I had also gained a better appreciation for the threats that these lizards face. The IUCN classifies them as “Near Threatened,” and this classification may initially seem counterintuitive to someone visiting Ibiza or Formentera for a vacation – after all, the lizards are abundant all over the islands, even in towns and on crowded tourist beaches. But at the same time, their entire global range encompasses just a few islands, so the lizards are vulnerable even to local human impacts. Luckily for the lizards (or “sargantanas” in the local Catalan language), the governments of Ibiza and Formentera (particularly the latter) seem skeptical of the merits of additional human development. And many of the most distinctive lizard populations are found on tiny, uninhabited islands that are well protected within national parks and marine reserves. We got to visit these islands and interact with many of the local park officials during our expedition; they are passionate folks committed to keeping these places pristine and their natural inhabitants (lizard or otherwise) in a natural state. With great photos and informative text and maps, our book will allow people to experience these small, fragile island ecosystems without ever setting foot there.

A more insidious threat to the unique small-island populations of lizards is illegal collecting for the pet trade. While there are many responsible herpetoculturists who only keep captive-bred specimens – and who work hard to promote reptile and amphibian conservation – there are other collectors who are less ethical. By publishing a book of beautiful photographs showing the amazing geographic variation in the Ibiza Wall Lizard, do we risk perpetuating the demand for rare and exotic color morphs of these lizards in the illegal pet trade? The thought has certainly crossed our minds. But the fact is, those few people who are involved in the illegal wildlife trade already know the lizards well, and most visitors to the islands would never consider taking lizards home with them. So I think our book will help – the more that people acknowledge the lizards as an indispensable part of the islands’ natural heritage, the greater the motivation of the local government will be to keep the sargantanas – and the unique landscape they inhabit – preserved so that tourists and locals can continue to enjoy their amazing reptilian neighbors for generations to come.