Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 1: Tenerife and La Gomera, 2012

The wildlife of the Canary Islands is scarce. No endemic mammals live there except bats. The largest mammals are introduced rabbits and domestic goats who now live free in the mountains. There are some interesting endemic species of birds, including the famous Atlantic Canary (Serinus canaria), the ancestor of the domestic Canary bird, which is very common. More exotic looking birds, such as parrots, either escaped from captivity or came from nearby Africa, and live also free on these islands. The proximity of Africa also explains the relative richness of the invertebrate fauna of the Canaries.

The focus of my interest and photography efforts was this time on Canarian herpetofauna which is pretty unique. All native species of reptiles are endemics of the islands. Amphibians were originally absent there, but now populations Stripeless Tree Frog (Hyla meridionalis) exist on all 7 islands of the archipelago. This species is widely spread on the European continent and was introduced to the Canaries in the recent history. Native species of snakes and turtles are also absent. Unfortunately an allian species of snake is found on Gran Canaria — Californian King Snake (Lampropeltis getula) — that now threatens the endemic fauna, particularly the lizards.

Certainly, lizards are the most exciting and unique group of vertebrates on the Canary Islands. Around 16 species of them are currently recognised there, and all are endemics. Most species, or subspecies, are endemic to a particular island, but, unfortunately, some of them were brought from there to the neighbour island in the recent past — most probably as “passengers” on ferries.

Western Canaries Lizard

I concentrated my activities on true lizards of the endemic genus Gallotia. Only 7 species of them are currently recognised which can be found only on the Canary Islands. I decided to make a small project consisting of three or four trips with a goal to photograph, if not all, then at least most of them in the wild. Chances for that are quite good, except two species — La Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana) and El Hierro Giant Lizard (G. simonyi) — that are bred in captivity at special farms, and are difficult to access in the wild.

Interestingly, populations of all three rarest species of Gallotia that are regarded as closer relatives — G. simonyi, G. bravoana, G. intermedia — are remaining only on the western and southern coast of the island each of these species is native to — El Hierro, La Gomera, Tenerife. I haven’t yet seen any scientific theory explaining why it is so. Did these species ever live on other sides of those islands? If so, why did they remain only in the south-west? Certainly, there should be an ecological reason. If it would be found, it may also explain why the attempts to artificially establish their new populations in other places were failing. Obviously, the habitats of all these species are very similar: steep, almost wall-like slopes of high rocks, facing the ocean, with scarce vegetation. The ecological specialisation should have been an obstacle for their wide distribution on the islands, unlike the other two species of Gallotia that are very common throughout Tenerife — G. galloti — and La Gomera, and El Hierro — G. caesaris. These and other two species — G. stehlini and G. atlantica — are ecologically much more flexible, and therefore evolutionary more successful.

When I was planning the destinations of this trip, the main reason why I chose Tenerife and La Gomera was the existence of 2 species of Gallotia on each of them, with 2 distinctive subspecies of one of them — G. galloti — on Tenerife. I thought that with some luck I would photograph 5 taxons of these lizards in one trip. Unfortunately, that were only 3 at the end.

I suspect three reasons why I failed to find both most interesting species — the “giant lizards” of La Gomera and of Tenerife. The first and most important reason was the season: It had been an extremely hot and dry summer; very few green plants were remaining. Even in less hot places than rocks I was seeing not so many individuals even of common species. I suppose therefore that the majority of lizards were hiding continuously from the sun or even hibernating. The second reason was the difficulty of the terrain that I underestimated in my planning. When I was seeing those habitats on photographs, of course, I was understanding that G. bravoana and G. intermedia live in a rocky area, but I didn’t recognise that to photograph them one would need to literally climb walls. If I knew that I would need it, I would have prepared myself for this. The third reason was my limited knowledge of the places where to search for these lizards. Ideally, there should be a local guide or a consultant. I didn’t know myself such an expert and had no time to find one because the decision to go to these region was made quite spontaneously. Therefore, there was nobody during this trip who could help me with exact knowledge of localities where the lizards can be found.

To be continued in Part 2: Gallotia bravoana.

About Arthur Tiutenko
Nature Photographer and Illustrator

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