Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 2: Gallotia bravoana

The access to the area with the remaining population of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana) was relatively unrestricted although this species is listed as critically endangered. This place — Risco de la Mérica (La Mérica Rock) — is right behind Playa del Inglés — a popular beach of Valle Gran Rey. It has a very distinctive pyramidal shape and therefore is easy to find. It is also on any map of La Gomera with a scale of 1:40 000 or less, along with the breeding station of the conservation project “Centro de Recuperacion del Lagarto Gigante de la Gomera” (or “Lagartario”) which is right in front of the rock. The entire area north of Playa del Inglés is officially protected as a nature reserve. The access to it is open to everyone who obeys the usual rules for such conservation areas — “Do not litter”, “Do not disturb wildlife”, “Do not make fire”, etc. — which are also stated on an information board placed at the beach.

Risco de la Mérica - terra typica and the entire distribution area of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). The information board is telling about a conservation project supported by the EU. One of the aims of this project was building a fence in front of the habitat of the lizards. This fence collapsed after the project was finished, and the protection area was looking abandoned when I visited it.
Risco de la Mérica – terra typica and the entire distribution area of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). The information board is telling about a conservation project supported by the EU. One of the aims of this project was building a fence in front of the habitat of the lizards. This fence collapsed after the project was finished, and the protection area was looking abandoned when I visited it.

I stayed in a hotel nearby for 5 days and could reach the rock within a few minutes. I made 3 excursions to it attempting to find the lizards. The wall where the lizards live is looking west. In the morning this slope is cold because it is completely within a shadow of the rock. The sun starts coming out to this side of the rock at 10 a.m., and in this season at noon it is already burning with full power. There was no sense to come earlier than 10:00 a.m. or later than 11:00 a.m., i.e. there was only 1 hour for work — when, according to my estimation, the lizards might be basking and not hiding.

View at La Mérica rock (Risco de La Mérica) through a window of my hotel room — the terra typica of Gallotia bravoana and the stronghold of the last population of this species.
View at La Mérica rock (Risco de La Mérica) through a window of my hotel room — the terra typica of Gallotia bravoana and the stronghold of the last population of this species.

The rock is in reality larger than it appears when you are looking at it from the town. The base of it is completely covered by debris that you have to pass to reach the the stony wall and to start climbing to the levels where the lizards live. It is very difficult to walk on this field of smaller and larger stones, and I needed about an hour to cross it.

The wall is steep but not really vertical, i.e. anyone in good physical shape should be able to climb at least the lower half of it even without special equipment. The upper half is steeper but also not vertical. Most of it is free of vegetation. Some green plants persist only on ledges that are very easy to recognise even when you are standing at the bottom of the rock. Since adult gallotias of this species are strictly vegetarian these ledges can be the only places on the rock where they come to feed. Therefore it appeared logical to search there.

I reached the lowest of them carrying the backpack with photo equipment. Without this heavy load I could climb even higher. To be able to do get also the equipment on the rock one would need a ropes, nails and hooks. It should be also wise to wear body and head protection (helmet). I had nothing of that stuff. Therefore I stopped climbing when I arrived at the second such ledge and recognised that the slope was getting steeper. Leaving the backpack and climbing without it didn’t make much sense because I came to photograph the lizards. To continue without ropes and protection also appeared too dangerous. Therefore I searched the places with green that I had access to. After that I sat down on the highest ledge that I managed to reach and started waiting for the sun to shine at this place. It was 10:30 a.m., but the entire western side of the rock was in a deep shadow. One hour had to pass till the sunshine reached the place where I was sitting. It was quickly getting hot. I started searching again because it looked like the only time when the lizards, if there were any, should come out for feeding.

View from the habitat of G. bravoana at Punta de la Calera, Playa del Inglés and “Lagartario” - the breeding station. This photo was taken at 10:25 a.m. As you see, this side of the rock was still entirely in a deep shadow.
View from the habitat of G. bravoana at Punta de la Calera, Playa del Inglés and “Lagartario” – the breeding station. This photo was taken at 10:25 a.m. As you see, this side of the rock was still entirely in a deep shadow.

I searched very carefully all places with green vegetation that I could reach and was also using a binocular to look at the places that were higher. Unfortunately, I discovered neither lizards nor any other animals. The area appeared almost lifeless. Near noon the entire western side of Risco de la Mérica stood in bride sunshine and the stones rapidly got extremely hot. I could not believe that any lizards would stay on surface in these hours. It was also the time when lizards of the common species — G. caesaris — were disappearing, too. Even if G. bravoana don’t hibernate in this season, their daily period of activity should be limited to a couple of hours. Since such large lizards need much food and since the green plants are rare in their habitat, it appears to me unlikely that one or two hours would be enough time for finding and eating them. A lizard also needs some time for basking because its body has to reach certain temperature before the animal can feed.

Breeding station of a conservation and reintroduction project for Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Just behind it - the habitat of the only existing population of this species.
Breeding station of a conservation and reintroduction project for Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Just behind it – the habitat of the only existing population of this species.

I have no doubts that I was searching in the right place. The ropes that were hanging on the rock and that the researchers were using as climbing aid were another confirmation of this. Since I didn’t find even young individuals of this species who probably eat insects, I suppose that the lizards weren’t active at all in this hottest period of the year. Since the entire wild population of this species is estimated as 150-200 individuals and since this south-western wall of Risco de la Mérica is the entire distribution area of it, I can’t believe that the lizards were there and active but I’ve just overseen them. Therefore I have two recommendations for someone willing to find the giant lizards on La Gomera and for me if I should decide to go there again. First, the season should be colder — either spring or autumn, or even winter. Second, the search should be tried higher on the rock. Of course, it should make sense to contact an expert — a staff of the breeding station, or someone who conducted a research of this species.

To be continued in Part 3: Gallotia intermedia.

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.