Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Things that live in sand, Part 1. Finding Anniella.

Anniella habitat.

We had been in Baja for two weeks. Four days earlier I had fallen off a cliff while attempting to shoot an iguanid lizard, genus Petrosaurus, with a BB gun, breaking both my right elbow and the gun. I was part of an expedition from the Royal Ontario Museum, the goal to collect reptiles in Baja California, Mexico, extract proteins for electrophoretic studies of populational variation along the peninsula, or something like that. The details of the analyses were beyond me. I was a young graduate student from Canada studying something very different, but thrilled to be invited along to herp in a place where there were some really serious herps.

We were two days from returning to Los Angeles, and on the way back north stopped at a beach south of Ensenada. This was where, word had it, Anniella pulchra could be found in the sand, among the roots of dune plants. Anniella pulchra is a small, limbless, burrowing lizard. It looks like a polished chopstick, and can swim through sand as fast as a tuna races through the ocean. (Okay, not quite that fast.) The creatures in Tremors were scaled up, steroid-ridden Anniellas with more complicated front ends.

It was a grey, drizzly day and the sand was heavy and difficult to walk through. We plodded along. A well-rotted grey whale carcass was in the surf; its bare ribs were sticking from the water like a wrecked boat. Yes, it reeked.


Anniella pulchra

On our knees we dug at the bases of clumps of a woody-stemmed beach plant whose name I don’t know. We probed among the roots, hoping for that golden flash of polished scales, the elusive Anniella. It took a long time. I was not very helpful, with one arm in a sling. Finally someone found one. We only needed one.

They are remarkable creatures, perfectly suited to life in sand. You could live almost on top of them and not know they were there.

And then of course you could rip out the beach plants and plop down a resort hotel, and then they wouldn’t be there anymore.

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