Whiptail hunting in Arizona and New Mexico

I recently returned from some fieldwork in the southwestern U.S. where we were studying whiptail lizards. The goal of the trip was to go back and visit a number of historically important localities and collect samples. This was my most extensive experience with fieldwork in New Mexico and Arizona, most of my previous work on whiptails has been in California and Mexico. I was joined by Bob Thomson and Amber Wright from the University of Hawaii. We covered a lot of ground on this trip, seeing a bunch of cool places along the border and starting in the land of Saguaro Cacti and Gila monsters (we spent the first day herping in the Batamote mountains, just north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and collecting some Tiger Whiptails).

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Our next stop included Sabino Canyon, at the base of the Catalina Mountains, just outside Tucson. A popular recreation site near Tucson, the canyon also contains some interesting populations of parthenogenetic whiptails. One of the most taxonomically confusing complexes of these unisexual, all female lizards is the Sonoran Spotted Whiptail (A. sonorae), which is widespread across Arizona, and occurs in adjacent New Mexico and Northern Mexico. Some populations of these lizards have previously been considered a different species (A. flagellicaudus), and John Wright (former curator of herpetology at the LA County Museum of Natural History) was close to describing several other morphologically distinct clones as new species before he retired (including the populations in Sabino Canyon). In addition to the whiptails, we also came across a beautiful, big male collared lizard.

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Our next stop was farther south, nearly to the Nogales, AZ border crossing. Just west, in the Pajarito Mountains is the type locality for the largest species of whiptail in the U.S.: the Giant Spotted Whiptail (A. burti stictogrammus). After passing through some old western towns, such as Tombstone (made famous by the Western film with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, which I highly recommend if you have not seen it) and Bisbee (a historic mining town, if there ever was one), we made our way to the Chiricahua Mountains. The Chiricahua’s are incredibly biologically diverse and scenic (envision Yosemite Valley if it were in Arizona). After a brief stop at the Chiricahua Desert Museum (which I highly recommend visiting, they have some incredible herpetological exhibits and great facilities!) we headed to the true land of the whiptails: New Mexico. Many sites in the state are notable for the diversity of whiptail species that can be found at a single locality. Particularly fun was catching little striped whiptails, marbled whiptails, checkered whiptails, desert grassland whiptails, and New Mexico whiptails all in an ecoregion known as “Jornada del Muerto” ¬†in one day (roughly translated to “Route of the Deadman”, which maybe made sense to Spanish conquistadors, but to me seemed like a poor name for such a beautiful place). The last parts of our trip included catching the strikingly beautiful Pai Striped whiptails at some high elevation sites in Arizona.

DSC_0835.JPGIt was an incredibly fun and productive trip, we saw a lot of beautiful new places, and were also reminded of how tough it is to find good weather in the desert: at low elevations it sometimes gets too hot for lizards (and most humans) by 10 am in the summer, and at high elevation it sometimes never warms up.

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