Many islands in the world support their own unique lizard species, and the Canary Islands are no exception. In fact these islands scattered two hundred miles or so off West Africa support their own genus of lizards, the genus Gallotia, of the Lacertidae family.
My wife and I took a week's holiday in Tenerife in September 2000, partly in the hope of seeing some of the wildlife attractions (both captive and wild) of the Canary Islands. We had expected to see geckos on our apartment walls and were somewhat surprised to find absolutely none: later we discovered that the few gecko species in Tenerife live mainly in the cooler and greener north of the island. However, after a while we did discover that the whole of the island is rich in the Gallotia lacertids.
The habitat normally described for these lacertids is "dry stone walls", and they are certainly to be found in the crevices of these, or basking on the top of the wall or nearby, racing to cover if disturbed. Conversely, do not expect to see them around your hotel, as most of the modern buildings are the standard brick-and-cement construction. By "dry stone walls" I mean those walls constructed out of irregular-shaped stones and not apparently held together by any form of mortar, at least to the casual eye (no, I really have no idea how they stay standing in bad weather). This sort of wall provides ample crevices, nooks and crannies for the smallish lacertids to hide in. If extra cover such as shrubs, bushes or trees is available nearby, so much the better.
These walls are not the only cover utilised by the Gallotia lizards, however. On a trip around the camel park, my wife and I spotted two of them under a large weed-like plant growing from the base of a smooth wall. After we had dismounted our dromedaries we went back to have a look, and found that in addition to the plant itself there was a hole at the base of the wall, large enough to accommodate a mouse or Gallotia lizard. They would duck back inside this if we got too close or otherwise disturbed them, only to reemerge cautiously a few minutes later.
The other terrain where we found evidence of the lizards was, perhaps surprisingly, a rubbled site. The site was obviously intended to be built upon at some point in the future but although it was fairly level (apart from the shallow gullies) it had not been cleared, and again low weed-like bushes grew among the stones and bits of broken debris. We saw at least one lacertid scuttle for cover under one of these plants, and I would guess there were probably others. Unlike many lacertids of mainland Europe, which tend to be green or mottled brown, these lizards' colours vary between shiny brown and a dark grey, both of which are good camouflage against the parched vegetation and volcanic soil and rock of Tenerife.
Our most fruitful trip in spotting Gallotia was on our trips around the Bananeria, near Los Christianos. Within minutes of starting our first tour my wife was drawing my attention to two or three lizards that were basking or scuttling across the path. When we got back we agreed a second trip just to take photographs was called for, so we went on another sunny afternoon armed with our cameras. I can honestly say I lost track of how many of this species I saw that afternoon, as well as a native skink, Chalcides sexlineatus (a very providential sighting as they are much rarer than the Gallotia species). One of the lacertids in particular sticks in my memory. It was a largeish male (distinguishable by the matt pale blue spots and jowls), and he seemed to have a favoured range that consisted of a very small flower bed surrounded by a semicircular low wall made up of small bricks (unmortared) that abutted a high stone wall of the type described above. He had come out of the high wall to bask on the bricks of the flower bed wall and did not seem unduly disturbed by our presence, even though I got extremely close with my camera. Eventually he decided he had had enough and went back in, but when I came back about an hour later for a second lot of shots he was already out again and did not seem bothered or surprised to see me again. I left him as I found him after taking some more photos, a mature adult male who seemed to have the serenity of a village elder sitting under a tree in the local square.
The taxonomic status of the genus Gallotia has become somewhat confused of late, owing to the discovery of the giant lizards of Gomera and to the elevation by some authorities of subspecies to species level (eg Gallotia caesaris, which some claim is just a subspecies of Gallotia gallotia). It is possible that DNA testing will resolve the issue in the future, but in the meantime the reader should be aware that some lizards may have two scientific names.
The giant lizards of Gomera were only discovered in 1999, and have been alternately classified as Gallotia gomerana or Gallotia simonyi.
Adult male Gallotia gallotia from La Palma, March 2005. Copyright L Watkins.
Adult female from La Palma, March 2005. Copyright L Watkins.
All the endemic wildlife of the Canary Islands is protected, which is quite right given that these species do not occur anywhere else and that the islands themselves are fairly small. While Tenerife seems to have its Gallotia lizards in abundance, from the coastal areas to up the sides of Mt Teide by all accounts, the situation for the other Gallotia species on the rest of the islands is not so good, and some are endangered. The giant lizards of Gomera may number less than 150 individuals, which is a fairly critical level for a viable gene pool. All Gallotia species are beautiful lizards but part of a delicate ecosystem: in the absence of any captive breeding programs set up by responsible local herpetologists, they should be photographed and left in the wild by visitors to the islands.
|G. atlantica, Atlantic Lizard||G. caesaris, Hierro Lizard||G. gallotia, Canary Island Lizard|
|G. gomera, Gomeran Giant Lizard||G. intermedia, Tenerife Giant Lizard||G. simonyi, Hierro Giant Lizard|
|G. stehlini, Giant Canary Lizard|
|Scientific Name||Common Name||Distribution||Size||Notes|
|G. atlantica||Atlantic Lizard||Lanzarote, inc. islands Graciosa, Montaöa Clara and Roque del Este, E. Gran Canaria (Arinaga area, introduced), Fuerteventura, Lobos||9-11"||This is the smallest Gallotia species. In contrast to the other members of the genus, these lizards have large and clearly keeled scales on the dorsum (Rogner). The basic colour of both sexes varies between grey and olive brown, partly according to their habitat, although they do not have colour-changing ability. Salvador notes considerable variation in the coloration of G. atlantica at all stages of its life cycle. Juveniles range from grey-orange to a dark grey, some being ochre-orange with a metallic sheen. They also have two pale lines down each side and small pale points on the flanks. Subadults have a brown-grey or green-grey dorsum with a coppery sheen. This is replaced in adulthood by a grey-black or dun-green coloration. Adult males can be distinguished by black or grey tones running posteriorly from the neck and especially by the two rows of blue spots on each flank. They are fairly catholic in their choice of living space but seem like many lacertids to prefer stones and stone walls: Rogner notes that a certain amount of undergrowth is also necessary to attract their prey (insects). Apart from the usual invertebrate prey, however, G. atlantica also eats a considerable amount of plant matter, including not only flowers but also leaves and stalks. Their main predators are kestrels and birds of the corvid family, hedgehogs and rats. Females lay one to two clutches per year of one to three eggs. There are five subspecies including the nominate, but so far I have been unable to find further information on their distribution other than that G. a. delibesi is the introduced subspecies on Gran Canaria. Click here for a picture. Liverpool University also have a very interesting site on their work with Gallotia atlantica, which includes a number of pictures of the species from different locations. G. atlantica is apparently quite abundant in the Timanfaya National Park. Ventral scale rows: 8-10 (27-29 transverse rows). Scalation details: 2-5 scales in front of ear, 4 supralabials in front of subocular, granular scales on head and between supraoculars and superciliars. Tympanica distinct but maseterica not differentiated. Collar: serrated, 6-8 scales. Throat: 25-26 scales between mandibular sinfisis and collar, gular "pleat" present. Femoral pores: 18-22 on each side. Dorsal scales: keeled, 87-100 in centre of body.|
|G. a. atlantica||Lanzarote (except Malpaís de La Corona), Graciosa, Alegranza, Montaña Clara, Roque del E.|
|G. a. delibesi||Gran Canaria|
|G. a. ibagnezi|
|G. a. laurae||Malpaís de La Corona Lizard||Malpaís de La Corona (NE of Lanzarote)|
|G. a. mahoratae||Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lobos|
|G. caesaris||Hierro Lizard||El Hierro, La Gomera, Roque Grande de El Salmor||8-10"||Often considered a subspecies of G. gallotia. The details here are taken from Salvador's listing for El Hierro and La Gomera populations of G. gallotia.|
|G. c. caesaris||Hierro Lizard||El Hierro, Roque Grande de El Salmor||8"||The El Hierro population has 10 (sometimes 12) ventral rows. Males are black with small blue spots on the shoulders and pale spots on the legs. Females and young have very conspicuous pale longitudinal lines.|
|G. c. gomerae||La Gomera Lizard||La Gomera||8-10"||Similar in appearance to the El Hierro subspecies but not as dark in coloration. 10-12 ventral rows, 6 pairs of submaxillary scales.|
|G. gallotia||Canary Island Lizard||Tenerife, El Hierro, La Gomera, Roque Fuera de Anaga (NE coast of Tenerife), La Palma, poss. Madeira||?"||About two thirds of the length of this lizard is tail. See the EMBL database entry for taxonomic history and links to several pictures. See also the www.lacerta.de website. In Tenerife these lizards are fairly abundant, from sea level to the sides of Mt. Teide. They are only absent in areas occupied by laurisilva. Ventral scale rows: 10-14 (29-31 transverse rows). Scalation details: no scales in front of ear, 5 supralabials in front of subocular. Rostral is separate from nasal orifice. Postnasal contacts with 1st and 2nd supralabial. Granular scales separate the 4 supraoculars from the superciliars. 4-6 supratemporal scales touching the parietal. Head scales are small and not keeled. Usually only the 1st 2 pairs of submaxiliars connect. Tympanica distinct and maseterica present. Scales on the upper part of the tail are keeled. Collar: lightly serrated, 9-15 scales. Throat: 38-45 scales between mandibular sinfisis and collar, gular "pleat" present. Femoral pores: 24-31 on each side. Dorsal scales: keeled (but smooth on sides), 87-106 in centre of body. Breeding: in captivity two clutches, of 3-6 eggs, are often laid, in June and August. [Salvador: this data apparently only refers to the Tenerife subspecies].|
|G. g. eisentrauti||Eisentraut's Canary Island Lizard||N Tenerife||13½-17"||This subspecies is the larger of the Tenerife subspecies and can also be distinguished by its green and bluish coloration.|
|G. g. galloti||Canary Island Lizard||S & C Tenerife||13½-14½"||The smaller of the two Tenerife subspecies, distinguished from G. g. eisentrauti by its dark grey colouration with blue spots.|
|G. g. insulanagae||Roques de Anaga Lizard||Roque de Fera off the Anaga peninsula.||?"||In colouring and patterning very similar to G. caesaris apart from the ventrolateral plates, which are dotted with small blue flecks.|
|G. g. palmae||Palma Canary Island Lizard||La Palma||12-13"||This subspecies is larger than those of the outer islands (El Hierro and La Gomera) but smaller than those of Tenerife. Males are blackish towards the front of the body, with blue cheeks: the flanks are brownish-grey and the posterior of the body has transverse bands broken up into spots [Salvador].|
|G. gomerana||Gomeran Giant Lizard||La Gomera||17"||This species was only discovered in 1996 and described in 1999-2000. See the EMBL database entry for details, plus the German article by Dieter Scriba at http://www.canconsult.de/docs/gomechse.doc. This species resembles G. simonyi and inhabits a similar environment (inaccessible cliffs and rocks). Although the lizard was known from fossils, locals on La Gomera insisted that the large lizards had been alive quite recently and quite abundant. After the rediscovery of the lizards, six were transferred to a breeding site. The taxonomy of the lizards is still uncertain. Coloration: dark or black, with ivory ventral surfaces, especially on the throat. One captive male has a rosy patch on the corners of the mouth and auricular regions.|
|G. intermedia||Canarian Spotted Lizard/Tenerife Giant Lizard||Tenerife||13-14"||This species was only discovered in 1996 and described in 1999-2000. See the EMBL database entry for details, plus the German article by Dieter Scriba at http://www.canconsult.de/docs/gomechse.doc. This species resembles G. simonyi and inhabits a similar environment (inaccessible cliffs and rocks) in the southwestern Teno peninsula of Tenerife. Overall colour is dark grey with a lighter mottled pattern and blue spots on the flanks in both males and females, these spots becoming more obvious during sexual activity. It differs from the G. gallotia species on the rest of the island not only by this coloration pattern but also by its longer tail. There may be no more than 500 individuals in the population, making strict protection, conservation and breeding an absolute necessity.|
|G. simonyi||Hierro Giant Lizard||El Hierro, La Gomera||?"||More of a "complex" of living and extinct giant lizards of the Canaries, although until recently all of its members were believed to be extinct. See below.|
|G. s. simonyi||Hierro Giant Lizard||N. El Hierro: since 1935 extinct on the Roques del Salmor||23"||Reduced to a small colony (numbered at about 200 in 1975) surviving on the inaccessible north of the island of El Hierro, the other population on the Roques del Salmor having died out around 1935. Needless to say these animals are strictly protected. These are herbivorous lacertids, feeding basically on the two plants Kleinia neriifolia and Lavandula abrotanoides (Salvador). They are stocky lizards with a broad head and pronounced jowls. Basic coloration is a dark-grey/brown, with two lateral rows of pale orange patches. The upper is made up of 6-7 patches decreasing in size towards the posterior, the lower of 3-4 which penetrate the outer ventral scales. The ventral area itself is dun-brown but orange towards the centre with a touch of red. In female subadults the dorsum is greyish with four rows of blackish patches and two rows of orange-green blotches on the side. Older individuals are almost completely black with a sprinkling of ash-gray. Ventral scale rows: 18-20 (32-36 transverse rows). Scalation details: Salvador gives no details of the number of supraoculars and superciliaries, but the head drawing shows 4 and 7 respectively, separated by a series of granulars. 5 supralabials in front of subocular. Rostral contacts nasal orifice. There is 1 postnasal in contact with the first two supralabials. 2 or 3 supratemporals. Frontal scale is as long as it is wide. Head scales are fairly large. Large trapezoid-shaped occipital. Tympanica and maseterica both small but differentiated. There are 31-34 laminillars beneath the fourth finger. Collar: strongly serrated, 10-13 scales. Throat: 21-34 scales, gular pleat absent. Femoral pores: 29-33 on each side. Dorsal scales: 85-100, oval form, strongly keeled and surrounded by small granulars. Breeding: Salvador gives no details, but later research may have information.|
|G. s. auaritae||La Palma Giant Lizard||La Palma|| ||Known until 2008 only from fossil finds, but in 2008 Snr Luis Enrique Mínguez photographed what is a G. simonyi species on La Palma. See the Bibliography for the relative article by Wolfgang Bischoff.|
|G. stehlini||Giant Canary Island Lizard||Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura||18"||Formerly considered a subspecies of G. simonyi, this is the largest Canarian lizard most visitors are likely to find. Females are usually about 8" smaller (Rogner). Dorsal coloration varies between dark reddish brown to grey-brown, and many individuals have lighter bands of varying intensity across the back. The snout is usually darker, while the lower sides of the head, the cheeks and parts of the neck are a bright yellow or orange. The ventral surfaces are flecked with white. These lizards are found throughout their island homes but less so in wooded areas than in banana plantations, tomato fields and rubbish dumps (Rogner). Rogner notes that this species is also quite shy by nature, even when kept in a terrarium for a long time. Salvador notes that the species is found from sea level to the highest parts of Gran Canaria. See the article on the www.lacerta.de site. Ventral scale rows: 16-18 (32-36 transverse rows). Scalation details: 4 supraoculars and 5-7 superciliaries, with 7-12 granulars between both. 5 supralabials in front of subocular. Rostral is separate from nasal orifice. There is 1 postnasal and 2 (sometimes 3) supratemporals. Head scales are small and not keeled. Tympanica small or absent, maseterica differentiated. Scales on the upper part of the tail are keeled. Collar: lightly serrated, 10-18 scales. Throat: 35-49 scales between mandibular sinfisis and collar, gular "pleat" present. Femoral pores: 24-31 on each side. Dorsal scales: 79-93, oval form, surrounded by granulars, in a ring centre of body. Breeding: in captivity two clutches, of 7-11 eggs, in July and November.|
Guia de campo de los anfibios y reptiles de la peninsula iberica, islas baleares y canarias [Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Iberian Peninsula, Balearic and Canary Islands], Alfredo Salvador, Madrid. ISBN: 84-86238-07-2. Excellent book covering all reptiles and amphibians in the aforementioned areas. The one drawback for English speakers is that the text is Spanish. This book is unfortunately now out of print, but well worth purchasing if you can get a second hand copy.
Echsen [Lizards] 2, Manfred Rogner, Ulmer Verlag, Germany 1992. This book is so far the only one I have encountered so far that covers the Gallotia lizards, though books dedicated to Spanish herpetology should also cover them.
"The Giant Lizards of the Canary Islands: Three Ambitious Conservation Projects", A Martinez Silvestre, J Soler, J L Silva and J A Mateo. Important notes on the rediscovery and current status of G. simonyi, G. intermedia and G. gomerana.
"A new island lacerta for hobbyists", Ray Hunziker, Reptile Hobbyist 1:2. This article covers aspects of the captive care of Gallotia galloti.
"Hat die La Palma-Rieseneidechse überlebt?" [Has the La Palma Giant Lizard survived?], Wolfgang Bischoff, Die Eidechse 19:2, DGHT 2008. Discusses the possible survival of the La Palma Giant Lizard in the light of the included photograph of G. simonyi on the island.
Dr R P Brown has been involved in some research on island endemics in the Canaries, dealing not only with Gallotia lizards but also with Chalcides viridanus and Tarentola boettgeri.
Liverpool University have a site dealing with several scientic topics, among which are the historical and recent gene flow of Gallotia atlantica.
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