By Annette J Beveridge
My brother and I spent a great deal of time searching for the elusive ocellated lizard while living in Spain. He had practically stumbled across an impressive male in the rough scrubland nearby and had rushed over to my house excited about his latest discovery. Both keen conservationists, I was eager to find one too and knowing these beautiful lizards were ‘almost’ on the doorstep was tantalising.
Near to the house, an area of desert-like scrub stretched for miles all the way to a small beach town on the far distant horizon. The terrain was hot, arid and in places, difficult to navigate. Having done a little research, I knew that the habitat – made up of dry, bushy shrubs, sparsely dotted trees, scrubby woodland in places and rocky, sandy areas, were perfect for this lizard.
We started searching in earnest trying to glimpse any movement. I searched for abandoned rabbit burrows too knowing that these lizards would make use of them. The heat sapped our energy. There was little shade and the sun was torturous at times. Spending hours in 40+ degree heat is really not easy. At times, I had to give in.
Ocellated lizards are large reptiles reaching up to 35 inches in length. They are strikingly charismatic, and also known as the Jewelled Lizard. They belong to the family Lacertidae and are endemic to southwest Europe. Males have a broad head and thick, stocky legs and curved claws. A noticeable green colour with yellow and black scales dotted with blue splodges stretch across the sides of the body. The yellow colouring of the male on the throat and belly intensifies when exposed to sunlight. They are truly beautiful.
The female is less vibrant than the male and the young lizards display a green/grey, or brown colouring with either white or yellow black edged spots.
These lizards will usually be seen on the ground, but are agile and more than capable of climbing trees. They can move very quickly if disturbed – also diving into rabbit holes out of sight. They are generally distrustful and as I found out, determined to hide even from the keenest of conservationists. These lizards avoid confrontation generally but can bite quite savagely if handled.
With powerful jaws, they feed primarily on large insects crunching on beetles, but will take small reptiles, rodents, birds eggs, amphibians and some plant matter. They breed in late spring or in the early part of the summer and become sexually mature at two years of age. At this time, the males become highly territorial fighting other males and become much more visible. Some time after copulation, the female lays up to 22 eggs and hides them in leaf litter, under stones or in damp soil. After 8-14 weeks, the eggs hatch and the young are 1.5 to 2 inches in length excluding the tail.
Finding the ocellated lizard
My brother and I spent a lot of time wandering through that scrubby area searching for those elusive lizards. At times, we would head for the small pockets of trees which gave some respite from the heat. Tuning into nature, we noticed shrikes, Sardinian warblers and even an impressive Montpellier snake but the lizards were nowhere to be seen. Diurnal, they can develop some nocturnal activities in the summer heat. As the seasons turn cold, they hibernate but will emerge on a sunny day.
I would say that the best time to see these lizards is in the spring. The males fight for their territories and are so consumed by this and their desire to mate that they spend more time in the open. You may even see the males aggressively biting the females, harassing them to surrender.
These are the largest of the lizards in Europe, and were once a part of traditional Spanish cuisine. Listed as near-threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they have been under protection since 2011.
Despite my best efforts, I managed only the briefest glimpse of one. It was a case of blink and miss it. However, it was a joy to see the splash of colours and the sudden movement. It made me wonder how long it had been watching me. In the searing heat, it was impossible to say whether it would emerge again and so, reluctantly, I returned home.
I moved away to a different part of Spain thereafter, so the glorious ocellated lizard is still on my must-see list to achieve one day. That is the joy of nature-watching. You never know what you will see or when and although it can be frustrating, it can also be absolutely incredible.