Nocturnal Goings-on at the Preserve

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By Russell Almaraz

Once night falls at the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve as with other desert areas, a different cast of birds, animals, and insects emerge from their daytime nests and retreats.  In the hot summer season, these creatures thrive in the cooler night temperatures.  They use the darkness as a cover for their feeding activities and to retreat into the nighttime shadows to avoid being the prey.  This article will highlight the scorpion and the night lizard; both are plentiful at the Preserve but are rarely seen during the day.

There is a great variety of scorpions that occupy a variety of habitats worldwide.  A very diverse fifty-nine species and subspecies of scorpions are known to occur in California, where their habitats range from below sea level in Death Valley to nearly 13,000 feet in the Sierra.  These scorpions belong in the taxonomic families of Buthidae, Superstitionidae, and Vaejovidae.  Identifying scorpions requires a lot of detailed examination of their physical characteristics.  For more information on California scorpions see the website:  http://www.angelfire.com/tx4/scorpiones/states.html

In many places, the most common nocturnal denizens are scorpions hiding under rocks, in crevices, or within burrows during the day, and coming out after sunset.  They hunt for their prey of ants, termites, and beetles which also become active in the cooler night temperatures.

The local varieties of pale colored scorpions are amazingly camouflaged in their natural habitat of light colored soil.  One unusual feature of scorpions is the UV fluorescence of scorpion bodies as they are nearly impossible to see with a normal flashlight but with an ultraviolet light, the scorpions emit a natural greenish phosphoresce glow.  Biologists hunting for scorpions wave an ultraviolet light near the ground as they walk along, watching for an eerie greenish light to be reflected back.  The UV light is absorbed by the scorpion's armor and is reflected back as visible light.

In the US, the deadliest scorpions are found in Arizona. The scorpions that occur in the western part of the Mojave Desert, where the Antelope Valley is located, are said by biologists to be rather harmless having venom that has little affect on humans unless one is allergic to it. Despite their relative harmlessness, when out in the desert at night it is wise to check the ground before you sit or camp, and to shake out shoes before putting them on in the morning.

The desert night lizard, Xantusia vigilis, a relative of the gecko, feeds on beetles, ants, and other insects.  Although not entirely nocturnal, they avoid the daylight by primarily feeding under decaying vegetation and rocks.  Like the scorpion their muted coloring, grey with dark spots, matches their environment so well that when a fallen Joshua tree log or stone is overturned, the night lizard may not be noticed without careful examination.  If pursued or disturbed their tail may break off to distract a predator and a new tail will eventually regenerate.  Use care when observing them as only a slight touch will cause the lizard to drop its wiggling tail.  Before their tail grows back, which is a major defense against being eaten; they are susceptible to become easy prey from a variety of predators.
The desert night lizard is a reptile that is not a threatened or endangered species, however, urbanization and human modification of the desert landscape has reduced their habitat.  For this reason it is important to have protected areas such as the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve as home for these gentle reptiles.