Researchers are conducting a study on three rare species of white lizards found only on the gypsum dunes at White Sands Missile Range and the White Sands National Monument.
Doug Burkett, senior scientist with Eco-Inc, and a team of five biologists are conducting a study that will help understand the behaviors of the white lizard population found on the missile range to find if testing and training exercises at WSMR can affect their populations.
“There have been quite a few studies done on those white lizards on the monument by researchers over time, but we’ve never really looked at them where they occur on White Sands Missile Range and whether or not they actually come off of the dunes,” Burkett said. “How far off of the dunes do they come? Do they get near our testing areas, our training areas?”
Burkett said white lizard populations are considered a species of concern to the Army due to their small reduced habitat.
The little white whiptail lizard, the southern plateau lizard, and the bleached lesser earless lizard are the three species of white lizards found on the gypsum fields. According to Burkett, white lizards are most likely the same species as their colored counterparts, but have adapted to the color of the gypsum dunes to avoid predation.
Researchers have set up nine drift fence trap arrays to capture lizards. When lizards arrive at a fence trap, they can no longer move forward. They travel along the fence until they fall into one of the bucket traps set along the way.
Fences are set along three different spots on WSMR to help determine how far away from the gypsum fields white lizards travel. Traps are set along the perimeter of the gypsum dunes on WSMR, at the spot where the gypsum fields meet the desert terrain, and half a mile out from the dunes into the desert.
The traps are checked every two days. All individuals captured are weighed, measured, photographed, scanned, and individually marked. Each lizard gets a color coded mark injected under its skin and is released. Recaptured individuals can be recognized due to their color coded markings.
Researchers have captured 80 little white whiptail lizards, the most common species of white lizards. This species has been found up to half a mile away from the gypsum dunes. The other two species are not as common along the perimeter of the dunes, but their populations increase further into the gypsum fields. Researchers have caught 11 southern plateau lizards and five bleached lesser earless lizards.
The study has been funded for two seasons. The first season began in April and will extend until the end of August. The next season will take place next year during the same time. According to Burkett, it is important to open the study for more than one season to gain a better understanding of population fluctuations.
“Based on the recapture reading we can estimate population densities and know how many there are. And then next year when we come in there and do the exact same trapping effort, we’ll be able to find out how many of those lizards are still existing there,” Burkett said.
Researchers also captured a few unexpected individuals. A light form of leopard lizard never before recorded on the gypsum dunes was captured in May. A massasauga rattlesnake, the smallest and rarest species of rattlesnakes found on the range, was also captured.