Walking around the University of Kansas’ campus, students may not pay any attention to a slight rustling in the bushes, passing it off as birds or squirrels native to the area. But upon further investigation, many will find that lizards hide in the rocks and bushes around campus.
The population of Italian wall lizards has long been growing in urban areas of Kansas. These small green lizards have been found in Topeka, Lawrence and Hays, but they are far from home.
As the name suggests, Italian wall lizards come from the Italian Peninsula and areas near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Their characteristics include brownish green scales, three to four inches long and a diet of insects, according to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Italian Wall Lizards thrive in urban areas and make their home around buildings and under stone walls.
Many invading species can harm an ecosystem, but according to Prairie Park education supervisor Marty Birrell, the new lizards on the block are causing very little damage outside of slight competition.
“They are making use of a niche that wasn’t heavily used by other species,” Birrell said. “It seems to be limited to the urban environment.”
According to Birrell, the lizards have done no noticeable damage to the local ecosystem, but they can still appear in large numbers in areas with rocks.
“I once got called out to a lady who had transformed her yard into a rock garden and she had thousands of them,” Birrell said. “She wanted to get rid of them and I was thinking ‘You just made the best habitat for them.’”
There has been great speculation on how Italian wall lizards were originally introduced to the area. The Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas, published by Fort Hays State University, said they were originally released by Quivira Specialties biological supply house of Topeka. And a 2006 article in the Lawrence Journal-World, herpetologist Joe Collins said after a pet store owner died in Topeka, the lizards made their way into the city.
The overarching theme of these theories always revolves around release, an issue which University herpetology collection manager Luke Welton said has caused many invasive species to enter new habitats.
“A person that would never dream of dumping a dog or cat on the side of the road, they may not feel the same way about a turtle or a snake, likely because they don’t know the ecological implications,” Welton said.
While Italian wall lizards may not pose an immediate environmental threat, Welton still wants pet owners to know they have a responsibility.
“It’s important for people to do their research and understand where these animals originally come from,” Welton said. “If you can’t care for that animal anymore do what’s best for that animal which is in most cases not to let it off your back porch, it is to find someone else to give it all of the care that it deserves.”