Western ‘Fens’ Lizard? – Occidental Tourist Helps Herpetologists Mend Fences



Across the Pacific West Coast, the western fence lizard is today an ubiquitous fixture in the landscape. Heedless of its heritage, this bucolic blue-belly, a true blue-blooded ambassador among reptiles, basks with reckless abandon in flagrant disregard for its purported preferred niche – western fences. Be it gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, or doghouse, be the surface vertical or horizontal, this gravity defying swift of the sun-burnt savanna has colonized habitats that defy its very nomenclature. Until recently, scientists had long wondered about the etymological origins of a species so Catholic in its present distribution it has been called the street pigeon of the oak savanna. This year, startling new research at last answers the age-old question, “What was a fence lizard before there were fences?”

According to field notes recently discovered in the collection of Occidentalis College, it appears the answer originates from a divine comedy of errors involving the species’ discovery by the heretofore unknown naturalist Ebrill Ferst Fens coinciding with the passing of an agricultural era. Writing in the new academic journal, Herpetological Errata, Redactum, and Polemics: Biological Sciences (B.S.), Occidentalis College Professor Skóla Per-Hús Degrasse’s carefully researched monograph recounts Fens’ early fall from grace and later claim to fame.

Ebrill Ferst Fens: Inventor, prospector, naturalist, poet.

Ebrill Ferst Fens: Inventor, prospector, naturalist, poet, and fence lizard namesake.

As a young man growing up in Paris, Ebrill Ferst Fens (1822-1873) was an avid outdoorsman, entrepreneur, and inventor. His first inventions included the ‘froide fusion’ bandage wrap, a cloth binding whose adhesive would persist in below-freezing temperatures. This was later followed by a children’s toy he dubbed the ‘flying saucer,’ a tea dish capable of flight. Fens’ trademark neck beard – another of his innovations, grown to prevent mealtime ‘crumblies’ from encroaching below his chin to intrude beneath his shirt collar, causing an unsightly nipple rash – was a vanity of his that set the young man apart from the flock. But it was Fens’ controversial ‘water dousing’ – the process by which he purported one could manufacture concentrated Holy Water by thrashing it with a divine rod – that ultimately sent Fens abroad fleeing his queue of debtors. Impoverished and disillusioned, in 1849 Fens struck out for the boom-towns of California to find his fortune.

But throat-frocked Fens was no gold-standard among Sierra miners. By 1850, having burned through his limited savings in the goldfields, the down-on-his-luck entrepreneur-turned-Forty-Niner packed in his pans and returned to the coast to retire and regroup in bustling San Francisco. There Fens found himself on the streets, taking shelter beneath vegetable carts in the many great open-air market stalls throughout the city by night, wandering the countryside by day. Having heard that ‘scientifics’ at the Smithsonian Institution’s U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) were endeavoring to make a collection of California natural history objects, Fens began collecting curiosities discovered during his walks. On one of his many perambulations, Fens one day recorded a species of lizard he thought new to science:

April 1851

On this the First of Fourth-month, I today discovered a terrestrial, rough-scaled lizard of unusual markings. This specimen I have collected bears upon it an azure tiling upon the venter the likes of which remained by me unseen until today. This skye-dyed creature so reminds me of the mythic blue rock lobster of the Atlantic waters in colouration and scarcity, I have come to think of this creature like a terrestrial rock lobster. In my travels here outside the city limits, I have seen it with some regularity on sunny days at but a single location, perched upon a forgotten fence rail where elsewhere the fence has fallen into disrepair and is no longer. There upon its salient overlook, it performs a display both comical and intriguing. I can only describe its rhythmic dance as a sort of ventral-thrusting, erecting and then prostrating itself alternatingly on the axis of its forelimbs, much like a pugilist training before a match. For what reason it performs this behavior it is beyond me to ascertain, as it clearly has no brethren here upon this lichen-laced fence with which to communicate, court, or threaten. I can only speculate how much greater in numbers this spiny saurid might be were there more miles of fence upon which to perch. Then, perhaps it could be said good fences make more neighbors.

Western Fens' Lizard

The Western Fens Lizard

Fens collected the lizard and mailed the specimen – pickled in a jam jar of rotgut whiskey – back east to naturalists Spencer F. Baird and Charles F. Girard along with a transcription of his field notes. In 1852, Baird and Girard published a note in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia entitled “Descriptions of New Species of Reptiles.” Therein, they dubbed the species the ‘western Fens lizard’ after its discoverer, a common name they thought superior to the alternative name proposed, the  ‘blue-bellied lizard’.

Fens had returned from the gold fields destitute, but the correspondences he established with Baird and Girard developed into the occasional exchange of floral and faunal specimens he shipped back east to supply their studies (i.e., the Fens dingo [coyote], Fens whale, purple Fench, sweet Fennel). The reimbursements for these specimens paired with various odd jobs payed for the itinerant some-time naturalist’s next undertaking in 1860, poetry. Fens soon became a florid fixture in early San Francisco markets, where he became known among market-goers as the ‘lizard king.’ But Fens’ life of sundry accomplishments was cut short in 1873, when he succumbed to one of San Francisco’s inclement summer nights. A grocer who frequented the markets knew enough of Fens’ eclectic life to collect his few belongings, among them Fens’ journal, and mail them to the grocer’s brother-in-law, a professor of natural sciences at Occidentalis College. And there Fens’ work was accessioned, then inexplicably lost for more than a century until 2012, when the beet-juice-stained journal was rediscovered by an enterprising sociology graduate student who stumbled across the jumble of poetry and natural history field notes cataloged with manuscripts about 1960’s counterculture under ‘beet poetry’.

Fens never learned his rock lobster had been named in honor of his contributions to science, nor did he live to see his prognostications concerning the perceived scarcity of the species bear fruit. During the last few years of Fens’ life, there developed a shift in the local economy beyond San Francisco’s city limits, from cattle farming to grain farming. With this change came the passage of California’s “No-Fence Law” in 1874, which repealed the Trespass Act of 1850 and resulted in the exponential growth of fences as ranchers hastened to fence in their livestock. As miles of posts and wires were laid, a habitat was born that would bridge the rolling grasslands like a superhighway, allowing the western Fens lizard to expand its range across the western United States.

Fens’ legacy was short-lived as naturalists and passersby alike – seeing an explosion in the number of blue-bellied lizards along the countryside’s fence lines – adopted the malapropism ‘fence lizard’ in place of the honorific ‘Fens lizard’. Museum catalogues and field guides were quick to follow suit. In less than a decade, the western Fens lizard had been replaced by the western fence lizard. The damage was done, and Fens’ contribution to science faded into the background. Nevertheless, this etymological mystery had not yet run its course. Following World War II, the United States closed a chapter in its agrarian life-style as urban sprawl and automobiles facilitated the suburbanization of the countryside. At the risk of extinction, this one-time niche-specialist quickly adapted to novel, non-fence surfaces, at long last trivializing its own trivial name.

Audubon Barn Owl

Bjarne’s owl

Such etymological evolution is not uncommon. A similar transcription error was uncovered in the early 1950’s after it was discovered that what we commonly refer to today as the ‘barn’ owl (Tyto alba) was originally first described as Bjarne’s owl, after Reyes de Bjarne, the famed Spanglo-Dutch naturalist, botanist, and occult-phrenologist. It wasn’t until 1820, when clock towers, bell towers, and hay lofts associated with California’s early Spanish settlements and the suburban sprawl that followed in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush began subsidizing the Bjarne’s owl’s natural cavity nests, that Bjarne’s owl underwent a similar vernacular, backward slide toward the more vulgar ‘barn’ owl common today.

In hindsight, Fens called it true when he wrote “good fences make more neighbors,” for the western Fens lizard proliferated in step with every board foot of fence laid. So too, however, did Fens’ contribution diminish with every board foot, until the common parlance trivialized not only a species, but the role their namesake played in herpetological history. Still, history has a way of righting itself, in this case mending Fens’ good name. In overturning the malappropriate defenestration of the west’s emblematic lizard, we are left with nothing but the best of Fens. Speaking at an April 1 press conference this week about Degrasse’s careful work restoring Ebrill Ferst Fens’ reputation, Occidentalis College Dean of Admissions Annie Ella remarked, “Degrasse was always keener on the bona fides of that Fens.”


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  1. #1 by cohendc on April 1, 2014 - 12:35 am

    Fabulous and brilliant. Love the reference to “the Fugitive”, and the other prescient poetics, and the legless Dean of Admissions at Occidentalis.

  2. #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on April 1, 2014 - 7:01 pm

    Thank you, I appreciate the kind words. It’s fun to bring these to life.

  3. #3 by ntbronco on May 29, 2014 - 5:39 pm

    Sharing Matthew’s admiration for Robert Stebbins, I first consulted his California Amphibians and Reptiles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), which identifies the Western Fence Lizard as Sceloporus occidentalis and labels it, the “best known California reptile” (Stebbins. 1972.95). A male has a blue patch on his throat, two blue spots, one on each side of his belly or, on a larger male, an entirely blue bottom (Stebbins. 1972.96)–Stebbins kindly provides photos of this (Plate 4). From this description, I conclude that Mr. Fens’ specimen was male. Further proof is in the behavior described: male lizards do “push-ups” in defense of territory (Stebbins.1972.24-5). Since only the one lizard was visible, he probably thought he was defending his territory from Mr. Fens. Stebbins stresses that this lizard “has adapted to human habitation, occurring among old lumber piles, about farm buildings and along backyard fences” (Stebbins. 1972.95-6) –to justify its name, an endeavor which we, thanks to Matthew, now recognize as futile.

    I then tried looking in a more recent guide to see if I could get some idea of the range of Stebbins’ lizard. The R. D. & P. B. Bartlett Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America and Hawaii (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009) lists six western fence lizards (Bartlett& Bartlett. 2009.190), associating subspecies with location–yes, the taxonomists have been busy! I found myself grasping two in my left hand, one in my right; there was one in my hair, one on my right shoulder, one on my lap and one trapped between the pages of the book, as I hurriedly closed it.

    Thus, I made the acquaintance of the Northwestern fence lizard, the Channel Island fence lizard, the San Joaquin fence lizard, the Coast Range fence lizard, and the Sierra Fence lizard. These are subspecies of Sceloporus occidentalis and all are found in California. Wouldn’t Mr. Fens be proud, if he could come back and see how his fame has spread!

    And the sixth subspecies, the one still trapped in my book? The new Parker and Brito guide, Reptiles & Amphibians of the Mojave Desert (Las Vegas, NV: Snell Press, 2014) describes the Great Basin Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes) which, in spite of its name, occurs in parts of both the California and Nevada Mojave Desert. What is curious about this lizard is its specialized habitat–the hot, dry Mojave Desert is not for him, no indeed. This lizard is found only in pockets of Great Basin flora–higher elevation habitats where pinyon-juniper woodland flourishes. The authors explain: “Many species that are more appropriately categorized as Great Basin species, like the sage, pinyon pines, and junipers, extend their range outside of the Great Basin proper and into mountains within the Mojave Desert. One will notice that many of the species found in the Mojave are actually named after the Great Basin for this reason” (Parker & Brito. 2014.19). California “pockets” are found in the eastern half of the Mojave National Preserve and the north end of Death Valley NP.

    So, the question before us is which of these “fens lizards” is the prototype? Where was Mr. Fens standing when he collected his type specimen? It was probably the lizard identified as Sceloporus occidentalis occidentalis, today called the “northwestern fence lizard,” which Mr. Fens shipped ”back east,” for that would be the subspecies most convenient to a man exploring on foot outside of San Francisco.

    • #4 by Matthew Bettelheim on May 30, 2014 - 6:40 am

      Well played, ntbronco, your field savvy is to be admired. I do believe you have uncovered a new facet to Degrasse’s studies. Perhaps worthy of a future note in HERP: B.S. ?

  4. #5 by ntbronco on May 31, 2014 - 2:35 pm

    Thank you, Matthew, for your kind words!

    Would you like to join me in predicting which of the six subspecies is going to be the first to become a distinct and separate species? I vote for the Channel Islands Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis becki), based on his isolation; this is barring the presence of an unidentified factor, like pollution or introduced predators or habitat destruction, which simply renders the subspecies extinct.

    Now which of the six comes second? Myself, I vote for the Great Basin Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes)–not where he occurs in the Great Basin, but where he occurs in the Mojave Desert mountains. Again the species is isolated. True, he can climb down from his mountain and visit a neighbor without having to swim; still, if his thermoregulatory apparatus is adjusted to cooler upper elevations, the 120 dry degrees on the lower level desert will make him uncomfortable–indeed, may fry him before he completes his journey.

    “What do you think?”

    • #6 by Matthew Bettelheim on June 5, 2014 - 11:02 pm

      As an unrepentant lumper, I hesitate to split hairs nor heirs on the subject. As long as they straddle the fence, they will be forever fence lizards in my book, be their islands channeled or their basins great.

  1. Book Review: The Monochotomous Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Metropolitan San Francisco Bay Region – A Diagnostic Key | (bio)accumulation

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