“The Symbol” – Photographing the Ibiza Wall Lizard

As a biologist, I love surprises. And after the first week of our month-long photographic expedition to the Mediterranean islands of Ibiza and Formentera, it seems like there are biological surprises around every corner.

Dr. Nate Dappen gets low to capture a lizard close-up. Bledes Plano, Reserva Natural de Es Vedra, Ibiza.

Dr. Nate Dappen, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Miami, has spent the past three summers on Ibiza and Formentera studying the beautiful Ibiza Wall Lizard (Podarcis pityusensis), a colorful lizard species that can only be found here. This spring, Nate and I raised money through Kickstarter (check out our campaign here) to create a book about the lizards and the islands they inhabit. This trip would be my first visit to the islands, and after hearing Nate’s stories for the last three years, I couldn’t wait to experience them for myself.

The first surprise for me has been how spectacularly colorful the lizards are. I had seen Nate’s photos, but the lizards are even more spectacular in person (and much more colorful than the lizards I study!). On the large island of Formentera, Ibiza Wall Lizards come in every shade of blue, green, and brown, and among the smaller offshore islands, they are even more variable. Despite all this diversity, all of the island populations are currently considered members of a single species. Some researchers are skeptical of this classification, and DNA evidence will likely help us reach a more complete understanding of the Ibiza Wall Lizard’s diversity and evolutionary history.

Whether they belong to one species or several, however, Ibiza Wall Lizards make their home on islands that are bustling with tourists, and their intimate relationship with people has been another surprise. Ibiza and Formentera are among the best-known vacation destinations in the Mediterranean, but the lizards don’t avoid the crowds. On the contrary, they often live around human dwellings and frequent the most popular beaches, where they will skitter out on the sand to investigate beachgoers and search their beach bags for food!

Lizards on small islands generally have few natural predators. As a result, they are often very tame. This Ibiza Wall Lizard was so curious about us that it climbed right onto my camera! Isla des Porcs, Pityuses Archipelago.

We spent the first week of our expedition documenting the color diversity of lizards on Formentera and a few of the surrounding islands. We had some great adventures wading and swimming out to some small islands, and we made a short video about our first few days in Formentera, which you can watch above. You can also see a gallery of some of our favorite photos from the first week of our trip here.

Another welcome surprise, though not a biological one, has been the reception we’ve received from locals on the islands. The Ibiza Wall Lizard (or in the local Catalan language, sargantana) is so ubiquitous on Formentera that it has become the de facto symbol of the islands, and images of the lizards appear everywhere – in the logos of local businesses, on t-shirts and beach towels, and even in people’s jewelry and tattoos.  As a result, Nate has become a minor celebrity on the islands – he’s known as the “Sargantana Man” – and the local media have taken an interest in our project. We’ve already been filmed by two local television crews, and Nate has been interviewed by a local newspaper and radio station too. You can read more about the local response to our work on our blog here.

We have a busy few weeks ahead of us, but we’ll be posting plenty of video and photographic updates as we go. To stay up-to-date with all of our project updates, subscribe to our blog at Day’s Edge Productions, “Like” us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

National Geographic Young Explorer Dr. Neil Losin (UCLA) and his colleague Dr. Nate Dappen (University of Miami) are biologists, photographers, and filmmakers. You can see more of their work at Day’s Edge Productions.

Wildlife

Neil Losin is a National Geographic Young Explorer. He is a biologist, photographer, and filmmaker pursuing his Ph.D. in UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where he studies the evolution of territoriality in lizards. When he isn’t doing his own research, Neil uses photography and video to help fellow scientists communicate about their work. He is the co-founder and Editor of SustainableFocus.org, a web community and magazine promoting visual communication about science and the environment. You can see his photography at www.neillosin.com, and check out his videos and blog at www.daysedgeproductitons.com.