Lizards and Islands
Ibiza and Formentera: Lizards and Islands
by Antonia Maria Cicer
Balafia Postals, 2020
a review by Bruce Sterling
This is a nonfiction book by an Ibiza-born herpetologist, and it’s meant to acquaint foreigners with the island’s local lizards.
Ibiza abounds with psychedelic lizards, bright and colorful lizard-memes which adorn sun-hats, t-shirts, coffee cups, rubber sandals, everything a tourist can buy. However, these wriggly graphic icons have little to do with the scurrying, seething, breeding populations of “Podarcis pityusensis.”
If you step away from the urban disco lights, avoiding the clustered yachts, truck traffic, the many streets and pavements of Ibiza, those little creatures soon become ubiquitous. They’re thriving in the pine woods, in the scrubby maquis, in the hills and the beaches, cliffs and arroyos, sand dunes and heaps of seaweed — most every niche on most every island in the archipelago.
Personally, I rather like lizards — in Austin, anoles commonly show up in people’s houses, and I used to feed them. My relationship to planetary lizard-dom is cordial. However, these Ibizan lizards are so replete with strong regional character that I feel the need to valorize them. They’re an aristocracy among the world’s lizards, somewhat like today’s Spanish Royal Family, in a temporary power-eclipse perhaps, but still quite a going concern.
Except for the passing sea-birds — their mortal enemies — these lizards were once the only vertebrates on Ibiza. These tiny beasts possessed four legs, brains and spines, and that made them the tyrant-kings of the entire Pitiuasan archipelago.
Their hapless underlings were some edible beetles, and also some large land-snails, which also slither through Ibiza in vast numbers. However, colorful, dotted, stripey little Podarcis pretty much had the run, bite and scurry of all of Ibiza, all of Formentera, and also many smaller scattered islets in the region. For millennia, they were the crown of the local creation.
Furthermore, when you’re out and about in the backwoods among the lizards of Ibiza, as I often am during the current pandemic, you can sense that they haven’t forgotten their days of exaltation. They get it about humans, nowadays — they’re humbled, they keep their heads down — but they have a coolness about Anthropocene dominance that seems rare among living beasts.
Ibizan wall lizards exist in great density in Ibiza, because they’re omnivores. They were once the kings of the local food-web — because if they didn’t eat it, nobody would. So they cheerfully eat ants — (it takes a tough predator to swallow tart, acidic ants) — and they also eat flowers, fruit, fresh leaves, dead fish, animal dung, and, commonly, one another.
An Ibizan wall lizard that sheds its tail will even gleefully eat its own convulsing flesh. Ibizan lizards store their fat in their tails, so that’s a tasty morsel, but there’s an Ouroboros mysticism to this self-involved practice that one has to admire.
These scaly veterans have slithered into every island niche they can reach, quite like Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos, as Dr Cicer observes in her pleasantly learned and peacefully paced chapters. These lizards have radiated through ages of mutation and evolution, they have squeezed and wiggled through genetic bottlenecks — so they’re not exactly “chameleons,” but they’re about as genetically plastic as lizards can get.
Their behavior is also remarkable. As you pass them by on foot, you can see that they’re territorial, even somewhat regimented. The little, skinny ones — who properly fear being devoured by the bigger, heavy-set ones — have a visible etiquette about who will fight whom for what. They also have set routines for alerting, fleeing, veering, and doubling-back into their favorite boltholes.
On Formentera, which is a smaller island with less evolutionary potential, the lizards are bold and direct. Once a Formenteran lizard, to my astonishment, simply climbed me like a tree, up my pants-leg, over my bare hands, and onto a cafe table so as to sample some spilled beer. He enjoyed that, too.
The lizards on Formentera live on a rural island known for eco-tourism rather than sex, drugs and music. So the Formenterans seem thinner and needier than the Ibizan lizards, less urbane and worldly. Also, their hides are much bluer.
You get accustomed to the presence of lizards on Ibiza — their dappled stripes and dots, their boldness, their speedy scuttling, their great numbers — but few human beings have spent thirty years studying them in detail, as Dr Antonia Maria Cicer has. It’s this seasoned marination in all things lizardly makes her glossy coffee-table book so worthwhile.
“Ibiza and Formentera, Lizards and Islands” is part of a series of similar heritage books from the Balafia Postals press in Ibiza, books which are generally written in the Catalan language, and which dote at length on worthy aspects of local heritage culture, such as old-time kitchens, and rare wildflowers, and colorful fish, and stately farmhouses, and poets. All those Ibizan things are well and good, and my respect for that effort is profound, but this particular lizard book has been translated into English. Therefore, I bought it. I read every word of it, too. The translation has a few small glitches, and the author is a working scientist rather than a pop journalist, but my relationship to my lizard neighbors has been transformed by this publication. I have always noticed the lizards of Ibiza, but now I feel a genuine solidarity with them. From now on, if I can do them a kindness, I will.
The book is handsomely illustrated by professional Ibizan photographers, who were probably shooting DJs and supermodels earlier, so that the happy reader can zoom in and get eye to eye with the little Podarcis entities, whose lens-magnified heads seem big as crocodiles. Ibizan lizards have beady, predatory eyes whose snakey gaze might be mistaken for stupidity, but it isn’t. Lizards — and especially these energetic, solar-powered, semitropical lizards from an island near North Africa — are not dull or sluggish beasts by nature. They just lack mammalian priorities.
Ibiza lizards are not even “cold-blooded” — on the contrary, they have multiple metabolisms with different enzymatic pathways, and they can manage their body temperature rather like driving a stick-shift car. This feat is especially obvious among the many Ibizan Wall Lizards who dwell inside Ibiza’s many walls.
These sun-dappled walls are the endless, rambling boundaries between local haciendas, stacked chunks of broken limestone grubbed up out of the scanty soil and closely dry-stacked by generations of human farmers. These walls are cool inside and also blistering hot in full sunlight, and it’s hard to imagine a more hospitable gesture from humankind toward lizards.
Podarcis lizards adore those fractured stone walls in the way a rat loves cardboard. They’re even visibly jealous about their favorite luxury flats inside these long stone condominia, these posh, hotel-like constructions which are birdproofed, air-conditioned, easy access, with every mod-con a lizard might desire. They’ve been living in there for centuries now, but they’re such an ancient species that they still seem thrilled about it.
The Mediterranean basin abounds with many other species of Podarcis lizard — they especially abound in the south of Italy, where they’re ominously known as “ruin lizards.” However, the Ibizan ones have enjoyed some unique Ibizan opportunities. They’re really made their scene and gotten deep into their game.
They’re much prettier than most European lizards, but they are pretty for their own purposes. The multicolored, speckled hides of Ibizan lizards express one big problem and one big aspiration.
Their aspiration is sex, it’s coupling, reproduction. Ibizan Wall Lizards have “sexual dymorphism,” erotic signals bright enough for a lizard’s beady eye, and their underbelly colors change with size and survival success. So when it’s mating season, they do dance-hall pushups of a sort, demonstrating their courting finery, so partners can see at a glance what they’re in for and when-and-if they’ve scored.
Their problem is birds, for hordes of birds transit over Ibiza, which is on a major migration route. So the back of an Ibizan lizard, which is bird-visible, is all about militarized camouflage. Their coloration is all about fading away into the island’s various battlegrounds and not getting pounced on by passing winged predators.
To fool the hungry birds, the many Ibizan sub-species of Podarcis take on the local colors of stone, dried seaweed, sand, juniper, “lentisk,” “sea lavender,” even “glasswort.” They are not chameleons, but they can eat the local vegetation and then express those vegetable pigments in their hides. So they’re rather like regional artists with a local palette, and their graphic repertoire of stripes and dots will change as their artwork matures with time.
The Pitiusan archipelago has two major islands — Ibiza and Formentera — and near-to-forty tiny ones. Lizards don’t need a lot of real estate — ten lizards can get by on the fuel requirements of a single mouse. So they just wash onto every island in sight — as eggs in driftwood, or whatever — and they seep into the local crevices. They adapt.
On the tiny island of “Ses Bledes” there are black Podarcis lizards who have evolved to mimic the black cracks deep in the local limestone. They don’t mind their spare existence on bare, cracked rocks. They evolved to mimic cracked rocks. They’re fine with that. They’d do it again, if they had to.
It’s not fair to end any natural history essay, nowadays, without claiming that every living creature is in terrible trouble from the Anthropocene. I understand that scary assertion, and life in modern Ibiza hasn’t changed my opinions about the many perils of mass extinction. Especially Formentera, which has many spooky aspects of a desert island — it’s a strikingly rugged and picturesque place, but there have been long periods where human beings couldn’t survive there. Formentera’s soil is poor, there’s little fresh water, and the island gets salt-washed by storm surges. So for castaway humans, Formentera would be quite menacing.
For castaway lizards, though, Formentera is a herpetological lotusland, the nonpariel retreat of reptilian hipsters, a getaway from-it-all where their native values are lasting and dominant.
Those too-bold lizards on Formentera strike me as entities who would scarcely notice climate crisis. They commonly manage radical swings in temperature, and even on one small island, there are distinct and fertile varieties of them, ready to adapt to whatever comes along. So if you imagine massive ecological catastrophe — and who can’t see that already, here and there — Ibizan Wall Lizards appear rather more suited to futurity than we do.
In the local archipelago, there’s a modest place called “Tower Island,” or “Sa Torreta.” People named the island for the only thing that humans ever built there, which was an anti-pirate tower to guard against cruel and predatory human beings. Tower Island is a sensible spot for an isolated military watch-post, because, for us warm-blooded primates, there was nothing much else going on there.
But for Ibiza’s lizards, that island is entirely lizard-centric, almost a spiritual headquarters.
It’s barren. Practically nothing green can grow on Sa Torreta, and tidal surges wash it.
However, local seaweed washes up on the low and humble shore, and in these heaps of “Posidonia” flotsam, various gnats and salty amphipods show up to gnaw the rot. An island lizard who knows what she is about can get by pretty well on those unsuspecting beach bugs.
Birds fly overhead too, and some nest on this desert isle. And those birds, annoyingly, eat lizards, because birds will do that. But the birds also die on that island, because birds are mortal, too. Then the lizards can eat them. And if lizards can’t eat them, flies can eat them, and lizards can eat the flies. Eventually, the whole biomass of that tiny island filters through the guts of lizards. They’ve got a hammerlock on the food chain.
That is what us humans call a “depauperate ecosystem,” because it is not rich, lush, nutritious, or friendly to our purposes. It is an ecosystem best-suited to scavengers and cannibals, for it is small, bleak, simple, hopeless and direct, it is “bare life” as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben might put it. However, lizards don’t have to read a lot of Giorgio Agamben, eloquent though he is. When you’re a contented Podarcis lizard relishing the depauperate ecosystem of Sa Torreta, earthly existence is all about you, you, you.
Those lizards of Sa Torreta, sunning themselves on the salty rocks today, don’t have to read my book review here, either. Because they are what they are — the native pre-human Ibizans, and quite plausibly the post-human ones, too.
I’ve seen the lizards of Ibiza — even gently chased them out of my kitchen — and I’ve read a good book about them, too. So now I know why they deserve their status as the living symbols of Ibiza. If every living invader of their ancient realm — all the sheep, goats, cats, dogs, and novelists — was driven straight over the Ibizan cliffs into mass extinction, and they were the only thing left alive on this island that possessed a spine, they’d be cool with that. That fate would be groovy. Because they’ve already been there, they have done that. That’s the old school for them, the age of nostalgia, when life was really good.