Monday, 19.03.2018
 Daily news from the Canaries and the islands' biggest English language newspaper on-line
Daily news from the Canaries and the islands
   Daily news from the Canaries and the islands' biggest English language newspaper on-line

The First Canarians
You may have noticed small lizards darting all over the place while you were strolling along the beaches or in the gardens of your apartment - you have had the privilege of seeing the first colonisers of the Canary islands, found here and nowhere else in the world.

More aggressive than the rest, the orange throated Gran Canarian giant lizard
More aggressive than the rest, the orange throated Gran Canarian giant lizard

15.12.2004 - Although closely related to the lizards of northern Europe, the Canary Lizards known to scientist by the name of Gallotia, arrived on the Canary Islands around 20 million years ago. It is thought that they came from north Africa, when the Sahara desert was still a huge savannah covered with large tracts of forest, and the mighty river Draa still flowed from the high Atlas down to the Atlantic coast just north of the Canaries. The first lizards were probably transported by rafts of vegetation down this river and then by way of the Canarian current, swept down to the island of Fuerteventura, the island closest to the African mainland. They arrived only a few thousand years after the islands emerged from the sea lifted up by enormous volcanic activity. Spores and seeds were the first life to arrive to the islands blown over by the sirocco winds from Africa or carried by migrating birds, insects soon followed and by the time the lizards arrived a ready food source was available. Over the next 17 million years as new islands appeared, they too were populated by lizards from neighbouring islands. This is known in technical terms as Species Radiation and over the years the isolation of the lizards caused them to evolve differently - so each island soon had its own endemic species of lizards. On the western group of islands, i.e. Tenerife (which until quite recently was divided in to three separate islands), La Palma, La Gomera and the youngest of the Canaries El Hierro each had two species, whereas Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, and Fuerteventura had only one each. There are also several species of geckos, often seen at night on the walls of houses and small shiny skinks which are less conspicuous - these also came originally from Africa. There was only one species of snake that reached the Canaries but for unknown reasons became extinct 20 or 30 thousand years ago, along with several species of giant tortoises and a giant rat, which grew up to one metre long. The lizards were kings of the islands for almost 20 million years, there being no natural predators they had nothing or no one to fear. In these conditions its normal on islands that some species grow larger and become slower and lazy. This is not a problem as they have nobody to bother them and they tend to become vegetarians, as they have bigger stomachs they can eat more of less nourishing foods such as plants and quantity is more important than quality. This happened mainly on the western islands, of the two species on the islands one became a larger, slower lizard which took longer to mature and laid less eggs. The other stayed small, quick and predominantly an insect eater, they lived a shorter life but matured quicker and laid more eggs. Fossil remains have shown that some of the lizards reached over 150 cm, and could weigh over eight kilos. Life was great for the Canary Island lizards, until finally with the arrival of man, things started to change. The first people to arrive to the Canaries also came from North Africa and were thought to belong to the Berber tribe. They arrived around 2,500 years ago and soon inhabited all of the islands bringing with them their domesticated animals, including pigs, goats, sheep and dogs - along with man, all bad news for the lizards. The Guanches (as the new Canarians were to become known) soon realised that they had an extra source of protein in the large slow lizards that basked on the rocks, and they soon became a regular item on the menu. The biggest males were the first to go. The goats, pigs and sheep, also competed with the lizards for food, being plant eaters, and pigs were eating the eggs and young of lizards. But the Guanches were not the main problem. It was with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors only 500 years ago, that things started to get really bad for the lizards especially the giant forms that had evolved on El Hierro, La Gomera, Tenerife, and La Palma. The early 15th century chronicles of the first explorers mention several times the large grotesque lizards that inhabited these islands and how common they were. Only a few hundred years later that had changed, they were mentioned less and less until they seemed to disappear completely. On the other hand the smaller species seemed to thrive, their smaller size and faster breeding led them to manage much better with this new invasion. What led to the decline of the giant lizards was not so much the hunting by man, as the Spanish were not as partial to lizards as the Guanches, but the introduction of another of mans much beloved animals - the cat which was to be the death knell for the lizards. Cats and islands dont mix, and the lizards having not evolved a defence against predators, were soon being destroyed until none of the giant lizards were thought to have survived to the 20th century. The cats were not the only problem but were the largest and continue to be so. It was not until the 1970s that rumours were being passed around that a large lizard was still surviving on the cliffs of La Frontera in El Hierro. Finally a small group were rediscovered, curiously in the suitcase of a German who was in the process of smuggling them out of the country, but thats another story. The seizure led to the discovery of the spot where the lizards were living, and subsequently led to a plan being devised for the recuperation of the giant lizard of El Hierro. A captive breeding centre was set up and in the last 25 years over 500 lizards have been born there and several hundred have been released back into the wild. In 1996 another species was discovered living on the cliffs of Teno in similar conditions to the ones on El Hierro, although there are less than 500 living in the wild. It was decided to leave them alone and not to bring them into captivity but to try and protect the habitat and find a way to control the cat population. Amazingly in 1999 another species was rediscovered on La Gomera. The lizard had not been seen for almost 500 years, but a group of biologists had the idea that if the El Hierro and Tenerife lizards still survived there might be a chance for the Gomeran lizards too. A very small group were found on the Cliffs of La Merica, again in very similar habitat as the other two species. Only six lizards were found in six months of trapping, so it was decided to bring them all into captivity and start a captive breeding program. Fortunately the lizards were found in the nick of time, the captive population has now risen to 42 and an additional 50 specimens have been located high on the cliff, where they are safe from cats and other predators. Sadly the other missing giant lizard from La Palma is now probably gone for good. Although there has been prospecting on the island over the last few years and its known that it was once quite common, no giant lizards have been found. But who knows on a high cliff, in a remote area, a small group may still be hanging on by their claws to survive, and may they stay that way. On the other hand the true unknown giant of the Canaries is the lizard from Gran Canaria, which for some reason is a more aggressive lizard and has somehow managed to hang on to the top place. They are very common all over Gran Canaria and large males can reach 80cm although in the past, fossil bones have been found to prove they were even bigger. Lizards become smaller on islands as they become more rare, so what survives today on the Canaries are really dwarfs compared to the true giants of the past millenniums. It is due to the enlightened vision and the Canarian environmental ministry who has not hesitated to invest time, expertise and money in the conservation of these national treasures and thanks to funding from the EU community Life project that the future is looking bright for these reptiles, the original Canarians, so next time you see a lizard stop and spare a though for what they have had to go though in the last 20 million years. Jim Pether is the director of Reptilandia Park, a privately run reptile Zoo, situated in Gldar in the north of Gran Canaria. Reptilandia has over the years bred many rare species of reptiles and has just become the first Zoo to breed Komodo Dragons outside of the USA and Indonesia. Reptilandia is also involved in the recuperation of the rarest lizard in the world, the Giant Gomeran lizard, Gallotia bravoana and has helped to bring this animal back from the brink of extinction. Reptilandia will be open 11am to 5.30pm everyday except Christmas Day until the end of the year, when sadly after 18 years they will be closing to the public. By Jim Pether, Reptilandia

Gallery: The First Canarians
More aggressive than the rest, the orange throated Gran Canarian giant lizard Reptilandia have helped bring back the Giant Gomeran lizard from the brink of extinction  
 5 pictures found: Go to gallery
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