Biology Reference
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was going on, he'd lift the box and expose a lively desert iguana! The future of biod-
iversity depends on how much we appreciate other organisms, and I hope that many
Chapman alumni, now influential lawyers, bankers, and so forth, haven't forgotten the
lesson of that beautiful lizard.
The most insightful and lasting aspects of Ben's scientific work, as well as his success
as a teacher, stemmed from a love of seeing, pondering, and talking about nature. That
perspective, an extension of his childhood enthusiasm for the outdoors, also inspired an
interest in small, nocturnal lizards. By the late nineteenth century two U.S. species of
Coleonyx had been recognized: the western banded gecko ( C.variegatus ) of the Mohave
and Sonoran Deserts and the Texas banded gecko ( C.brevis ) of the Chihuahuan Desert
and adjacent areas. Then, in 1958, William Davis and James Dixon christened the re-
ticulate banded gecko ( C. reticulatus ) based on one they had inadvertently caught in a
mousetrap, just east of Big Bend National Park. For more than a decade the new species
was known only from that first specimen, and some suspected it was no more than a
bizarre variant of the Texas banded gecko. 8 Ben had seen C.brevis on our teenage field
trips and learned of C. reticulatus in Dixon's herpetology course at A&M.
Most of the more than one thousand species of geckos, like the familiar foot-long,
orange-and-blue Asian Tokays, have spectacle eye covers and toes armed with thou-
sands of microscopic, hairlike gripping structures. Superb climbers, they're prone to
herky-jerky spurts, and as a child in the Philippines I delighted in watching a small
brown species sprint upside-down across the bedroom ceiling. Banded geckos, however,
are generally terrestrial, with closable eyelids and more typical feet, delicate yellow
and brown markings, and short, fat tails. A lunker male might break five inches in total
length. They move with deliberate, catlike grace and twitch their tails when stalking in-
sects. Besides the U.S. species, there are three others in the neotropics, and their Old
World relatives include leopard geckos, popular as pets. In 1968 a fourth desert species,
Switak's banded gecko ( C.switaki ), was discovered in Mexico and later found in south-
ern California as well.
However routine in some ways, banded geckos were also puzzling: Why did the two
large desert species have tiny tubercles scattered among their granular scales, like
tropical Coleonyx but not the widespread western and Texas banded geckos? First Ben
experimentally demonstrated that reticulate banded geckos are more sensitive to de-
siccation than the smaller species, consistent with their small, patchy geography; he
still wanted to know, though, what they actually were doing out there in the desert.
Poring over museum records, he noticed that the few known specimens were taken on
rainy evenings and where roads intersected rocky habitat; thus, further inspired by his
captives' prehensile tails and climbing proclivities, Ben got the idea that C. reticulatus
prefers moist, vertical crevices. Late on a stormy summer night he stopped on a road
where a reticulate banded gecko had earlier been found, illuminated the nearby lime-
stone ledges with a lantern, and within minutes spotted one of the reclusive, ghostlike
lizards crawling straight up the cliff face! 9
After moving to Chapman, Ben studied Switak's banded geckos in nearby Anza-Bor-
rego Desert State Park. As expected, that species turned out to prefer low temperat-
ures and desiccate easily, like reticulate banded geckos, while resembling in some oth-
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