“To whom, then, does the earth belong?” said the dragon as he was being slain. “Sometimes it seems to belong to dragons; at other times to dragon gaggers. Sometimes it seems to belong to the hot harmattan wind . . . then to the descuernadragones, the wind that dehorns dragons . . . and then to the doldrums. Sometimes it seems to belong to the slaves, when the sea parts to let them through, and sometimes to the sea when the sea does not part. Now to the siskin finch and sablefish; now to smitheries and smelteries. Perhaps the earth is neutral, like a bridge between two cities, traveled on but possessed by no traveler.” Such are the behindhand ponderings of a doomed dragon.
Turtles do not have to be doomed before they become canny. While it is not known how much eggs understand, the tiny sea turtles nosing out of their leathery eggshells recognize instantly that it is not a turtle’s world. This is apparent in how they modulate their speed once they hatch. A turtle hatchling who believed otherwise would scramble out of his sand burrow and, upon emerging, stop: “The world is my sphere and the sun is my traveling lamp and I, soft-shelled, shall span my sphere and nothing can ruin me.” Then he would step sportily down to the sea.
But in fact the hatchlings unbury themselves gravely, stealing up out of the sand over several days, so to give their soft shells time to harden. And once they are close to the surface of the sand, they pause and wait for the sun to go down; then they run frantically down to the water, and once in the water, they beat through the shallows to deeper water. The sandy newborn turtles shimmying down the Yalimapo beach as night falls are no ninnies. The dog, the raccoon, the wave, the catfish may ruin them, and there is no mother.
Neither does the world belong to snakes, as they forthwith apprehend: stuffed into clay pots by snake-catching guilds, vipers are ignominiously milked of their venom, which is then turned into antivenom. Potted snakes employed in canceling themselves cannot consider themselves top-drawer. Even the king cobra, fifteen feet long, sooner or later finds itself ridiculous, as when giddy women kiss it lips-to-lips to amass fertility luck for themselves.
Although lizards have some edible subordinates, like mealworms and sweet potatoes and snails, lizards are edible subordinates, too, for birds and bobcats. The worst menaces that lizards can perform are just medium. Only two lizards—Heloderma horridum, the Mexican beaded lizard, and Heloderma suspectum, the Gila monster, made of black and peach beads—carry poison in their bites. But while snakes store their venom in the upper jaw, whence it flows into ankles and guild jars, the horridum and suspectum have their venom glands in the lower jaw, so that when they bite, the poison must seep up slowly through the bottom fangs. Only the seediest victims get bitten long enough to be defeated by the Heloderma suspectum; the plummy ones get away. The peach-bead monster can barely access its most devastating ingredient, and its status on Earth is Vulnerable.
Maybe vulnerable creatures—the Gilas, the sea turtles, the eyelash boas, the banana boas, the mutable tulips, the muddy-footed panda bears, the muddy-rooted hazels, the swiveling hens—are more interesting than invulnerable creatures. For what have the invulnerable to gain from invention or experiment? In form, lizards are as experimental as pasta. There are flying dragons with ribbed side flaps that fold out like wings. There is the thorny devil, so wide it can eat thousands of ants at one meal. There are giant lizards who lack fusing bones and grow until they die; there is the Jaragua sphaero, a tiny gecko living in leaf litter, as little as geckos can be without drying out. (That tiny, it has a dangerously high proportion of surface, and little interior to keep it moist.) There are the lizards with crizzled necklace frills and the Jesus lizard, who runs on water.
Then there are the saggy chuckwallas. Simulating largeness requires skin saggy enough to not tear when expanded. When they are hunted, chuckwallas, polygamous vegetarian iguanas of the Mojave Desert, wriggle into a cleft in a rock and then inflate. The bobcat would like the chuckwalla in its throat, but instead the chuckwalla is jammed in the throat of the rock.
Other lizards hide by crypsis, or blending in, like Neptune keeping secret among the stars until 1846. Some lizards look like leaves and some like tree trunks and some like thorns and some like beetles. The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.
It is also possible to be cryptic by just being drab; then you can go anywhere without being seen. The problem is that females of your own species may not see you and you will have no offspring. It is best to be drab or brilliant as needed, like the cyan-tailed skink, which practices sudden crypsis. To perform sudden crypsis, one needs an easily sheddable pretty part, like a yellow and green kite or a tangerine ruffle skirt or a bright blue tail. Fly the kite merrily; wear the skirt or the tail merrily; but when you sense you are being hunted, dispatch your accessory, and then just as merrily be drab, for your hunter will swoop after your castoff, and you will be safe and invisible. Once untailed of its electrifying blue, the skink is brown and blithe and more essential.
Maybe animals that troop with trouble are more interestingly complexioned than animals above trouble. He who needs not respond to the bobcat or the wave or the coyote needs no frills or side flaps or soft, speedy feet or detachable blue tails; he needn’t be wedgeable into rocks or mistakeable for thorns. He can reach his senescence unaffected by experience, not made gracefully peculiar.
The Jackson’s chameleon is an accidental transplant from Mount Kenya to Hawaii. (If, when your chameleons arrive in the mail from Africa, they seem kind of dry, letting them onto your lawn is not the best way to refresh them: they may disregard your fence and populate the mountains beyond.)
Jackson’s chameleons are born falling, in their embryonic sacs, from on high, where the mother in the tree is emitting her babies. The sacs break when they hit the ground, and the chameleon babies burst out a little shaky. Then they climb a tree because they have tree-climbing toes. And long tongues for drinking rain dribbling off their noses, since puddles do not form in treetops. Also independently moving eyeballs for watching groundward and skyward at the same time; and flexible hues; and three long facial horns, good for confronting relations with horns.
But the Jackson’s chameleon also confronts itself with its horns. Sometimes as it is roving the tree branches, gaping and hissing and swaying and surprising wasps with its projectile tongue, it will by mistake grab onto its own forehead horns and then panic, wrestling itself, frantic to escape its own frantic grasp, a one-reptile bedlam in the paddle-leafed tree. As the sunbeams glow across the blue seawater and web through the forest of pale yellow bananas and green bottlebrushes and pink-orange guavas and mix their tints around the thrashing chameleon, it can shift its hues, to match the ambient light, from green to turquoise to sour green to blonde to blotchy olive-blonde—but such wars make such graces ridiculous. The problem with being prehensile is that you might seize yourself. Thyself may be thy chiefest rascal.
Amy Leach lives in Chicago. She is writing a book about animals, plants, and stars.
“Complexion” appears in our Autumn 2010 issue.