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Alligator lizards are shy creatures, and they eat a lot of bugs.

DEAR JOAN: There's a foot-long lizard in my compost bin. He seems to live there. He has a head like a snake, but he's fat and has four legs like an iguana.

Who is this guy? I've never seen anything but tiny lizards on the trails around here.

Leslie Rupley

Walnut Creek

DEAR LESLIE: I thought maybe someone's pet lizard had escaped, but I spoke with reptile expert Michael Marchiano, who believes your new friend is an alligator lizard. From nose to tail, they can grow up to 15 inches, but most are 8 to 12 inches long. They vary in color and can be tan, brown or gray with occasional highlights of red and white. He seems a handy little guy to have around. They are voracious eaters and will happily chow down on all sorts of bugs and spiders, including black widows.

Alligator lizard.
Alligator lizard. (Courtesy of Michael Marchiano)

Your description of the lizard looking like a snake is an apt one. They even flick their tongue, like a snake, scenting food.

Michael says they are out in the day and night, but because they aren't basking lizards like the frequently seen Western fence lizard, people don't encounter them as often. As long as you don't bother them, they are harmless to humans and pets. But like any creature, if attacked or molested they will defend themselves, and those tiny teeth are razor sharp.

I've been referring to the lizard as a "he," but Michael says your description of the lizard as fat could mean he's a she, and a pregnant one at that. Your compost bin would have seemed a good place to lay a clutch of eggs (seven to 10 on average), so be careful when you stir.


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DEAR JOAN: Yesterday I was crossing a street off Holmes Avenue and saw what looked like a black tree squirrel run across the street and climb a tree. It stayed in those trees for a few minutes playing around. It was definitely pure black. What was it?

Donald G. Pellinen

Livermore

DEAR DONALD: Your eyes weren't playing tricks and it's not a new exotic animal. It was a pure black squirrel.

Black squirrels are a "melanistic" subgroup of the Eastern gray squirrel. Melanism is the opposite of albinism. There are a number of animals that produce all black genetic varieties, including the black panther.

Without going too much into genetics, a black squirrel has two copies of a mutant gene that cause melanism. If it has only one copy, it will be brown-black.

I've never seen a jet-black squirrel, but I have seen the brown-black ones. Still, black squirrels do exist in good numbers throughout the Bay Area.

There is a stubborn rumor that Palo Alto has more black squirrels than any other city because of strange genetic experiments being conducted there. A second legend says that Leland Stanford Jr. imported two black squirrels from Europe and they have since run amok. Stanford historians say neither suburban legend is true. Black squirrels just happen.

Snakes? Cool

Mention "pet" and most people think of playful cats and cute dogs, but the Pet Produce Association reports that more than 13 million reptiles are living in more than 5 million homes, by invitation.

On June 15, Petco will have its fourth annual Reptile Rally to let folks know about reptiles and what it takes to be a responsible owner.

The rally is slated from noon to 4 p.m. and you can see various reptiles and learn more. Check a Petco near you to see what they have planned. Five million people can't be wrong.

Joan Morris' column runs five days a week in print and online. Contact her at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com.