Big and baggy, Chuckwallas are lizards from the iguana family. All that extra skin comes in handy when a predator such as a red-tailed hawk or a coyote threatens. Chuckwalla dives into a nearby rock crevice and gulps in air, blowing itself up like a balloon. The predator finds its almost prey wedged into a tight space with no leverage to pull it out. This is Chuck’s primary defense mechanism.
For a few years we grew a grape vine in the backyard, and a big male Chuckwalla with a bright orange tail claimed that vine for his own. (Only males in the South Mountains boast the orange tails.) He lounged on our block wall, nibbling leaves and sunbathing – a Chuckwalla’s two favorite activities. I once saw him chase a smaller Chuck out of the yard. I had no idea he could move so fast or look so scary.
The other day I happened to see two Chuckwallas together in a rocky area where I walk. I heard a scratching noise, and saw an orange tail disappear into a crevice in a rock face. Something moved on a sandy ledge below, it was a light-colored female. She was completely inflated, her back humped up and her banded grey tail all contorted and sticking out at an odd angle.
She nibbled some dried annual plants. Then, as her body resumed its normal shape, she climbed into the branches of a small Brittlebush. She used her front feet to pull the most tender leaves down and munched on those. Up at the crevice the male was peeking out, watching. When I moved to reach for my camera, they both disappeared, like they were never there.
Chuckwallas are plant eaters and can store moisture from the plants they eat in fatty tissues in their tails. The female buries six or more eggs in loose soil. I have seen more Chuckwallas than ever this year, and we even have a new backyard resident!