Three Young Lizards from Cappagh, Co. Waterford
The viviparous or common lizard is the only land reptile native to Ireland.By Ana Queiros
Description of the specimens
The specimens consist of the whole animals preserved in alcohol. All three are young females, greenish-brown in colour and measuring 6 to 7 cm in length. The scientific name for this species is Lacerta vivipara Jacquin.
The register entry for these specimens reads:
“Lacerta vivipara; Presented by R.J. Ussher; Cappagh Co. Waterford; 1 specimen sent to Dr von Denburgh 19.V.11”
Where do these lizards live?
Viviparous lizards live on the ground in humid environments, unlike other lizards which prefer drier habitats. They are widespread in most of Europe and northern Asia. In northern Europe, including Ireland, they can be found in a variety of places such as woods, bogs, grasslands, sand dunes and sea-cliffs.
Being reptiles, they cannot regulate their body temperature, so during the winter they hibernate in order to survive the cold. In Ireland, they hibernate for 6 months from October to March. During the summer they are only active during the day. They bask in the sun to get warm and move to the shade to cool down. It is also during the day that they hunt for their prey. They have a varied diet which includes small insects, spiders, worms, snails and slugs.
Their main predators are birds of prey and domestic cats. When in danger, the lizards can very quickly hide under a rock or vegetation. They can also shed their tails in order to distract their predators and escape. The tails will then grow back after a while.
What does their name mean?
The name viviparous comes from the fact that the females give birth to live young as opposed to laying eggs. This is another adaption to the cold and humid environments these lizards prefer.
The breeding season starts just after the lizards come out of hibernation and the females carry the young in their bodies for about three months. When they are born, the young lizards measure about 4 cm and are fully independent of their parents.
Why are they in the museum?
According to the register these lizards were given by Richard John Ussher in April 1892. Ussher was a keen ornithologist for most of his life having greatly contributed to this field. He also developed an interest in palaeontology after discovering a cave with fossil remains near his home in Cappagh, Co. Waterford. This discovery lead him to explore other Irish caves with the Royal Irish Academy as part of the Committee appointed to explore Irish caves. Many specimens he collected along the years were donated to, or acquired by, the Natural History Museum.
These specimens are part of our research collection and are not on exhibition. However, there are other specimens of viviparous lizard on display on the ground floor of the National Museum of Ireland - Natural History.
Arnold, E.N. and Burton, J.A. 1978. A Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe. Collins. London.
Jones, Calvin. 2011. Common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) online at http://www.irelandswildlife.com/common-lizard-lacerta-vivipara/
Lanka, Vaclav and Zbysek Vit. 1985. Hamlyn Colour Guides Amphibians and Reptiles. Hamlyn Publishing. Prague.
Praeger, R.L. 1949. Some Irish Naturalists. W Tempest. Dundalgan Press. Dundalk.