Meet the Italian wall lizard, NJ’s other invasive species
The spotted lanternfly continues to be a media darling. As the powers that be call on us to stomp these pests out of existence, they continue to sap-suck their way through the Mid-Atlantic and flaunt their beautiful colors in the process.
NBC Philadelphia recently published a story about two Princeton High School students who are looking at alternative ways of eliminating the spotted lanternfly rather than crushing it. It's an interesting experiment that exposes the lanternflies to contagious fungi. But the students are also looking at ways to curb another invasive species in the region.
The Italian wall lizard.
These rapid evolvers are native to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Switzerland, but most prominently Italy.
So how were they introduced to New Jersey? Look no further than Burlington County.
While these reptiles have been spotted around the Northeast for over 30 years, their origin story was a mystery until 2010. It turns out it all started in quiet, unsuspecting Mount Laurel, NJ.
That year an anonymous Mount Laurel resident stepped forward and admitted to the Burlington County Times that he purchased 120 Italian wall lizards from an amphibian supplier in The Bronx, NY, in 1984. He then released them outside his parents' home as a way of ridding the property of insects.
While it appears he had good intentions, I think we can all agree 120 lizards is a bit excessive.
Once he set the lizards free, they adapted nearly instantly to the Mount Laurel neighborhood, not far from the town's municipal complex. That was in 1984, and they still roam the area today. And while Burlington County, NJ remains their Central Command, they have since migrated across the U.S.
As part of their study, the Princeton High School students collected Italian wall lizards from Mount Laurel and Topeka, KS to study behavioral differences. 11th-grader Ida Sidik made an interesting observation that the Mount Laurel lizard was "particularly more aggressive."
Considering their Bronx origins and generations living in New Jersey, one can only assume "particularly more aggressive" means the lizards talk really fast and are extremely sarcastic.
Pat Halbe, the township clerk until 2011, told the Burlington County Times an Italian wall lizard seemed to know when she was passing by. Halbe said, “It’s almost like a daily ritual. When I come back from lunch, it runs in front of me.”
Sure enough, the former township clerk was onto something. I decided to take a drive down to Mount Laurel to the neighborhood the lizards were released on Canterbury Rd.
Between 10-15 of these tiny lizards crossed my path as I walked through the area. I tried to get up close to a few of them so I could take some pictures, but I quickly learned they move at a rapid pace. I did, however, manage to barely capture a video of one crossing my path. Watch closely:
"Better than nothing I guess" was my thought process after realizing I wasn't going to be able to get any closer without getting down and dirty. And I didn't feel like doing that.
Instead, a YouTube deep dive led me to some videos of people who had some better luck tracking the Italian wall lizards down.
As for the high schoolers in Princeton who are examining how to lessen the influence of both invasive species in NJ, they couldn't come up with any sort of experiment for the lizards. It's not like there's a public campaign to kill them on sight.
Mount Laurel residents seems to have embraced them, looking forward to their emergence every year as it means springtime is around the corner.
The students tell NBC Philadelphia the only solution is scooping one up and keeping them as a pet.
I say if these Italian wall lizards are so good at killing insects and aren't a nuisance, why not release more and send them after the spotted lanternflies?
A much more toned down version of Godzilla vs. Mothra.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 producer, writer, and host Joe Votruba. Any opinions expressed are his own.