Zooming in on Montjuic (v): gecko

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The craggy old gecko lies fossilized on the stone wall, flattened against the warm rock. A bug comes briskly by, and the gecko comes to life, peering down.

The bug quickens its pace, but the gecko’s tongue is faster.

Nothing more to do but lick one’s lips, settle back down into the warm rock, and wait to see what else turns up.

Zooming in on Montjuic castle(ii): a Montpellier snake

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A fierce northerly wind had blown November’s mild mist into space.  But on the south side of Montjuic castle, in early December, it was warm enough for the geckos to materialise from their nooks and for a very small Montpellier snake to go in search of them.

I found it coiled at the foot of the wall, pale brown and very slender, gazing upwards. When it began to negotiate the irregular stones, it revealed a length of only about 30-40 cm.  Montpelliers are Europe’s largest snakes, with adult males reaching 2 metres or more, so this was still a baby.

young-montpellier-snake

For the moment it was perfectly suited for life in the castle wall, threading neatly in and out of the crevices, among the snail shells and woodlice.

montpellier-snake-moving-on-wall

Despite the scrutiny, the young snake didn’t go into hiding.  Instead it began gathering information by flickering its forked tongue at me, the equivalent of twitching a nose in the air, picking up scent particles.

malpolon-monspessulanus-montpellier-snake-tongue-flickering

From a distance the snake was well camouflaged and plain.  Close up, it showed intricate and rhythmic patterns.   The particularly striking markings on the head will soon disappear as the snake grows.  The juvenile Montpellier spotted here a year ago had already lost them.

Varied in size and shape, each scale on a snake’s head is carefully labelled and mapped out for identification.  The Montpellier is distinguished by having two loreal scales, located between the eye and nostril but without touching either.  The narrow shape of its small head means the frontal scale, centre-top, is also long and thin, squashed in by the supraoculars.

young-montpellier-snake-malpolon-monspessulanus

Grateful for letting me have such a good look, I left and let the little Montpellier get on with the business of hunting.

A Moorish gecko

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The richly patterned sandstone wall of Montjuic castle is full of chinks where a gecko might lie, safely basking in the sun. It takes a lot of staring to find one: you suddenly realise the dark patch has toes, and what might be a glinting shard of glass is an eye.

It’s the end of winter, and we all feel like basking in the sun. The Moorish gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) varies in colour – this one appeared almost black, effective for soaking up heat. At night, when actively hunting their prey, they turn pale and interesting.

The gecko let me approach and have a close-up look, perhaps confident that refuge was only a flicker away. Its eyes are split in half by a vertical pupil, sharply contracted against the strong light. Intricate veins cover the dark golden iris. Cleaning is done by a sweep of the tongue, since the gecko has no eyelids.

Perhaps because it sounds more exotic, the pet trade likes to refer to this species as the “Crocodile gecko”. I noted the allusion in the gecko’s bumpy skin. But the tail had a completely different texture: you could clearly see the fault line where the gecko had broken in two to escape from a predator. Once dropped, the tail continues twitching – a useful distraction device. I wondered if the tail, now in process of regeneration, would ever match the original one.

Just as humans have wanted to emulate the flight of birds, they envy geckos for their grip. Sticky hairs on prominent toe pads allow these reptiles to cling to the smoothest surface. A researcher into the phenomenon, interviewed in New Scientist, was flabbergasted by how “vastly over-engineered” they are: “One gecko could resist the weight of 130 kilograms”. Yet they can also detach themselves at lightning speed.

Snake in the Wall

Written by Lucy Brzoska

What drew my attention was the lizard dropping off the wall.

I was on the Camí del mar, a path that circles Montjuic castle and overlooks the sea, which on this misty, warm day merged seamlessly into the sky. People were walking, running or cycling. An old man sunning himself on a bench had brought along a goldfinch, which sang in its cage. The fig trees were still green, but their large leaves had stiffened and occasionally one came clattering down.

From a distance, the castle looks a warm sandy colour, but close up each of the stone bricks is unique, the faded red and yellow patterns sometimes erupting into psychedelic swirls. The quarries of Montjuic have yielded a lot of sandstone for the city’s buildings.

In places the stones have been crudely patched up with cement, but fortunately plenty of cracks and holes remain. There’s no shortage of nesting sites for House sparrows, or refuges for ants, woodlice and spiders. The south-facing slopes of Montjuic are a suntrap, and as the wall heats up, it begins to flicker with lizards.

Approaching the spot where the lizard had made a sudden dive, I noticed a Moorish gecko (Tarentola mauritanica, Salamanquesa común) clinging on near the entrance of a tiny cave. Another step and it withdrew inside.

But there was something far more dangerous than me only two stones away.

The snake, long and slim, lay apparently lifeless, draped on a narrow ledge. When you spot a snake, there’s a tingle of excitement and you hold your breath, almost with disbelief. It came to life and slid into a crevice, keeping watch from within. When I moved, it stretched out its head to keep track of my position.

I didn’t know it was a Montpellier snake ((Malpolon monspessulanus – culebra bastarda) till I got home and checked. The ones I’d seen before were adult, much larger and darker than this slender, well-camouflaged specimen. The unforgettable photograph on Iberianature left no doubt. I recognised the penetrating stare, tapering head and white stripes, like war-paint, below the eyes, although I don’t know if this young one was quite ready to tackle a sparrow yet.

There was a wall-full of prey there, but the Montjuic Montpellier snakes have a reputation for reaching a fiercesome size on a diet of rats.