The Natural History Museum is launching a first-of-its-kind backyard survey of lizard species.
They plan to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for the “Lost Lizards of Los Angeles.”
That’s what experts at Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum are calling an unusual wildlife safari they plan to launch in backyards across the county.
Museum officials hope to recruit volunteers to poke around flower beds and peek under leaf piles and hedgerows for a first-of-its-kind Los Angeles lizard census.
It’s not Los Angeles’ first hunt for lizard people, however. One such search 76 years ago sent locals running for their shovels.
There are thought to be about 4,675 lizard species worldwide. It is unknown how many of them exist in heavily developed Southern California.
While the museum’s lizard search will begin in late spring and extend into the summer, the counting will actually start Saturday, when about 20 local amphibian experts fan out across Exposition Park to hunt for salamanders. They are braced for the likelihood that they will come up empty-handed.
“We don’t find any record of lizards here,” said Brian Brown, curator of the entomology section at the Natural History Museum, which is located at the park south of downtown Los Angeles. “The question may be, ‘Why are there no lizards in Exposition Park?’ ”
But Brown and others say there is a good chance that new lizard breeds will be discovered by volunteers conducting the “Lost Lizards of Los Angeles” survey.
“The chance of finding a new species here is the same as in a rain forest. Our own backyards in some way are just as unknown as some remote jungle,” he said.
Proof of that is the dare Brown accepted from a museum trustee who challenged him to find a new species of any type in the yard of the trustee’s Brentwood home.
“I found one: a small fly. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it will. And no, it won’t be named after me. That would be poor taste,” said Brown, a Monrovia resident.
The lizard hunt is the latest in a series of critter surveys conducted by the county museum. Other research efforts have included examinations of flies in the Santa Monica Mountains and spiders in residential areas across Los Angeles.
The entomology of living creatures is constantly evolving as new species are introduced to this area by people who accidentally transport them here. At the same time, urbanization and pollution sometimes kill off native species, said Leslie Gordon, who lives in Burbank and is the manager of the museum’s living vertebrate collection.
Susceptible to environmental changes, animals such as lizards and salamanders offer an early warning to pollution issues that can have a long-range effect on humans, say scientists.
“That’s why the museum is getting more and more invested in urban biodiversity,” Brown said.
As for lizards, they’ve gotten a bum rap from some due to their physical appearance. “Some people think they have cold, expressionless faces and look like space aliens,” Brown said.
Nonetheless, the last time a Los Angeles lizard search was mounted, in early 1934, it prompted a frenzy of public interest — not to mention public speculation about a previously unknown human species.
Back then searchers were looking for the “Lizard People’s catacomb city” beneath what is now the new downtown performing arts high school on Grand Avenue next to the Hollywood Freeway.
A front-page Times story explained how “geophysical mining engineer” G. Warren Shufelt had supposedly used a “radio X-ray” machine to discover and map a series of underground tunnels that stored gold tablets. Shufelt said Hopi American Indians in Arizona had confirmed that legendary Lizard People had created the tunnels and hidden the gold 5,000 years earlier.
As Shufelt related the legend, the Lizard People viewed the lizard as a symbol of long life. The gold tablets were 4 feet long and 14 inches wide and inscribed with the history of mankind. His radio X-ray had located 37 of the tablets, Shufelt told The Times.
The story described the Lizard People as advanced, with their 9-year-olds having the intellect of college-educated adults, according to Hopi legend. The tunnels were said to have been etched out by some sort of chemical that eventually drained away to the sea.
Shufelt sank a shaft that he hoped would lead to a 1,302-square-foot “room” that was supposedly connected to five of the tunnels, but nothing was ever found. Subsequent excavation of the Fort Moore hill for construction of the freeway a dozen or so years later yielded no evidence of catacombs or treasure.
Museum officials said they were aware of the Lizard People legend.
“Lizards do like their gold,” joked Brown.