Unsolved Mysteries: Reptiles in Residence

Why aren’t there Lazarus Lizards on the west side?

We had too many mysteries to fit in the April 2013 issue–so enjoy this bonus tale.

Some 60 years ago, a handful of Italians emigrated from Lake Garda, outside of Milan, to East Walnut Hills. Now the family spans generations, with thousands of descendants.  But after all this time, they’re still mostly east-siders.

The immigrants in question are unique—so much so, they’ve been given their own special name: the Lazarus Lizards. Known everywhere else as European wall lizards, they were “imported” by George Rau, a member of the Lazarus family. As a kid, Rau smuggled the reptiles to Cincinnati after a vacation and released them in the backyard of his east side home. Today Lazarus lizard population density reaches up to 1,000 per acre in parts of Walnut Hills, Hyde Park, and Mt. Lookout, and they’ve spread as far east as Milford. The west side? Not so much.

Does that mean the west side is fundamentally inhospitable to them? Or that the animals have inherited their adopted city’s neighborhood snobbery?

Neither, according to Ken Petren, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati. Petren and his students have a website where people can report sightings, and they’ve identified pockets well outside the lizards’ eastern epicenter. Petren believes this happens when a lizardnapper impulsively collects specimens from one locale and then releases them miles away. But a slow, steady, natural migration west is also underway. “At some point in the future, they will cover North America,” Petren says. But at the moment, Petren says, Lazarus lizards don’t stray too far from the rocky banks of the Ohio the farther west they go.

Apparently they want a river view. Just like the rest of us.

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