Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles

Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles

Shasta Alligator Lizard w/ Engorged Ticks –  Photo Gary Nafis

As most of you know, I have been treating Lyme disease, even in its chronic state, for decades.   I co-wrote the book, Solving the Puzzle of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, where we introduced the need for Mixed Infection Syndrome treatment and the relationship of Lyme to fatigue.

I wanted to write this blog about Lizards because of some comments I received from the California Lyme Support Group about the Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentals) and its connection to Lyme disease.

Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles

About 16 years ago a number of studies showed that a protein in Western Fence Lizard’s blood killed the Lyme disease bacteria in the gut of an infected immature western black-legged tick. The tick then molts (matures) into a disease-free adult tick. This was especially true when ticks fed around the lizard’s ears.[1]

Interestingly enough, as far as my limited research has shown, there is no work going on to produce a therapeutic agent to help humans fight Lyme disease by isolating the protein from the Western Fence Lizard.

My office got in touch with Gary Nafis who helps run the very interesting Californiaherps.com website.  Herps is a short for Herpetology, the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles & amphibians. I want to thank Gary for allowing us to use the photos and information we found from this website. Unless otherwise noted, the information from this blog is from this website. For more information, please visit California Herps.

Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles

Northern California Legless Lizard – Photo Gary Nafis

Once I started looking into lizards I was surprised to find out how large and diverse the population was. There are 46 species of lizards or 70 different kinds of lizards, including subspecies in California. For example, there is the Northern California Legless Lizard (Anniella pulchra), a lizard that looks like a snake and is found in about 22 of California 58 counties.

Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles

The Gila Monster Lizard – Photo Gary Nafis

Then, there is the famous Gila Monster lizard which has been mentioned in a number of movies and was also the “star” of the 1959 move “The Giant Gila Monster.”

The Gila Monster lizard is a protected species that is sometimes the target of poachers. This species is only found in 3 south eastern California counties.

The Alligator Lizard (picture at the beginning of this post), of which there 3 species in California, is found in all but about 5 of California’s 58 counties. It is common to find ticks (many of them blood-engorged) attached to these Lizards. Look at the photo at the top of the Shasta Alligator Lizard. Can you count how many ticks are attached? I believe there are about 20, and that is only one side.

This lizard’s blood does not kill Lyme disease bacteria, so it is important to be sure to protect yourself from ticks when in the areas populated by these lizards (See below chart by Gary Nafis on the CaliforniaHerps.com website for the distribution of Alligator lizards in California.)

Red         = California Alligator Lizard Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles
Orange   = Oregon Alligator Lizard
Blue        = San Diego Alligator Lizard
Yellow     = Approximate intergrade areas
Map supplied by Gary Nafis

Since the ventral abdomen of an adult Western Fence Lizard (pictured below) is characteristically blue, it is also known as the Blue-Belly Lizard.  It is shown below with engorged ticks behind it’s ears.

Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles

Western Fence (Blue-Belly) Lizard – Photo Gary Nafis

The California Herps website mentions that ticks are part of the diet for this and other lizards. Although lizards eat ticks, It seems they do not eat ticks attached to other lizards. I could not, however, find additional information on this.

There have been studies that suggest the instance of Lyme disease in California is lower than in other states due to the Blue-Belly Lizard’s ability to kill the Lyme disease bacteria. California’s overall Lyme disease infection rate of 0.2 cases per 100,000 is very low compared with rates of 50 to 70 cases in New England.[2]

This has caused a number of people to wonder if they should do something to attract Blue-Belly Lizards to their property to protect their family from Lyme disease.

Some have tried to capture and relocate these lizards to live near their homes. First of all, it is illegal in California to capture and relocate any lizards. Secondly, this could cause environmental damage; and be harmful to the lizard and other species.

Other Californians have constructed lizard perches on their property to invite Blue-Belly Lizards to sun. This probably won’t have any effect on Lyme disease. My suggestion is to not do anything that may attract ticks to your property.

Some studies show the tick population plummets in absence of lizard hosts. The removal of Western Fence lizards decreased the number of nymphal ticks and of infected nymphal ticks. It appears ticks get used to their “diet” of lizard and do not find adequate substitutes in their absence. As a result, the population of ticks is greatly reduced. [3]

Inviting Blue Bellies to your property may be inviting the ticks that feed on them, or even their offspring (Nymph Ticks).  Did you know that one tick can lay over 3,000 eggs? The idea of that many potential Nymph Ticks on your property would be problematic. There is no guarantee that every infected tick in the area will feed on a Blue Belly and have the Lyme disease bacteria killed. One lizard with 20 ticks on it could produce over 30,000 eggs (assuming half of them were female) to your property. This could produce a great number of nymphal ticks, causing the opposite effect these people desire.

I do not advocate moving Lizards or bringing Lizards to your property.  I want to be clear, in addition, that under NO circumstances should anyone kill ANY lizard  (or for that matter, any other animal) found on your property.

Some populations of western black-legged nymph ticks in California are 3 to 4 times more likely to carry Lyme disease than when adults. This is contrary to what you would expect since an adult tick feeds more often than a nymph.[4] There is no explanation for this finding.

An immature nymphal tick is usually smaller than 1/20th of an inch in length.[5] Since nymphal ticks are so small, they are hard to see on human skin. It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of people who acquire Lyme disease as a result of a nymphal bite are unaware they’ve been bitten.[6]

So what should Californians do in regard to Lyme disease? I believe in a three pronged approach:

  1. Education – Make sure you understand what Lyme disease is and when ticks are near where you live and travel.
  2. Prevention – Make sure you protect yourself, your family and your pets from ticks. Pets have been know to bring ticks into their owners households. Wear clothing that overlaps not allowing ticks to get to your skin. Do a tick check for all that have been outside.
  3. Treatment – There has been so much written about Lyme disease in the medical community and some of it is just not correct. Don’t be led to believe in a simple “one-shot” approach. The earlier you get treatment the better. Please check with the International Lyme & Associated Disease (ILAD.org) to be referred to a Lyme literate Doctor.

Ask question or make appointment

[1] THE PRESS DEMOCRAT, October 12, 2013.
[2] THE PRESS DEMOCRAT, October 12, 2013.
[3] http://lymedisease.org/news/hardscienceonlyme/657
[4] http://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/0429/lizard.html
[5] http://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/0429/lizard.html
[6] http://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/0429/lizard.html

Lyme Disease and Lizards Los Angeles


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