A hunt for the T. rex of anole lizards

A trip to Puerto Rico in search of a giant shrinking reptile.

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Not too long ago I picked up an old travel book about Puerto Rico and read of a rare giant lizard, Anolis roosevelti, on the island of Culebra.

"Fame will visit anyone who finds this elusive creature," the author of the book proclaimed. Since Fame had thus far given me a rather wide berth, I hopped a plane to San Juan and then a smaller plane to Culebra.

By the time I arrived on the island, the lizard had shrunk. The book had described it as four feet long, but the local Fish and Wildlife person told me that it was no more than a foot long from snout to vent – hardly competition for a T. rex. Still, A. roosevelti is a T. rex compared with other anoles, which are among the smallest of all lizards.

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I also learned that this giant among anoles had not been sighted since 1932. Not officially sighted, that is. But there were anecdotal reports of it being seen in the forested areas on Monte Resaca, Culebra's highest summit (height: 650 feet), as recently as a few years ago.

So I drove to the base of Monte Resaca and started bushwhacking.

Trusting in serendipity, I expected to see the anole in question basking on every boulder as well as ascending every gumbo-limbo tree. I was so intent on my search that I lost all sense of direction and ended up in someone's backyard.

A Culebran tending his garden looked up at me in surprise. My usual ploy when I trespass like this is to advance confidently toward the person, shake his hand, and announce in a punctilious English accent: "Dr. Basil Withers of the British Antarctic Survey. Jolly good to meet you, old chap."

Since this ploy would not work in the subtropics, I said, "Hello, Señor. Seen any big lagartos around here lately?"

"Sí," the man replied. "All the time."

"What's their habitat?" I asked excitedly.

"In my bathroom," he answered. He invited me in, where I saw the lagartos skittering around on the wall. They were geckos, not anoles, and they weren't even all that big.

Serendipity had gotten me nowhere, so I got in touch with Beverly Macintyre, who knew the island's backcountry intimately. She mentioned a particular boulder canyon on Monte Resaca, just the sort of place, she said, where a giant anole might hang out. Then she referred to recent development on Culebra; if it continued at its current breakneck pace, she said, a lot more creatures than A. roosevelti would be either endangered or extinct.

In our search for the lizard, Beverly and I entered not so much the forest primeval as the forest prickly. Ground-hugging cacti jabbed us, mesquite bushes stabbed us, saw-toothed bromeliads slashed at us, and a plant known locally as Fire Man (Tragia volubilis) delivered stings that make the stings of a stinging nettle seem positively genteel.

And to add to it, at one point I was gazing up at what turned out to be a green tree iguana and walked into a barbed wire fence.

We did not see a giant anole. We did not even see one of the small anoles that reputedly were common on the island. But near the end of our trek, we did witness this unusual sight: a man on a horse with reins in one hand and a cellphone in the other.

The next morning, as I took a respite from my search, I began noticing other curious sights. A sign in a shop window in Dewey, the island's only town, said: "Open Some Days, Closed Others." A road sign indicated Termina Carretera (End of Road) when, in fact, the road did not end at all.

And in the afternoon, I was sitting on Flamenco Beach when a person in an old-fashioned diving bell emerged from the sea. At the north end of the beach, there was a tank left over from the days when the US Navy used Culebra for war games; in this setting, it had a very surreal quality.

I began to think that I had fetched up on some sort of Caribbean fantasy island – an ideal habitat for, among other things, an incredible shrinking lizard.

Several days later, I still hadn't found the anole in question. My trip was coming to an end, so I asked Teresa Tallevast, the manager of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, if there was any area I might have overlooked. She suggested that I check out the trail that wound down from Monte Resaca to Playa Resaca.

Soon I was hiking on this steep trail. Every once in a while I would stop and peer into the surrounding bush. At one point I thought I saw a finned reptilian tail disappear into a tangle of mesquite, but that could have been my imagination ... or another iguana.

At the bottom, the trail meandered through a labyrinth of white mangroves. I looked up at the trees' gnarled branches and then down at their arching prop roots.

Still no anole.

At last I came out on Playa Resaca, a long, yellow swath of sand where I was the only person in sight. The sun was blisteringly hot, but I didn't go for a swim. Resaca means undertow in Spanish, and if I had gone swimming, I might have washed ashore on the west coast of Africa or, at the very least, in the Virgin Islands.

Suddenly I saw what appeared to be the tread marks of an 18-wheeler in the sand. I was outraged. But then I realized that the tread marks were actually the flipper imprints of a female leatherback turtle who'd plodded ashore the night before to lay her eggs. Weighing a thousand pounds or more, such creatures are the reptilian equivalent of giant rigs; unlike those rigs, however, leatherbacks are an endangered species. I counted myself extremely fortunate to see even the tracks of one.

And so it was that my quest for a rare reptile on Culebra ended in success.

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