Little white whiptail (Aspidoscelis gypsi)
Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).
A highly specialised lizard, the little white whiptail inhabits the harsh environment of the White Sands region of the United States. A quick and agile species, the body is elongated with powerful, well-developed limbs, a long neck and a tail substantially longer than the body (2) (3). Small scales, forming larger plates on the pointed head, protect the body (2). The body is a pastel blue, fading to whitish on the underside, with several faintly contrasting dorsal stripes extending from the head to the base of the tail (4).
This curious species was first described to science as recently as 1993 (4). Formerly considered a subspecies of Cnemidophorus inornatus, the little white whiptail was elevated to full species status, with the scientific name C. gypsi, on the basis of the isolation of its population (1) (5). It was later assigned to the genus Aspidoscelis due to various morphological distinctions (6).
The little white whiptail is endemic to the White Sands region of south-central New Mexico in southwest United States. Although the White Sands region covers an area of around 712 square kilometres, the little white whiptail is thought to inhabit only a small portion of this (1).
The little white whiptail is restricted to dunes of white sand, a unique habitat characterised by cold winters, hot summers, very little surface water and highly mineralised groundwater, although it may be found up to 50 metres from its preferred habitat (1) (4) (7).
Capable of high levels of activity and speed, the little white whiptail forages across the sands for a variety of insect prey. Its activity is highly influenced by the prevailing conditions and the little white whiptail only emerges from its burrow when the temperature is high enough to maintain its body temperature (2). The breeding biology of the little white whiptail has not yet been described; however, some whiptail species are, quite remarkably, all female. Known as parthenogenesis, the female’s eggs do not require fertilisation, with all resulting offspring born as female and genetic duplicates of their mother (8). However, most whiptail species consist of both male and females and, therefore, reproduce sexually, laying a clutch of one to six eggs in late spring or early summer, with offspring hatching after some 60 to 75 days (3).
Although the population of the little white whiptail is currently considered stable, as it is restricted to a single location and dependant on white sand habitat, the species is extremely vulnerable to detrimental activities within its range. However, fortunately for the little white whiptail, its habitat is more resistant to degradation than others, and there are no serious threats to the species (1).
As the little white whiptail is not of immediate conservation concern there are currently no specific conservation measures in place for the species (1). However, much of the species’ range is encompassed by the White Sands National Monument, a protected area managed by the United States National Park Service, which strictly regulates activities within the reserve. Furthermore, much of the species’ habitat is inadvertently afforded sanctuary in a military owned missile range (1) (7).
For more information on White Sands National Monument, see:
The National Parks Service White Sands National Monument:
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- Dorsal: relating to the back or top side of an animal.
- Endemic: a species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
- Fertilisation: the fusion of gametes (male and female reproductive cells) to produce an embryo, which grows into a new individual.
- Genus: a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
- Morphological: referring to the visible or measurable characteristics of an organism.
- Parthenogenesis: the production of viable eggs without fertilisation having occurred. The individuals that result are genetically identical to their mother.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (April, 2010)
J. Craig Venter Institute Reptile Database (April, 2010)
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (April, 2010)
- Wright, J.W. and Lowe, C.H. (1993) Synopsis of the subspecies of the little striped whiptail lizard, Cnemidophorus inornatus Baird. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science, 27: 129-157.
- Collins, J.T. and Taggart, T.W. (2002) Standard Common and Current Scientific Names for North American Amphibians, Turtles, Reptiles and Crocodilians (Fifth edition). The Centre for North American Herpetology, Lawrence, Kansas.
- Reeder, T.W., Cole, C.J. and Dessauer, H.C. (2002) Phylogenetic relationships of whiptail lizards of the genus Cnemidophorus (Squamata: Teiidae): a test of monophyly, reevaluation of karyotypic evolution, and review of hybrid origins. American Museum Novitates, 3365: 1-61.
The National Parks Service White Sands National Monument (April, 2010)
The American Museum of Natural History (April, 2010)