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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California







Lizard Behavior and Natural History

 









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These are pictures and videos that illustrate some of the interesting behaviors of some of the lizards shown on this web site. (Not all interesting lizard behaviors are shown here, only those from this site. More will be added here as they are added to the site.) Follow the links on the name of each species to find more pictures and information about it.

Miscellaneous Lizard Observations
banded gila monster reticulate gila monster western zebra-tailed lizards california legless lizards
When annoyed, Gila Monsters, like this captive Banded Gila Monster, open their mouth and make a loud hissing sound. You can hear this Gila Monster hissing here.
A Reticulate Gila Monster flicks its wide forked tongue to sense its surroundings. This video shows Western Zebra-tailed Lizards waving their striped tails to divert attention away from their body, running off quickly, and doing a territorial push-up display. California Legless Lizards live in loose soil and sand, where legs would only get in the way. This video shows how one moves on a hard surface, and then how quickly one of these snake-like lizards can burrow down into loose soil.
northern desert iguana round-tailed horned lizard variegated skink variegated skink
This video shows several Northern Desert Iguanas in the Colorado Desert, including one emerging from it's hiding hole. This video shows the excellent camouflage of a tiny Round-tailed Horned Lizard. Its color and shape allow it to blend in with the rocks on the ground. These lizards can also run away quickly when needed, as you can also see here.

Lizards hide in holes, cracks, and under rocks and other objects. These
pictures show where a Variegated Skink hid itself under a rock.
horned lizard
long-tailed brush lizard long-tailed brush lizard common chuckwalla
Like this juvenile Southern Desert Horned Lizard, when they feel threatened, horned lizards will sometimes squirt blood from the corners of their eyes to scare away predators. The blood has been found to be very distasteful to some animals, causing them to drop the lizards without eating them.  © Geoff Fangerow
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Long-tailed Brush Lizards are very well camouflaged when they align their bodies on a branch and remain motionless inside a shrub, as you can see in the picture on the left and the video on the right. This short video shows the desert habitat of a Common Chuckwalla, then zooms in on the cryptic lizard, in a typical pose for a Chuckwalla or any lizard, basking high on top of a rock.

mediterranean gecko mediterranean gecko mediterranean gecko texas spotted whiptail
Many lizards change their color depending on their temperature. Some can match the color of their surroundings. These pictures show the same Mediterranean House Gecko, first in its dark phase when it was discovered under a rock in an ice storm, and second, after it had warmed up inside the house. This picture shows the amazing climbing abilities of a Mediterranean House Gecko, as it climbs up a glass window. A Texas Spotted Whiptail showing its tongue.
These two pictures show the same male Green Anole. Less than a minute after the picture on the left was taken (after he finished displaying his colorful throat dewlap, he changed his body color from green to brown. This is why some people call these lizards Chameleons. In this short video you can watch a male Green Anole quickly change his color from green to brown. A tiny juvenile Eastern Collard Lizard, disturbed from its sleep under a rock, gapes defensively then, with a daring display of audacity, jumps repeatedly at the camera. At one point it even bit and held on to the camera.
jackson's chameleon jackson's chameleon jackson's chameleon texas greater earless lizard
These pictures all show the same female Jackson's Chameleon over a period of about 20 minutes.
Chameleons such as Jackson's change their color to match their surroundings.
This Texas Greater Earless Lizard waves its barred tail to show its underside in order to distract a pursuer. It it is grabbed by a predator, the tail is less vulnerable than the rest of the body.
fringe-toed lizard fringe-toed lizard fringe-toed lizard zebra-tailed lizard
Fringed-toed lizards use fringed scales on their toes to help them run over loose sand. Shown here is the rear left foot of a Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard. Fringed-toed lizards also have fringed eyelids to help keep sand out of their eyes, as you can see on the closed eye of this Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard. This short video shows a Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard burying itself in the sand to hide. This lizard was captive and sluggish and buries itself slowly and incompletely. In the wild, fringe-toed lizards run quickly then suddenly dissapear as they dive into the sand. On this Western Zebra-tailed Lizard you can see the Parietal Eye, or Third Eye, which is the small dark circle in the middle of the top of the head, slightly behind the eyes. Studies have shown that lizards use this patch of light-sensitive cells as a type of compass which lets them calculate their position and navigate by the sun.
texas horned lizard leaf-toed gecko desert spiny lizard plateau striped whiptail
This Texas Horned Lizard has elevated its body and filled itself with air to make it appear more threatening and too big to swallow. Climbing geckos have specialized toe pads to help them climb. These are the toes of a Peninsular Leaf-toed Gecko. Lizards shed their skin, usually a few times each year. Here, an adult male Desert Spiny Lizard in Arizona is shown with skin shed from its face and tail, but not yet from the rest of its body. In this video, a Plateau Striped Whiptail, digging in a hole, stops and slowly waves its arms and tail in a strange behavior I can't explain.
sf alligator lizard alligator lizard alligator lizard alligator lizard
Disturbed from his hiding spot under a rock, an alligator lizard threatens to bite and hisses several times when he is touched, in this short video. Alligator lizards have strong jaws which let them bite hard and hold on. San Diego Alligator lizards are good climbers, using their somewhat prehensile tail to hold on, but they aren't easy to spot in trees since they blend in well with the branches. This adult with a very long intact tail frequents this Mulberry tree. © Sylvia Durando
leopard lizard whiptail eye whiptail eye fence lizard poop
A leopard lizard slowly wriggles its long tail as if using it as a lure. Or maybe it's a nervous behavior. Some lizards have transparent lower eyelids, like this Great Basin Whiptail.
The eyelid is open on the left, and closed on the right.
A Northwestern Fence Lizard does his business for the camera, then runs towards it. It's like he was trying to tell me something.
fence lizard lizard
In 2010, researchers at UC Santa Cruz discovered that Desert Night Lizards - Xantusia vigilis, live in family groups, showing social behavior more typical of mammals and birds such as primates, ground squirrels, and woodpeckers. The young night lizards remain with the father, mother, and siblings for several years, all living under the same plant debris.The young feed themselves and do not receive any direct care from the parents. It is not yet known what survival advantages the group living arrangement provides. (ScienceDaily 10/10)

A few other lizard species have also evolved a social system around a nuclear family, including the Great Desert Skink of Australia, which lives in families consisting of a breeding pair and several generations of young. The families live in complex tunnel systems with up to 20 entrances and separate latrine areas that have been dug and maintained by the extended family. (Science Daily 5/11)

Some lizards can excrete excess salts through their nostrils, like this Coast Range Fence Lizard.
© Guntram Deichsel
Horned lizards have nasal valves which they can close to keep soil from entering their nostrils and lungs when they bury themselves to hide or sleep. This Southern Desert Horned Lizard has closed its nasal valves. The closed valves leave a small crescent-shaped opening through which the lizard can still breathe when it is buried. © Filip Tkaczyk
lizard lizard lizard lizard
Many lizards can swim when they need to. When this Skilton's Skink was discovered hiding under an object, it ran off, jumped into the water and quickly swam to get away. © Robert Mellinger

Curly-tail lizards curl the end of their tail up, often holding it over their back, and wave it back and forth when they are excited. The curl is a territorial signal from males and also serves to attract females. Lizards with broken and re-grown tails don't seem to be able to do this as well. They are not native to the United states, but two species have been introduced into Florida. The one on the left is a juvenile Red-sided Curlytail Lizard and the two on the right are Northern Curlytail Lizards. The Red-sided Curlytail Lizard doesn't curl its tail as tightly as the Northern Curlytail Lizard.
Parasites
lizard with ticks lizard with ticks fence lizard skink with tick
It is common to find blood-engorged ticks attached to alligator lizards, especially around and behind the ears, as you can see on the California Alligator Lizard on the left and on the Shasta Alligator Lizard on the right. This adult male Coast Range Fence Lizard has several ticks on the side of his head.

In California, western black-legged ticks (deer ticks) are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. Very tiny nymphal deer ticks are more likely to carry the disease than adults. A protein in the blood of Western Fence Lizards kills the bacterium in these nymphal ticks when they attach themselves to a lizard and ingest the lizard's blood. This could explain why Lyme disease is less common in California than it is in some areas such as the Northeastern states, where it is epidemic.

More Information

Adult male Short-lined Skink, parasitized by a tick behind the right foreleg.

Scale Types of California Lizards
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
The Collared Lizards, genus Crotaphytus, have granular scales on the back.

The Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone. The North American Legless Lizards, genus Anniella, have smooth cycloid scales. The Side-blotched Lizards, genus Uta, have small keeled spineless scales on the back.
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard Western Fence Lizard Sagebrush Lizard Granite Spiny Lizard
The Spiny Lizards, genus Sceloporus, have overlapping scales with sharp spines on the back.

Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
The Chuckwalla, Sauromalis ater, has a back covered with granular scales. The Toothy Skinks, genus Plestiodon, have smooth shiny cycloid scales that are reinforced with bone. The Zebra-tailed Lizard, genus Callisaurus, has smooth granular scales above. The Gila Monster, genus Heloderma, has round scales on the back that look like beads.
Great Basin Collared Lizard Peninsular Banded Gecko Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
The Banded Geckos, genus Coleonyx, have fine granular scales on their soft skin. The Peninsular Banded Gecko, Coleonyx switaki, has soft skin with small granular scales interspersed with larger tubercles. Leaf-toed Geckos, genus Phyllodactylus, have small granular dorsal scales that are interspersed with enlarged keeled tubercles. The Desert Iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis has small granular scales on the back with a row of slightly larger keeled scales on the middle of the back.
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Tree Lizard Long-tailed Brush Lizard Black-tailed Brush Lizard The Leopard Lizards, genus Gambelia, have granular scales on the body.
The Tree and Brush Lizards, genus Urosaurus, have a mixture of small
granular scales and larger weekly-keeled scales on the dorsal surface.

 
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
The Night Lizards, genus Xantusia, have small granular scales on soft skin. The Fringe-toed Lizards, genus Uma, have soft and smooth skin with granular scales.
The Whiptails, genus Aspidoscelis, have small granular dorsal scales.
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Flat-tailed Horned Lizard
Blainville's (Coast) Horned Lizard  Desert Horned Lizard Pigmy Short-horned Lizard
The Horned lizards, genus Phrynosoma, are covered with small granular scales interspersed with larger pointed scales on the dorsal surfaces.

Great Basin Collared Lizard      
The California Rock Lizard, Petrosaurus mearnsi, has small granular scales on the dorsal surfaces, and pointed keeled scales on the tails and limbs.

     
More Lizard Scale Types
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
The Green Anole, Anolis carolinensis, has small granular scales.

The Brown Anole, Anolis sagrei, has small granular scales. The Mediterranean House Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, has soft skin with prominent knob-like tubercles.
The Italian Wall Lizard, Podarcis siculus, has small granular scales on the back.
Moorish Wall Gecko      
Moorish Wall Geckos have small granular scales with intermittent large tubercles.

     
A California Lizard Travels to Germany
The lizard shown directly above was found in a freight container containing only metal boxes at the BMW plant in Dingolfing / Bavaria / Germany on Oct 17, 2006. The container was shipped from Stockton CA on Sep 14, 2006. The lizard survived a 33 day voyage without food and water. The container was placed most likely on the top deck of the vessel and hence cooled down considerably at night which explains the good condition of the animal upon arrival. The lizard shown directly above was found in a freight container containing only metal boxes at the BMW plant in Dingolfing / Bavaria / Germany on Oct 17, 2006. The container was shipped from Stockton CA on Sep 14, 2006. The lizard survived a 33 day voyage without food and water. The container was placed most likely on the top deck of the vessel and hence cooled down considerably at night which explains the good condition of the animal upon arrival.  
The lizard shown directly above was found in a freight container containing only metal boxes at the BMW plant in Dingolfing / Bavaria / Germany on Oct 17, 2006. The container was shipped from Stockton CA on Sep 14, 2006. The lizard survived a 33 day voyage without food and water. The container was placed most likely on the top deck of the vessel and hence cooled down considerably at night which explains the good condition of the animal upon arrival.

Photos © Jochen Späth
Information: Guntram Deichsel


Many species of plants and animals have been introduced into areas of the planet where they did not naturally evolve. The journey of this lizard illustrates one way animals can spread around the globe: If the lizard was a gravid female who found conditions favorable to her survival once she arrived, laid her eggs, and eventually the offspring began reproducing, or if other lizards arrived at the same location and bred with her, then an established breeding population could develop.


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