A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Lizard Behavior and Life History - Male Displays and Combat


observation link


Bright Male Colors

Males of some species of lizards have bright coloring on either their throats, their sides, their bellies, or all three. Some even have a pattern on the rest of their body that differs from the female pattern. They show off these colors to drive off rival males and to attract females. These colors often intensify during the breeding season. The bright colors show females that a male is healthy. Unhealthy males full of internal parasites and harmful viruses and bacteria, tend to be duller in color.

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Adult male Western Zebra-tailed Lizard
© Bruce Edley
Adult male Long-tailed Brush Lizard Adult male Small-scaled Lizard Adult male Coast Range Fence Lizard
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Adult male Western Sagebrush Lizard Adult male Desert Spiny Lizard Adult male Great Basin Fence Lizard Adult male Northwestern Fence Lizard
colorado fringe-toed lizard big bend canyon lizard Belding's Orange-throated Whiptail Nevada Side-blotched Lizard
Adult male
Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard

Adult male
Big Bend Canyon Lizard
Adult male
Belding's Orange-throated Whiptail
Adult male
Nevada Side-blotched Lizard
Western Side-blotched Lizard Western Side-blotched Lizard Western Side-blotched Lizard yellow-backed spiny lizard
Adult male Western Side-blotched Lizards

Adult male Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard
© Patrick Briggs
five-lined skink northern brown skink Northern Brown Skink Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard
Breeding adult male
Common Five-lined Skink.
Breeding male Northern Brown Skink. Male Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard during the breeding season © Don Roberson
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Adult male Nevada Side-blotched Lizard showing his breeding coloring.
Adult Male Hunsaker's Spiny Lizard © Jackson Shedd
Adult male Common Agama, on left, with adult female on right.
Yellow-crested Jackson's Chameleon Yellow-crested Jackson's Chameleon Skilton's Skink Skilton's Skink
Male Jackson's Chameleon on left, female on right. Adult male Skilton's Skink with breeding colors. © Alan Barron
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Adult male Eastern Collared Lizard Adult male
Chihuahuan Greater Earless Lizard
Breeding adult male
Texas Greater Earless Lizard
Breeding adult male Prairie Lizard
© Lou Hamby
Gilbert Skink and Fence Lizard      

Adult male lizards, especially during the Spring breeding season, do not tolerate other males in their territory, but that apparently does not apply to males of other species, as this adult male Northwestern Fence Lizard and adult male Greater Brown Skink were photographed basking together in Placer County in late April © Rod

Territorial Displays

Many male lizards stand up high on their legs and arch their back to show their territorial dominance to other lizards or to anyone who comes near them. Then they often raise and lower their body as if they are doing push-ups. This display shows off the bright coloring on their throats and sides, if they have it, and shows that they are in prime physical condition, and not to be messed with. Females also do push-ups.

yellow backed spiny lizard yellow backed spiny lizard baja california brush lizard western sagebrush lizard
This short video shows some Yellow-backed Spiny Lizards in territorial poses and doing push-up displays. An adult male Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard territorial display. Short Video:
I was very close to this female Baja California Brush Lizard for about fifteen minutes while she basked on a rock. She tolerated my movements around the rock to photograph her. Then she moved away from me to a smaller rock and did a a push-up display. After that, she moved again and displayed again. I don't think the displays were for my benefit. They may have been aimed at other lizards nearby that I did not see.
This short video shows a male Western Sagebrush Lizard in Contra Costa County running between rocks, then stopping to do a push-up display.
northern desert iguana common chuckwalla chihuahuan greater earless lizard kashmiri rock agama
Short Video:
A Northern Desert Iguana darts around and does a short territorial push-up display for my benefit.
Short Video:
A Common Chuckwalla emerges from its crevice and does a territorial push-up display. Even lizards hate paparazzi....

A beautiful adult male Chihuahuan Greater Earless Lizard shows off his bright colors. An adult male Kashmiri Rock Agama demonstrates who is the king of his beach on the banks of the Ganges.
texas spiny lizard northwestern fence lizard Great Basin Fence Lizard  
An adult male Texas Spiny Lizard displays his awesomeness on a tree. In this video, a male Northwestern Fence Lizard defecates off the side of a Butte County fence, wipes himself off, then does a territorial push-up display. Whether it was aimed at me or not, I got the message...
Adult male Great Basin Fence Lizard defensive display, Los Angeles County. © Douglas S. Brown  
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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.
Territorial Dewlap Displays
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Puerto Rican Crested Anole Northern Green Anole Southern Green Anole Cuban Brown Anole
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Northern Green Anole Cuban Brown Anole Cuban Brown Anole Bark Anole
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In these short videos you can see two male Cuban Brown Anoles displaying their orange dewlaps. Green phase male Northern Green Anole Brown phase male Northern Green Anole

An adult male lizard of the Anole family will raise his head up and distend a colorful fold of loose skin on his throat called a dewlap to warn other lizards of his presence and to claim his territory. This is typically done several times in a row. If a nearby male does not leave the area, one of them usually runs up to the other one and they start to bite and chase each other until one of them leaves. The species of an anole can also be identified by the color of the distended dewlap.
Male Combat

Male teritorial fights can include territorial displays, push-ups, serious chasing and some nasty biting. I have received a few pictures of alligator lizards biting the head of another lizard, but none of the photographers stayed around long enough to see if any harm came to the loser.

great basin fence lizard great basin fence lizard baja california brush lizard baja california brush lizard
Two adult male Great Basin Fence Lizards fighting. © Jason Rojas Two adult male Small-scaled Lizards in combat, displaying their bright throat and ventral colors.These lizards were observed chasing and biting each other. Bite marks are visible on the tail of the lizard on the left.
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Sometimes an anole's distended dewlap display warning does not work, as you can see with the Cuban Brown Anole shown in the left two pictures.
Seeing another male nearby, he raised himself up and distended his dewlap, but the second male lizard attacked him anyway. They fought for a moment, which you can see in the pictures on the right, until the first male ran away.
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Two male Great Basin Fence Lizards fighting over territory in May in the San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County -                  The winner claims the rock
© Mike Dorsey
plateau fence lizard plateau fence lizard plateau fence lizard lizard
A male Plateau Fence Lizard moves up the branch where another male is sitting (left). They begin fighting and leap about six feet to the ground (center). The loser runs away and the victor returns to his original location on the branch. The video on the right shows some of the fight after they hit the ground, and the victor after he returned to the branch and did some victory push-ups.
Two adult males squared off and showing each other their colors and bodies in a territorial dispute in Lake County. © Kathleen Scavone
Great Basin Fence Lizard Great Basin Fence Lizard Great Basin Fence Lizard Great Basin Fence Lizard
Two adult male Great Basin Fence Lizards in spectacular breeding colors fight over territory in April in Los Angeles County. © Douglas S. Brown
To see the full series of pictures of the battle, click here.
lizard Southern Sagebrush Lizard
Two male Skilton's Skinks fight over territory during the breeding season on a day in early May in Skamania County, Washington. One bites the other on the head and cannot be shaken off.
© Chris Rombough
Two male Southern Sagebrush Lizards in combat © Jason Nichols
Southern Sagebrush Lizard Southern Sagebrush Lizard    
Two male Southern Sagebrush Lizards in combat © Jason Nichols    

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