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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California





Identifying Alligator Lizards in California

(And the West Coast of North America)
 










observation link

 

Alligator lizards are found in almost any natural habitat in California (except most of the deserts and very high elevations.) They can be fairly large in size. Active during daylight, they are frequently seen moving on the ground, and occasionally up in bushes. They are also often found underneath debris, beach driftwood, and near human settlements. Alligator lizards do not typically bask in the sun out in the open or on top of a rock like many other lizard species. They seem to prefer sunny spots with some cover nearby. This is a lizard that is often seen in yards and garages in Southern California.

Some characteristics of Alligator Lizards:

lizard lizard lizard
Large scales Long alligator-like snout Longitudinal fold on the
lower sides of the body

Three species of Alligator Lizards can be found in California:

The Southern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata (found throughout the state)
The Northern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria coerulea (found only from the Monterey Bay north, and in the Sierra Nevada.)
The Panamint Alligator Lizard - Elgaria panamintina (found only in Inyo and Mono Counties.)

Juvenile alligator lizards are often mistaken for different species, so they are included here separately.

Northern and Southern Alligator lizards are very similar in appearance, but observing the color of the eye and the position of the dark stripes on the belly can help you differentiate them. Check the range, also. There are no Northern Alligator lizards in most the Southern California deserts.


Juvenile Alligator Lizards
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lizard lizard lizard
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Juvenile alligator lizards are often mistaken for skinks, (especially by those from the Southeast where similar-looking Ground Skinks are common). Hatchlings or newborns are very thin and small, roughly 4 inches long, with smooth shiny skin with a plain tan, light brown, or copper colored back and tail. The sides are darker and sometimes mottled or barred as they are on adults. Juveniles gradually develop the large scales and heavy dark barring found on the back and tails of adults.



Southern Alligator Lizards - Elgaria multicarinata
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Dark marks or stripes run lengthwise down the belly of Southern Alligator Lizards in the center of the scales.
Compare with the dark belly stripes of the Northern Alligator Lizard which occur between the scales here and here and below.


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Southern Alligator Lizards have yellow or light eyes. Compare with the darker eyes of the Northern Alligator Lizard. Compare below.


Male alligator lizards have a large, broad, almost triangular head.
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California Alligator Lizard
E. m. multicarinata
San Diego Alligator Lizard
E. m. webbii
Oregon Alligator Lizard
E. m. scincicauda
  lizard  
  Often these lizards will be missing some or all of their tail.  

Look at the range map below to determine which of the subspecies shown above ocurs in your area.


map 
Red: California Alligator Lizard
Orange: Oregon Alligator Lizard
Blue: San Diego Alligator Lizard
Gray: Approximate intergrade areas
 
Northern Alligator Lizards - Elgaria coerulea
lizard lizard lizard
Dark marks or stripes run lengthwise down the belly of Northern Alligator Lizards between the scales.
Compare with the dark belly stripes of the Southern Alligator Lizard which occur in the center of the scales. Compare above.


lizard lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard
Northern Alligator Lizards have dark eyes. Compare with the lighter eyes of the Southern Alligator Lizard. Compare above.


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San Francisco Alligator Lizard
E. c. coerulea
Sierra Alligator Lizard
E. c. palmeri
lizard lizard lizard
Northwestern Alligator Lizard
E. c. principis
Shasta Alligator Lizard
E. c. shastensis

Look at the range map below to determine which of the subspecies shown above ocurs in your area.


map
Red: San Francisco Alligator Lizard
Blue: Shasta Alligator Lizard
Orange: Sierra Alligator Lizard
Purple: Northwestern Alligator Lizard
Gray: Approximate intergrade areas
 
Panamint Alligator Lizard - Elgaria panamintina
lizard lizard© Brad Alexander lizard
The Panamint Alligator lizard is found only in a small area east of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Owens Valley. It appears to be most common in riparian areas. No other alligator lizards inhabit the same area (the Southern Alligator Lizard occurs nearby just west of the Owens Valley on the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains) so its identification should not present any challenges.

map
Distribution of Elgaria panamintina - Panamint Alligator Lizard





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