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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California





Small Spiny Lizards in California -
Sceloporus occidentalis and Sceloporus graciosus

 










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Western Fence Lizards and Common Sagebrush Lizards
These two species of lizards are very hard to tell apart.

Both are small, diurnal, brownish or grayish lizards patterned with spots and chevrons and stripes on the back. The pictures below might help you differrentiate one from the other where they occur together, especially if you can get a male lizard in hand. In many areas of the state, Common Sagebrush Lizards are typically found only at high elevations, while Western Fence Lizards are found at low and high elevations.


fence lizard and sagebrush lizard comparison fence lizard and sagebrush lizard comparison fence lizard and sagebrush lizard comparison
Dorsal view - Common Sagebrush Lizard, Sceloporus graciosus, on the left, Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis, on the right. Note the larger dorsal scales on the Fence Lizard.
© Patrick Briggs
Head view - Common Sagebrush Lizard on the left, Western Fence Lizard on the right. © Patrick Briggs Ventral view - Western Fence Lizard on the left, Common Sagebrush Lizard on the right. Note the yellow on the back of the thighs on the Western Fence Lizard.
© Patrick Briggs
fence lizard fence lizard and sagebrush lizard comparison keeled thighs
Underside of adult male Western Fence Lizard showing yellow on the back of the thighs and enlarged femoral pores. Comparison of the rear thighs of a Common Sagebrush Lizard - on top, and a Western Fence Lizard - on the bottom.

Note the granular scales on the Common Sagebrush Lizard and the keeled (and yellow) scales on the Western Fence Lizard.
Close-up of the keeled scales on the rear thigh of a Western Fence Lizard.

Compare with the Common Sagebrush Lizard


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Rusty coloring behind front legs on Sagebrush Lizard A Common Sagebrush Lizard on the left basking next to a Western Fence Lizard on the right.

 
Western Fence Lizard - Sceloporus occidentalis  (also called swift or blue belly)
This is one of the most commonly-seen lizards in California. Found in a variety of habitats throughout the state, except most desert areas, it is active during daylight. Frequently seen standing on top of rocks, boulders, fences, walls, beach driftwood,
trees, as well as on the ground. Often found around suburban houses and yards.

Looking at the underside of males is a good way to differentiate this species from the Sagebrush Lizard. The rear of the limbs are orange or yellow on the Fence Lizard, but not on the Sagebrush Lizard, and scales on the rear of the thighs are large and keeled. Also, the male has a more solid blue patch on the throat.

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Male Male Female
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Sometimes fence lizards are very dark before they have warmed up in the sun, like this one. They can look like they're completely black at a distance.
© Dylan Gross
Ventral view of male Western Fence Lizard, showing yellow on rear of thighs.  
Researchers are finding that the traditional taxonomy of Sceloporus occidentalis is incorrect, therefore many herpetologists do not currently break the species down into subspecies. The range map below is one interpretation of the distribution of the currently-recognized subspecies, based mostly on Ryan Calsbeek's distribution map.

map
Range:

Bright Green: Sceloporus occidentalis becki - Island Fence Lizard
Light Blue: Sceloporus occidentalis biseriatus - San Joaquin Fence Lizard
Blue: Sceloporus occidentalis bocourtii - Coast Range Fence Lizard
Orange: Sceloporus occidentalis longipes - Great Basin Fence Lizard
Red: Sceloporus occidentalis occidentalis - Northwestern Fence Lizard
Dark Gray: Sceloporus occidentalis taylori - Sierra Fence Lizard
 
Common Sagebrush Lizard - Sceloporus graciosus
Common Sagebrush lizards are generally found at higher-elevations, than Fence Lizards, including the Great Basin sagebrush zones, but they also enter river bottoms in the coastal redwoods on the north coast. They are often seen on the ground, where they will run into bushes or rocks to hide. They are also found on large rocks in the mountains.

Looking at the underside of males is a good way to differentiate this species from the Western Fence Lizard.
The rear of the limbs are not orange or yellow, as they are on the Western Fence Lizard, and the scales on the rear of the thighs are granular, not keeped. The blue throat patch on the male generally has light flecks. There is usually some rusty coloring on the sides of the neck and body, and a black bar on the shoulder.

Here is a chart showing some differences in scale count and pattern between the three subspecies of Sagebrush Lizards in California.

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Female Male Rusty coloring behind front legs
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Male underside Male underside Female underside
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  Close-up of the granular scales on the rear thigh of a Common Sagebrush Lizard.

Compare with the Western Fence Lizard

 
map
Range:

Red: Sceloporus graciosus graciosus - Northern Sagebrush Lizard
Orange: Sceloporus graciosus gracilis - Western Sagebrush Lizard
Blue: Sceloporus graciosus vandenburgianus - Southern Sagebrush Lizard




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