A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Sierra Alligator Lizard - Elgaria coerulea palmeri

(Stejneger, 1893)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Northern Alligator Lizards California Range Map
Range in California: Orange & Gray

Click the map for a guide
to the other subspecies

observation link

Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard v Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Adult, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Adult, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
  Adult, 5,600 ft. Tuolumne County  
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult, 5,600 ft. Tuolumne County The powerful jaws of this lizard allow it to bite hard and hold on.
Human skin is rarely broken, just pinched hard.
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult, Plumas County Adult and juvenile, Plumas County
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult, Butte County © Jackson Shedd,
courtesy of John Stephenson
Adult, 7,200 ft., Tulare County Adult, Butte County, probable intergrade with E. c. shastensis. © Mela Garcia
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Juvenile, Nevada County
© Robin Chanin
Juvenile, Plumas County Adult, Mono County © Keith Condon
Sierra Alligator Lizards lizard with ticks Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult missing its tail, Nevada County
© Lou Silva
It is common to find blood-engorged ticks attached to alligator lizards, especially around and behind the ears, as you can see on this Shasta Alligator Lizard. An adult male with his hemipenis everted.
Great Basin Collared Lizard    
Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).
Breeding Behavior
Sierra Alligator Lizards    
These two mating adults were spotted on a forest trail on an afternoon in late June in Plumas County.
© 2005 Todd Accornero
sierra alligator lizard habitat Western Sagebrush Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat  
Habitat, small creek in forest,
7,200 ft., Tulare County
Habitat, 7,200 ft., Tulare County
Habitat, 4,100 ft., Plumas County  
Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat  
Habitat, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Habitat, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Habitat, 5,600 ft., Tuolumne County  
Short Videos
Sierra Alligator Lizard Alligator Lizard Tail    
A Sierra Alligator Lizard bites and holds onto my finger, then releases its jaws and crawls into a rock crack. This video shows how an alligator lizard's tail thrashes around after it has been dropped to distract a predator. The tail moved for about 4-5 minutes, which has been cut down here to about a minute, showing several different speeds until it is just barely moving.    
Elgaria coerulea ranges from 2 3/4 - 5 7/8 inches in snout to vent length (7 - 13.6 cm) (Stebbins)

Alligator lizards, genus Elgaria, are members of the family Anguidae, a family of lizards found in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Large bony scales, a large head on an elongated body and powerful jaws probably give the lizards their common name.
They are characterized by a slim body with short limbs and long tail.
The tail can reach twice the length of its body if it has never been broken off and regenerated.
The underside is yellowish or greenish.
Scales are keeled on the back, sides, and legs, with 16 rows of scales across the back at the middle of the body.
The temporals are all keeled.

A band of small granular scales separates the larger bone-reinforced scales on the back and on the belly, creating a fold along each side.
These folds allow the body to expand to hold food, eggs, or live young. The fold contracts when the extra capacity is not needed.

The eyes are dark around the pupils.
(Compare with the light eyes of a similar species - the Southern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata.)
The head is usually not heavily mottled with dark color.
The head of a male is broader than a female's with a more triangular shape.

Usually there are faint dark lines running lengthwise on the underside which run between the scales, along their edges.
(Compare with the underside lines on Elgaria multicarinata which run through the middle of the scales.)
Color and Pattern
Color is olive-brown, bluish, or greenish above, with dark mottling but usually no definite crossbands.
Newborn lizards 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.

Life History and Behavior

Active during the day.
Inactive during cold periods in winter.
This subspecies has a shorter activity period than the others due to its higher-elevation habitat.
Moves with a snake-like undulating motion.
A good swimmer, sometimes diving into the water to escape by swimming away.

Alligator lizards are generally secretive, tending to hide in brush or under rocks, although they are often seen foraging out in the open or on roads in the morning and evening.
The tail of an alligator lizard is easily broken off, as it is with many lizards.
The tail will grow back, although generally not as perfectly as the original.
A lizard may detach its tail deliberately as a defensive tactic.
When first detached, the tail will writhe around for several minutes, long enough to distract a hungry predator from the lizard.
Other defensive tactics used by alligator lizards are smearing the contents of the cloaca on the enemy and biting.
Males sometimes also extrude the hemipenes when threatened.
Diet and Feeding
Eats a variety of small invertebrates, including slugs, snails, and worms. Will also eat small lizards and small mammals.
Occasionally feed on bird eggs and young birds. (Stebbins)
Young are born live and fully-formed sometime between June and September.
During the spring/summer breeding season, a male lizard grabs on to the head of a female with his mouth until she is ready to let him mate with her. They can remain attached this way for many hours, almost oblivious to their surroundings. Besides keeping her from running off to mate with another male, this probably shows her how strong and suitable a mate he is.

Geographical Range
The subspecies Elgaria coerulea palmeri is found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from Plumas County south to Kern County where it occurs as far south as the Piute Mountains and Breckenridge Mountain.

The species Elgaria coerulea ranges from Southern British Columbia south chiefly west of the Cascades and Coast Ranges to northern Monterey County, east into northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, with isolated populations occurring in southeastern Oregon, northwestern Nevada and the Warner Mountains in California, and south through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Kern County.

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range
Stebbins (2003) shows the elevational range of the species Elgaria coerulea as sea level to around 10,500 ft. (3,200 m.) but only the subspecies E. c. palmeri can be found that high up. The other subspecies range much lower.

Woodland, forests, grassland. Commonly found hiding under rocks, logs, bark, boards, trash, or other surface cover. Prefers wetter and cooler habitats than E. multicarinata, but generally found near sunny clearings.

Notes on Taxonomy
Formerly placed in the genus Gerrhonotus, with the Latin name Gerrholotus coeruleas palmeri.

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Elgaria coerulea palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 2003)
Gerrhonotus coeruleus palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard (Smith 1946, Stebbins 1954, 1966, 1985)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Family Anguidae Alligator Lizards & Allies Gray, 1825
Genus Elgaria Western Alligator Lizards Gray, 1838
Species coerulea Northern Alligator Lizard Wiegmann, 1828

palmeri Sierra Alligator Lizard (Stejneger, 1893)
Original Description
Elgaria coerulea - (Wiegmann, 1828) - Isis von Oken, Vol. 21, p. 380
Elgaria coerulea palmeri - (Stejneger, 1893) - N. Amer. Fauna, No. 7, p. 196

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Elgaria - obscure - possibly named for an "Elgar" or a pun on "alligator."
- Latin - dark colored, dark blue - referring to the dorsal color of the type specimen
palmeri - honors Palmer, Theodore S.

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Related or Similar California Lizards
E. c. coerulea - San Francisco Alligator Lizard
E. c. shastensis - Shasta Alligator Lizard
E. c. principis - Northwestern Alligator Lizard
E. m. multicarinata - California Alligator Lizard
E. m. scincicauda - Oregon Alligator Lizard
E. m. webbii - San Diego Alligator Lizard
E. panamintina - Panamint Alligator Lizard

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Jones, Lawrence, Rob Lovich, editors. Lizards of the American Southwest: A Photographic Field Guide. Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2009.

Smith, Hobart M. Handbook of Lizards, Lizards of the United States and of Canada. Cornell University Press, 1946.

Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This animal is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.

Status Listing
NatureServe Global Ranking
NatureServe State Ranking
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None


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