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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


California Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata

 (Blainville, 1835)
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Southern Alligator Lizards Caifornia Range Map
Range in California: Red

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California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult with full tail, Contra Costa County
Adult with full tail, Yuba County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Santa Clara County Adult, Sierra Nevada foothills,
El Dorado County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
  Adult, San Mateo County   Adult as found beneath a log in
Napa County in January.
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Contra Costa County Underside of adult, Contra Costa County Adult, Santa Cruz County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Contra Costa County Adult, San Luis Obispo County Adult with regenerated tail,
Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Alameda County Adult, Alameda County Adult, Sutter Buttes, Sutter County.
© Jackson Shedd.
Specimen courtesy of Eric Olson.
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Santa Cruz County Adult with yellow back, Colusa County
© Andy Stocker
Sub-adult, Santa Cruz Island,
Santa Barbara County
Adult from East Anacapa Island,
Santa Barbara County. © Phil Schmidt.
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
This unusually-colored lizard found on a San Luis Obispo County beach is probaby anerythristic, or lacking any red pigment.
© Ryan Sikola

Adult female, Napa County
© Adam G. Clause
Great Basin Collared Lizard California Striped Racer    
Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).

A California Striped Racer has caught a California Alligator Lizard in
El Dorado County © Jim Bennett
   
Juveniles
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Juvenile, Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Juvenile, Contra Costa County Juvenile, Contra Costa County Juvenile, Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard    
Young juvenile, Contra Costa County

   
Breeding Behavior
California Alligator Lizards California Alligator Lizards California Alligator Lizards  
A pair of adults mating in late May in Contra Costa County. © Naomi Schiff These lizards were found in early May in Placer County. The photo on the right was taken the day after the photo on the left. They had been seen together for 2 days, travelling back and forth over a distance of about 30 feet.  © Rod

 
San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard    
Two males attempting to mate with a female in southern Mendocino County. It looks like the bottom male is a California Alligator Lizard, but the other two are San Francisco Alligator Lizards, a different species. © Emily Nelson

   
Parasites
lizard with ticks lizard with ticks    
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.

   
Tail Loss Defense (Caudal Autotomy)
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard tail California Alligator Lizard tail  
As we were photographing the Alameda County alligator lizard seen above, my herping companion picked it up to get a better pose. The lizard had already been handled for 5 to 10 minutes and seemed to tolerate it, but this time it decided to drop its tail. We felt terrible to be responsible for the loss of such a nice unbroken tail. Sometimes when you pick up a lizard too close to the tail, or push the tail against a hard sufrace, you can accidentally cause it to detach, but that wasn't the case here. I put the writhing tail on the ground where it moved around for 4 - 5 minutes until it stopped, shooting some video of it, then set it back next to the lizard to get these photos. You can see the video here. The lizard was then put back under his log unharmed, but unable now to use a detached tail as a decoy until it grows another one.
Habitat
Coast Range Fence Lizard Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat Pacific Ring-necked Snake Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat
Oak woodland habitat,
Contra Costa County
Habitat, Contra Costa County Habitat, Contra Costa County Grassland habitat,
San Luis Obispo County
Island Fence Lizard Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat Pacific Gopher Snake Habitat
Habitat, Santa Cruz Island,
Santa Barbara County
Oak, Pine, grassland habitat,
Napa County
Habitat, Yuba County Habitat, San Mateo County
California Alligator Lizard Habitat Coast Range Fence Lizard Habitat Coast Range Fence Lizard Habitat  
Adult where it was found under a board in a forest opening in Santa Clara County

Habitat, East Bay Hills,
Contra Costa County
Habitat, Alameda County  
Short Videos
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard tail
A California Alligator Lizard is discovered under a board on a sunny spring afternoon. It tries to bite, crawls across the ground in snake-like fashion, tries to climb over the camera, sticking out its tongue, then ducks back under its board. An adult is discovered under a piece of wood on a grassy hillside on a cold February afternoon in Contra Costa County. A brief look at a juvenile California Alligator Lizard that refused to do anything interesting for the camera. This video shows how an alligator lizard's tail thrashes around after it has been dropped to distract a predator. This is the same dropped tail seen above. 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.
   
Two short movies of juvenile California alligator lizards uncovered in winter that don't want to move much for the camera until it's time to escape.    
Description

Size
E. multicarinata ranges from 2 7/8 - 7 inches in snout to vent length (7.3 - 17.8 cm) (Stebbins, 2003) and up to aprox. 12 inches (304 mm) in total length.
Appearance
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 thick rounded 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.

Color is brown, grey, or yellowish above, with red blotches on the middle of the back.
Usually there are 9 - 13 dark bands on the back, sides, and tail, with adjacent white spots. On some lizards these dark bands are very pronounced, on others they are covered with reddish or yellowish color. Scales are keeled on the back, sides, and legs, with 14 rows of scales across the back at the middle of the body. The scales of this subspecies are less heavily keeled than E. m. webbii.

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 light yellow. (Compare with the darker eyes of Elgaria coerulea.)
The head is usually mottled with dark color. The head of a male is broader than a female's with a more triangular shape.
Usually there are dark lines running lengthwise on the underside which run through the middle of the scales. (Compare with the underside lines on Elgaria coerulea, which run between the scales, along their edges.)
Young lack the dark barring with a plain copper or brown band on the back.
Behavior
Activity
Active during the day, crepuscular and nocturnal during hot weather. Inactive during cold periods in winter.

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. They are common inhabitants of suburban yards and garages.(I have received many emails asking me to identify alligator lizards found in yards and garages, especially in Southern California.)
Movement
Moves with a snake-like undulating motion, often tucking the rear legs up against the side of the body and pulling itself along on its belly with the front feet.
The slightly prehensile tail can be used to wrap around vegetation when climbing.
A good swimmer, sometimes diving into the water to escape by swimming away.
Defense
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.
Males sometimes also extrude the hemipenes when threatened.

Other defensive tactics used by alligator lizards are smearing the contents of the cloaca on the enemy and biting. They often bite onto a predatory snake, on the neck or the head, rendering the snake unable to attack. Samuel M. McGinnis (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2012) reports seeing a juvenile alligator lizard bite onto its own tail making itself impossible to be swallowed by a juvenile Alameda Striped Racer, which eventually gave up.
Diet
Eats a variety of small invertebrates. Will also eat small lizards and small mammals. Occasionally feed on bird eggs and young birds. (Stebbins)
Reproduction
Mating occurs in Spring, most likely from  April to May. Eggs are laid sometime from May to July and they hatch during late summer and early fall. Young hatch fully-formed.

During the 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.
Range
The subspecies Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is endemic to California, ranging from an area of intergradation with E. m. scincicauda, which extends northeast from Humboldt to Siskiyou counties, south along the coast to Ventura County and San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz Islands, including the northern central valley east to the Sierras, and the south coast range.

The species Elgaria multicarinata ranges from southern Washington mostly west of the Cascades and Sierras into northwestern Baja California, including some of the Channel Islands, and has been introduced into Las Vegas. (Apparently it is common in casino gardens.) In his 2003 field guide, Stebbins states that this species occurs from sea level to 5,000 ft. (1,524 m), but I have seen them at 6,200 ft. and there are unconfirmed reports of their occurrance as high as 8,000 ft.
Habitat
Grassland, open forest, chaparral. Common in foothill oak woodlands. Commonly found hiding under rocks, logs, boards, trash, other surface cover.
Taxonomic Notes
Formerly placed in the genus Gerrhonotus, with the Latin name Gerrholotus multicarinatus multicarinatus.

The SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 37, Crother et al., 2008, includes the following information about E. multicarinata subspecies:

"A molecular phylogeographic study of Feldman and Spicer (2006, Mol. Ecol. 15: 2201–2222) failed to support currently recognized subspecies boundaries within E. multicarinata (Fitch, 1938, Am. Midl. Nat. 20: 381–424). Haplotypes from the central Coast Ranges of California (formerly multicarinata) are more closely related to those from southern (webbii) rather than northern (multicarinata) California, while haplotypes from the Sierra Nevada (formerly webbii) are more closely related to those from northern (multicarinata) rather than southern (webbii) California. In addition, haplotypes representing E. m. multicariniata and E. m. scincicauda are phylogenetically intermixed, calling their separation into question."
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None.
Taxonomy
Family Anguidae Alligator Lizards & Allies Gray, 1825
Genus Elgaria Western Alligator Lizards Gray, 1838
Species multicarinata Southern Alligator Lizard (Blainville, 1835)
Subspecies


multicarinata California Alligator Lizard (Blainville, 1835)
Original Description
Elgaria multicarinata - (Blainville, 1835) - Nouv. Ann. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris, Vol. 4, p. 298, pl. 25, fig. 2

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."
multicarinata
- Latin multi many, and carinata keeled - refers to the keeled scales

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

Alternate Names
Formerly Gerrhonotus multicarinatus multicarinatus

Related or Similar California Lizards
E. c. coerulea - San Francisco Alligator Lizard
E. c. palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard
E. c. shastensis - Shasta Alligator Lizard
E. c. principis - Northwestern 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.


Organization
Status Listing
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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