A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Oregon Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda

(Skilton, 1849)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Southern Alligator Lizards Caifornia Range Map
Range in California: Orange and adjacent Gray

Click the map for a guide to the other subspecies

observation link

Oregon Alligator Lizard
Adult 1, Siskiyou County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard
  Adult 1, Siskiyou County  
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard
Adult 2, Siskiyou County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard  
Adult 2, Siskiyou County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Adult 3, Del Norte County © Alan Barron

Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).
Oregon Alligator Lizards From Outside California
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard
  Adult, Klickitat County, Washington  
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard
  Adult, Klickitat County, Washington  
Oregon Alligator Lizard    
Adult, Douglas County, Oregon    
lizard with ticks lizard with ticks lizard with ticks
It is common to find blood-engorged ticks attached to alligator lizards, especially in and around the ear openings, as you can see on the California Alligator Lizard on the left, on the Shasta Alligator Lizard in the middle, and on the San Francisco Alligator Lizard on the right.

Oregon Alligator Lizard Habitat Oregon Alligator Lizard Habitat  
Habitat, 2500 ft., Siskiyou County Habitat, 1900 ft., Siskiyou County
Short Videos
Oregon Alligator Lizard alligator lizard tail  
An Oregon Alligator Lizard is discovered sheltering under a rock on a cold spring day in the Siskiyou Mountains of Siskiyou County. This video shows how a Southern 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.  

You can see more pictures of this lizard and its habitat from Oregon and Washington, Here.

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

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.

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.
The temporal scales are not keeled or only slightly 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. The fold of this subspecies is generally a cinnamon color. 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 head of a male is broader than a female's with a more triangular shape.
Color and Pattern
Color is brown or grey.
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 obscured.

The eyes are light yellow.
(Compare with the darker eyes of a simillar species - the Northern Alligator Lizard -Elgaria coerulea.)
The head is usually not mottled with dark color.

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.)
Hatchlings 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, 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.)
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.
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 away from the lizard.

Males sometimes also extrude the hemipenes when threatened.

Often when an alligator lizard is observed lying still or basking, it will tuck its legs back toward the body. This is probably a defensive measure to break up the outline of the lizard's body so that a predator can't tell that it's an animal with legs. This might be to give it the appearance of a stick or shadow or something not alive, or it might be to imitate a snake, since many animals are naturally afraid of snakes and will hesitate to approach or attack a snake.

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 southern alligator lizard bite onto its own tail making itself impossible to be swallowed by a juvenile Alameda Striped Racer, which eventually gave up.
Diet and Feeding
Eats a variety of small invertebrates. Will also eat small lizards and small mammals.
Occasionally feed on bird eggs and young birds. (Stebbins)
Mating occurs in Spring, most likely from  April to May.
Eggs are laid some time 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.

Grassland, open forest, chaparral. Common in foothill oak woodlands. Commonly found hiding under rocks, logs, boards, trash, other surface cover.

Geographical Range
The subspecies Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda anges from an intergrade range extending northeast from Humboldt to Siskiyou counties, north into Oregon east of the Cascade mountains to the Columbia River, and east of the Cascades in northcentral Oregon north into Klickitat county in south-central Washington.

The species Elgaria multicarinata ranges from southern Washington state mostly west of the Cascades and Sierras, including most of the Channel Islands, into northwestern Baja California, including San Martin and Los Coronados islands, and has been introduced into Las Vegas. (Apparently it is common in casino gardens.)

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range of the Species
In his 2003 field guide, Stebbins states that this species occurs from sea level to 5,000 ft. in elevation (1,524 m.) but I've seen them at 6,200 ft. in the San Bernardino Mountains and they have also been found at 7,250 ft. (2,210 m.) on Frazier Mountain in Ventura County.

Notes on Taxonomy
Formerly placed in the genus Gerrhonotus, with the Latin name Gerrholotus multicarinatus scincicauda.

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."

The 2017 SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 43 Standard Names List follows two studies that don't support the traditional subspecies boundaries within E. multicarinata, changing the common names of the subspecies:

E. m. scincicauda is no longer recognized. Lizards formerly recognized as that subspecies become E. m. multicarinata - Forest Alligator Lizard.

E. multicarinata in the Sierra Nevada mountains, formerly E. m. webbii, become E. m. multicarinata - Forest Alligator Lizard.
E. multicarinata in the central Coast Ranges, formerly E. m. multicarinata, become E. m. webbii - Woodland Alligator Lizard.

The contact zones between the subspecies are in the Monterey Bay area and in Kern County north of the Kern River.

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda - Oregon Diego Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 2003)
Gerrhonotus multicarinatus scincicauda - Oregon Alligator Lizard (Smith 1946, Stebbins 1966, 1985)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Family Anguidae Alligator Lizards and Allies Gray, 1825
Genus Elgaria Western Alligator Lizards Gray, 1838
Species multicarinata Southern Alligator Lizard (Blainville, 1835)

scincicauda Oregon Alligator Lizard (Skilton, 1849)
Original Description
Elgaria multicarinata - (Blainville, 1835) - Nouv. Ann. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris, Vol. 4, p. 298, pl. 25, fig. 2
Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda - (Skilton, 1849) - Amer. Journ. Sci. Arts, Ser. 2, Vol. 7, p. 202, pl. at p. 312, figs. 1-3

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 multi many, and carinata keeled - refers to the keeled scales
scincicauda - Latin scinci - lizard (skink) and cauda - tail - referring to the long tail

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. palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard
E. c. shastensis - Shasta Alligator Lizard
E. c. principis - Northwestern Alligator Lizard
E. m. multicarinata - California 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 are copied from the April 2018 Special Animals List and the 2017 Endangered and Threatened Animals List, both of which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either CDFW list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status, you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.

Check here to see the most current complete lists.

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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