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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


San Diego Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata webbii

(Baird, 1859 “1858”)
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Southern Alligator Lizards Caifornia Range Map
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San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
San Diego Alligator Lizard
Adult, Kern County
Underside of Adult, Kern County
(Dark markings run through the
middle of the scales.)
Adult missing most of its tail,
San Diego County
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
Adult, Tehachapi Mountains, Kern County Underside of Adult, Kern County
(Dark markings run through the
middle of the scales.)
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
Adult, 6,200 ft., San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County Adult San Bernardino County,
missing most of tail
Adult with re-generated tail,
Los Angeles County © Mike Ryan
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
San Diego Alligator Lizard
Adult, San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles County Adult, Riverside County
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
Adult, Orange County © K. S. Swigart Juvenile, Laguna Mountains, San Diego County, © Stuart Young Adult, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County © Olly Burrows Adult, Placer County, with  a forked re-generated tail. © Sara Walhovd
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
Adult, Santa Catalina Island 
© Nathan Smith
Adult, Santa Catalina Island 
© Nathan Smith
Adult, Santa Catalina Island 
© Nathan Smith
Adult, Santa Catalina Island 
© Nathan Smith
lizard with ticks San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Adult from the Mojave Desert near Helendale, San Bernardino County, about 30 miles from the San Bernardino mountains. San Diego Alligator Lizards such as this one have spread along riparian areas next to the Mohave River where it flows out of the mountains. This one found itself a niche in a well-irrigated golf course community not far from the river. ©  JP Benson 6-year-old lizard wrangler Enzo Forte holds a sub-adult alligator lizard that he found trying to kill and eat a potato bug in Ventura County. The lizard continued even after being picked up and struggled with the bug for about an hour before finally severing the bug's head.
© Domiane Forte.

Alligator lizards are good climbers, using their somewhat prehensile tail to hold on, but they aren't easy to spot in trees since they blend in well with the branches. This adult with a very long intact tail frequents this Mulberry tree in Tulare County.
© Sylvia Durando
Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).

San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
The San Diego AL is the longest subspecies of Southern Alligator Lizard, especially when an adult has a complete tail which has never broken off: Steve Haimwertz found this 15 inch lizard in his backyard in Los Angeles County.
© Steve Haimwertz.
Gary Grantham sent in this picture of an even longer lizard found in San Diego County that measures over 16 inches in length including the tail.
© Gary Grantham
San Diego Alligator Lizard eye San Diego Alligator Lizard head lizard with ticks lizard with ticks
The eye of this species is light, compared to the northern alligator lizard. Adult males have a large triangular head. 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.
     
Juveniles
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
Juvenile, San Diego County © Jay Keller

Hatchling in September, Orange County. © Paul Hanson
Juvenile, San Diego County
© Sandra Wagner
San Diego Alligator Lizard      
Juvenile, Los Angeles County.
© Anne Vanoppen

     
Interesting Pigments and Patterns
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
Melanistic adult male, coastal Los Angeles County. © Jean Taves Young adult with high-contrast pattern, coastal Los Angeles County
© Don Huffman
Young adult with few markings, coastal Los Angeles County
© Don Huffman
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard  
An almost patternless adult from Riverside County © Adam Helbert
A juvenile with very little pattern from San Diego County. © Richard Cazares  
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard
An amelanistic lizard observed in Los Angeles County with a beautiful long tail. At about 10 inches in length, including the very long tail, it may still be a juvenile.
© Amy Jaecker-Jones
     
Breeding Behavior
San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards
Liz Kubalek © found these mating lizards in this postion one March evening in San Diego County. They were still there the next morning, but gone by the afternoon.
A pair mating in March,
San Bernardino County
© Joy Lutz-Mizar
A pair mating in April,
San Bernardino County
© Aaron Fitzsimmons
This mating pair was found in
Los Angeles County.
© Steve Haimwertz.
San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards
Tess Prenger © found these mating lizards in her yard on February 8th in San Diego County. One March morning, Carola Bundy © photographed these two males biting onto the head of a female on her porch in Los Angeles County. By the afternoon, the smaller lizard on the left was gone and the other two had moved to the driveway. Bret Gross © found this frisky pair in his Orange County yard in early March.
San Diego Alligator Lizards San Diego Alligator Lizards    
This pair was found mating in a garage in San Diego County in early April.
© Jason Rosenberg
This amorous pair was found inside a dry kids wading pool in a Los Angeles County suburban backyard in mid April.
© Dana Zoulin

 
Predators
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard  
Mark McCormick © shot this series of a San Diego Alligator Lizard biting onto the neck of a lizard-eating California Striped Racer in San Bernardino County. After the lizard finally let go, the snake quickly raced up a steep 15 foot high cliff up into some branches.
Crow vs. San Diego Alligator Lizard Crow vs. San Diego Alligator Lizard Crow vs. San Diego Alligator Lizard Crow vs. San Diego Alligator Lizard
Crow vs. San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard    
Sean Kelly © shot this amazing series of pictures that show a fearless San Diego Alligator Lizard successfully defending itself from an attacking American Crow.

Red Coachwhip eating San Diego Alligator Lizard Red Coachwhip eating San Diego Alligator Lizard california kingsnake california kingsnake
A Red Coachwhip eating a San Diego Alligator Lizard. © Samantha Zahringer.

Samantha Zahringer watched this coachwhip eat the lizard by her back door. Her kids saw the snake attack the lizard. It raised its head and neck off the ground, swayed for a moment, then struck quickly. Two other lizards nearby froze while the snake swallowed its meal, then they ran away quickly.

This striped California Kingsnake is eating a San Diego Alligator Lizard in San Diego County. © Liz Samperi
San Diego Alligator Lizard      
A Ventura County San Diego Alligator Lizard bites onto the nose of a predatory California Striped Racer, leaving it unable to strike. Eventually the lizard released its grip and the two ran in opposite directions. © Melissa Wantz      
       
Habitat
San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat
Habitat, 6,200 ft.
San Bernardino County
Habitat, coastal Riverside County Habitat, Yosemite Valley,
Mariposa County
Habitat, riparian canyon,
Los Angeles County
San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat
Habitat, San Gabriel Mountains,
Los Angeles County
Habitat, Tehachapi Mountains,
Kern County
Habitat, San Diego County coastal scrub Habitat, San Gabriel Mountains,
Los Angeles County
San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat    
Habitat, coastal San Diego County.
(This location was bulldozed and developed a few years later.)

Creekside habitat, 1,450 ft., Kern County    
Short Videos
San Diego Alligator Lizard Alligator Lizard tail    
A large adult San Diego Alligator lizard with a full tail sticks out his tongue in Kern County. Here you can see how an alligator lizard can look a lot like a snake when it crawls through the grass. 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.    
Description

Size
E. multicarinata ranges from 2 7/8 - 7 inches in snout to vent length (7.3 - 17.8 cm) (Stebbins) and up to aprox.16 inches (38.1 cm) in total length, including the tail. E. m. webbii is the largest subspecies of Southern Alligator Lizard.
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 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.

Color is brown, grey, or yellowish above, sometimes with reddish or orange coloring 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 more heavily keeled than with other subspecies, with the temporal scales also 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 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
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 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
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 March through 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.
Range
The subspecies Elgaria multicarinata webbii ranges from the border in San Diego County, north, primarily west of the transverse mountain ranges, to an intergrade range in Ventura County, and north along the Tehachapi mountains and the Sierra foothills to roughly Sacramento County. Also ranges north on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains through the Owens valley where it is found in some isolated populations at Grant Lake, the Alabama Hills near Independence, Walker pass, and Walker Creek near Olancha. Also found in the Mojave Desert along the Mojave River, and on Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Islands. (Stebbins 2003)

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

webbii San Diego Alligator Lizard (Baird, 1859 “1858”)
Original Description
Elgaria multicarinata - (Blainville, 1835) - Nouv. Ann. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris, Vol. 4, p. 298, pl. 25, fig. 2
Elgaria multicarinata webbii - (Baird, 1858) - Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia, Vol. 10, p. 255

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
webbii - honors Webb, Thomas H.

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

Alternate Names
Formerly Gerrhonotus multicarinatus webbii

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. scincicauda - Oregon 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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