A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Northern Desert Horned Lizard -
Phrynosoma platyrhinos platyrhinos

Girard, 1852
(= Doliosaurus platyrhinos platyrhinos)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Desert Horned Lizards Range Map
Range in California: Blue

Red: Southern Desert Horned Lizard

Dot-locality Range Map

observation link

Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard
Adult, Lassen County north of Honey Lake. © Debra Frost
(This lizard let the photographer get very close and ran towards her to catch a fly.)
Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard
Adult, Lassen County © Debra Frost Adult, Lassen County © Debra Frost
Northern Desert Horned Lizard Southern Desert Horned Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Adult, Modoc County
© William Flaxington
Desert Horned Lizards have one row of fringe scales on each side. Compare with the Coast Horned Lizard which has two rows of fringe scales on each side. Desert Horned lizards are covered with small granular scales interspersed with larger pointed scales on the dorsal surfaces.
Northern Desert Horned Lizards From Outside California
Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard
Adult, 4,000 ft., Washoe County, Nevada Adult, Washoe County, Nevada
Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard
Juvenile, Washoe County, Nevada Adult, Washoe County, Nevada
Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard Northern Desert Horned Lizard
Adult and habitat,
Washoe County, Nevada
Adult, Humboldt County, Nevada © Spencer Riffle
  Northern Desert Horned Lizard  
  Adult, Washoe County, Nevada
© Lou Silva
Northern Desert Horned Lizard Habitat Northern Desert Horned Lizard habitat  
Habitat, Great Basin desert,
4,000 ft., Lassen County
Habitat, Surprise Valley, Modoc County  
2.5 - 3.75 inches long from snout to vent (6.4 - 9.5 cm). (Stebbins 2003)
Up to 5.5 inches including tail.

A medium-sized flat-bodied lizard with a wide oval-shaped body and scattered enlarged pointed scales on the upper body and tail.
The back skin is smooth with small spines.
The snout is blunt.
Horns extend from the back of the head, with the two central horns longest.

Each side of the body has one row of well-developed fringe scales. (Stebbins, 2003)
Each side of the throat has one row of slightly enlarged scales. (Stebbins, 2003)
Color and Pattern
Color can be reddish, tan, dark gay, beige, brown and even black in areas with dark lava.
Background coloring usually matches the local soil and rocks.
A pair of large dark blotches mark the neck.
Wavy dark blotches mark the back.
The belly is white with scattered small dark spots, smooth scales and black spotting at the vent opening.
Male / Female Differences
Males are smaller than females, and have postanal scales, femoral pores, and a wider tail base.

Life History and Behavior

Diurnal. Adapted to hot and barren habitats.
Remains underground during hot or cold weather.
Hibernates in loose soil, usually emerging in April.
Most active from April to July.
Can be seen basking on rocks and road berms in the morning and late afternoon - early evening.
When threatened, this lizard is capable of running away quickly for only a short distance.
It will often run under a low bush or into a rodent burrow to escape, or shuffle sideways to bury itself partly in the sand.
Its main defense is remaining motionless using its cryptic coloring to blend into the background and make it difficult to see. It will crouch down low to prevent shadows that could make it easier to see, and sit still to avoid detection.

When grabbed, it will inflate with air, hiss, threaten to bite, and move the head from side to side to jab with its horns.
This species of horned lizard rarely defends itself by squirting blood from the corners of its eyes.
Diet and Feeding
90 percent of the diet consists of ants. The remainder consists of other small invertebrates, including flies, and some plant material such as berries.

Although horned lizards may be desirable pets, captive animals normally do not live very long due to the difficulties of feeding them a proper diet of ants.
Mates April to May
Females lay 1 - 2 clutches of 2 - 16 eggs from June - July.
Hatchlings appear usually in August to mid September.

Inhabits sandy gravelly desert flats, dune systems with low brush, dry washes, and open hillsides with loose soil.
Most often seen where desert shrubs are separated by wide sunny clear areas and near desert washes.
Patches of sand or loose soil are generally present.
Associated plants include sagebrush, big greasewood, saltbush, and other small shrubs.

Geographical Range
This subspecies is found in Great Basin Desert habitat at the far northeastern edge of the state.

Found outside of California north and east into eastern Oregon, southwest Idaho, most of Nevada, western Utah and in an isolated location at the edge of the Utah Colorado border.

Intergrades with P. p. calidiarum in the White-Inyo mountains region. (Macey & Papenfuss 1991)

The species Phrynosoma platyrhinos occurs in southern California and northeastern Baja California, throughout most of Nevada, along the extreme northeastern edge of California, in southeast Oregon and southern Idaho, in western Utah and a couple of isolated spots in northeastern Utah, and western Arizona.

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range
From below sea level to 6,500 ft. (1,980 m). (Stebbins 2003)

Notes on Taxonomy
Three subspecies of P. platyrhinos have been recognized:

P. p. calidiarum
P. p. platyrhinos
P. p. goodei

Mulcahy et al. (2006, Mol. Ecol. 15:1807-1826) demonstrated that P. p. goodei is a full species, P. goodei, and showed that it occurs in the United States.

Leache and McGuire (2006, Molecular Phylog. Evolution 39:628-644) named four subclades of Phrynosoma - 3 in our area: Anota, Doliosaurus, and Tapaja.

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Commonly called: "Horny Toad," "Horned Toad"

Phrynosoma platyrhinos
platyrhinos - Desert Horned Lizard (Smith 1946)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Family Phrynosomatidae Zebra-tailed, Earless, Fringe-toed, Spiny, Tree, Side-blotched, and Horned Lizards Fitzinger, 1843
Genus Phrynosoma Horned Lizards Wiegmann, 1828
Species platyrhinos Desert Horned Lizard Girard, 1852

platyrhinos Northern Desert Horned Lizard Girard, 1852
Original Description
Phrynosoma platyrhinos - Girard, 1852 - Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia, Vol. 6, p. 69

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

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Phrynosoma - Greek - phrynos - toad and soma - body - refers to the squat, toad-like appearance
- Greek -platys - flat and- rhinos - nose - referring to the flat nose

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

Related or Similar California Lizards
Phrynosoma platyrhinos calidiarum - Southern Desert Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma mcallii - Flat-tail Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma blainvillii - Blainville's Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma douglasii - Pygmy Short-horned 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.

Sherbrooke, Wade C. Horned Lizards, Unique Reptiles of Western North America. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1981.

Sherbrooke, Wade C. Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America. University of California Press, 2003.

Brown et. al. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society,1995.

St. John, Alan D. Reptiles of the Northwest: Alaska to California; Rockies to the Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.

Macey, J. Robert and Theodore Papenfuss."Herpetology." The Natural History of the White-Inyo Range Eastern California. Ed. Clarence Hall. University of California Press, 1991.

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


Home Site Map About Us Identification Lists Maps Photos More Lists CA Snakes CA Lizards CA Turtles CA Salamanders CA Frogs
Contact Us Usage Resources Rattlesnakes Sounds Videos FieldHerping Yard Herps Behavior Herp Fun CA Regulations
Beyond CA All Herps

Return to the Top

 © 2000 -