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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Sauromalus ater - Common Chuckwalla

Duméril, 1856
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Common Chuckwalla California Range MapRange in California: Red

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Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Adult male, San Diego County Adult male, San Diego County Adult, Inyo County Adult male, San Diego County
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Adult, wedged into a crack, Inyo County. The dark body matches its dark lava rock habitat. Adult female, San Diego County
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Adult male, San Diego County Adult male, San Diego County Adult emerging from crevice to bask,
San Diego County
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Adult male, San Diego County Adult, Inyo County Dark adult male on top of tall lava outcrop, Inyo County
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Adult male, San Diego County Adult male, San Diego County Adult, Antelope Valley, Los Angeles County © Todd Battey
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwallas
Adult male from lava fields in San Bernardino County © Patrick Briggs Adult male with adult female, from lava fields in San Bernardino County
© Patrick Briggs
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Adult, Riverside County
© Chad Lane
Adult, San Bernardino County
© Loren Prins
Adult male, San Diego County Adult male, San Diego County
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Light-colored adult from pale sandstone habitat, San Diego County
© Stuart Young
Adult, San Bernardino County
© John Worden
Adult male, San Bernardino County © Adam Clause
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Great Basin Collared Lizard
Adult male, San Diego County
© Adam G. Clause
Adult, emerging from rock crevice,
San Bernardino County
© 2005 Joshua C. Pace
Distant adult male in typical basking poisition, Imperial County Chuckwallas have a back covered with granular scales.
       
Juveniles
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
Juvenile, Riverside County
© Chad Lane
Juvenile, Riverside County
© Jeremiah Easter
Hatchling from volcanic rock habitat, Imperial County © Stuart Young Juvenile, San Bernardino County
© Ryan Martin
Chuckwalla Hook Chuckwalla Hook
A Chuckwalla hook on display at the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center.
When threatened, a Chuckwalla typically escapes into a rock crevice. If a predator attempts to pull it out, the lizard will use its rough skin and strong claws to wedge itself tightly into the crevice, sometimes inflating with air to further increase its pressure against the rock. The tool shown above - a sharpened stone attached to a stick - was used by Native Americans to pull a Chuckwalla from a crevice. The sharp angled stone impaled the lizard forcing it to release its pressure against the rock allowing it to be pulled out of the crevice. The Chuckwalla was later cooked and eaten or possibly dried and smoked to preserve the meat for later use. See below for more information about how Chuckwallas were prepared and eaten.


Chuckwalla Pictograph Chuckwalla Pictograph Chuckwalla Pictograph  
Todd Battey took these pictures in the Coso Range in southern Inyo County, an area known for its extensive Native American pictographs by the Piute tribe. The large rock contains paintings of deer and bighorn sheep on one side, and human-like forms on the other, including what looks to be a large lizard (the painting is 1.5 feet long) which is certainly a Chuckwalla, considering the importance of this large lizard to these desert inhabitants.
 
Habitat
Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat
Habitat, San Diego County Habitat, Imperial County Habitat, San Diego County Habitat, Inyo County
Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat
Habitat, San Bernardino County, with a distant Chuckwalla sitting on top of the rock pile in the center of the picture. Habitat, Riverside County Artificial riprap habitat, Imperial County Habitat, Owens Valley, Inyo County
Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat Common Chuckwalla Habitat
Volcanic rock habitat, Imperial County
© Stuart Young
Sandstone habitat, San Diego County Habitat, Inyo County Habitat, Imperial Coumty
       
Short Videos
Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla Common Chuckwalla
A large old male chuckwalla gets some sun, does some pushups, eats some bushes, then poops. A Chuckwalla emerges from its crevice and does a territorial push-up display. From a wide view of its habtat, we zoom in on a Chuckwalla high on top of a rock. Chuckwallas in the San Diego County desert, including one that crawled up into a bush to eat some flowers.
Common Chuckwalla      
A Riverside County chuckwalla runs across a sandy wash into thick vegetation next to a spring and a San Diego County chuckwalla  displays on top of a large rock outcrop.      

There are more pictures of this species and its habitat on our Southwest and Baja California pages.

Description
 
Size
5 - 9 inches long from snout to vent (12.7 - 22.8 cm). (Stebbins 2003)
The second largest lizard native to the United States (after the Gila Monster).

Appearance
A large, flat-bodied lizard with a large rounded belly, and a wide-based blunt-tipped tail.
The neck and sides of the body are covered with loose folds of skin.
Scales are small and granular.
Tail will regenerate if detached.
Males have enlarged femoral pores.
Color and Pattern
Several color patterns occur.
Color can be black, reddish, gray, brown, yellow, or tan.
Color changes with age and varies with the color of the habitat.
Some individuals have red torsos.
The tail and sides are light gray or cream, sometimes reddish.
Male / Female Differences
Males have dark, usually black, head, chest, and limbs, with red, black, or yellowish backs.
Sometimes the dark coloring is covered with light spots and flecks.

Females usually retain some of the juvenile body and tail banding.
Young
The body and tail of young chuckwallas are more prominently banded with dark and yellow coloring.

Life History and Behavior

Activity
Diurnal. Rock-dwelling, sheltering in rock crevices or under rocks. Rocks, especially large outcrops and boulder piles, are used for basking. Chuckwallas are often seen in the morning basking on a large rock pile. After basking, they leave the rocks to forage for food.

Most active from spring through fall, remaining inactive in deep rock crevices during the cold of winter, but may be active all year in warmer areas. Also retreats into rock crevices during extreme heat.
Defense
When disturbed, a chukwalla will retreat into a rock crevice, inflating its body with air and using its strong claws and rough skin to tightly wedge itself into the crevice to make extraction difficult.
Diet and Feeding
Eats a variety of vegetation, especially creosote flowers, leaves, fruit, and occasionally insects.
Breeding
Breeds from April to June.
Females lay 5 -16 eggs from June to August.
Females may only lay eggs every two or three years.

Use as a Food Source
Gifford, E. W. 1936. Northeastern and Western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. Vol. 34, No. 4.pg. 26

"Extracted from rock crevices by sharp stick twisted into skin; seized by tail and struck against rock to kill. Cooked in hot ashes, either gutted or ungutted."

Jaeger, E. C. 1950. Our Desert Neighbors. Stanford University Press.pg. 220

"One day long ago, while traveling through the southern Nevada deserts, I came upon three Paiute Indians camping in a rocky gorge. It was late afternoon, and they were sitting around a fire cooking up a half-dozen large chuckwallas in an iron kettle. They had not taken the trouble either to behead or to skin the creatures and as I looking into the boiling pot I had only a feeling of repugnance for food... ...The Indians said they would remove the skin when they ate the lizards."

Wallace, W. J. 1978. The Chuckwalla: A Death Valley Indian Food. The Journal of California Anthropology. Malki Museum, Inc., Morongo Indian Reservation, Banning, California.

Geographical Range
Widely distributed throughout the Mojave and Colorado deserts in California, from the desert slopes of the mountains, north through the Owens Valley and east to the Colorado River.

Ranges outside of California south into Baja California, and east into southern Nevada and Utah, through eastern Arizona and south into Sonora, Mexico.
Elevational Range
Sea level to around 6,000 ft. (1,800 m).

Habitat
Inhabits rocky flats and hillsides, lava flows, and large outcrops in the California Mojave and Colorado deserts.
Creosote bush is found throughout most of its range.
Although primarily associated with natural rock piles, Chuckwallas have also been observed inhabiting atypical places such as burrows in dirt, piles of railroad ties, and artificial rip rap.

Notes on Taxonomy
In 1998 Hollingsworth (Herpetological Monographs 12: 38-191) changed the name from S. obesus to S. ater. The name S. obesus is still preferred by many researchers. Look at this CNAH page to read about some of the controversy.

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None
Taxonomy
Family Iguanidae Iguanian Lizards Oppel, 1811
Genus Sauromalus Chuckwallas Duméril, 1856
Species

ater Common Chuckwalla Duméril, 1856
Original Description
Sauromalus - Dumeril, 1856 - Arch. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris, Vol. 8, p. 535
Sauromalus obesus - Baird, 1858 - Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia, Vol. 10, p. 253

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

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Sauromalus - Greek - sauros - lizard and homalos - level or flat - refers to the ability to flatten its body
ater
- ?

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

Alternate Names
Sauromalus obesus - Chuckwalla

Formerly called Sauromalus obesus obesus - Western Chuckwalla

Related or Similar California Lizards
None. Sometimes confused for Gila Monsters, but the differences are obvious on close inspection.

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 common species is on the Special Animals List for some mysterious reason. There are no indications from the list that it is threatened in any way. In 2007, this lizard was legally collectable with a license.

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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