A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Lizard Behavior and Life History


observation link


These are pictures and videos that illustrate some of the interesting behavior and or natural history of lizards from California and around the world.

Follow the links on the name of each species to find more pictures and information about it.

Miscellaneous Lizard Observations
banded gila monster
horned lizard
western zebra-tailed lizards alligator lizard
When annoyed, Gila Monsters, like this captive Banded Gila Monster, open their mouth and make a loud hissing sound. You can hear this Gila Monster hissing here.
When they feel threatened, horned lizards will sometimes squirt blood from the corners of their eyes to scare away predators, as this juvenile Southern Desert Horned Lizard has recently done. The blood has been found to be very distasteful to some animals, causing them to drop the lizards without eating them. © Geoff Fangerow
This video shows Western Zebra-tailed Lizards waving their striped tails to divert attention away from their body, running off quickly, and doing a territorial push-up display. San Diego 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. © Sylvia Durando
northern desert iguana round-tailed horned lizard variegated skink variegated skink
This video shows several Northern Desert Iguanas in the Colorado Desert, including one emerging from it's hiding hole. This video shows the excellent camouflage of a tiny Round-tailed Horned Lizard. Its color and shape allow it to blend in with the rocks on the ground. These lizards can also run away quickly when needed, as you can also see here.
Lizards hide in holes, cracks, and under rocks and other objects. These
pictures show where a Variegated Skink hid itself under a rock.
leopard lizard long-tailed brush lizard long-tailed brush lizard common chuckwalla
In this short video, a leopard lizard slowly wriggles its long tail as if using it as a lure. Or maybe it's a nervous behavior. Long-tailed Brush Lizards are very well camouflaged when they align their bodies on a branch and remain motionless inside a shrub, as you can see in the picture on the left and the video on the right. This short video shows the desert habitat of a Common Chuckwalla, then zooms in on the cryptic lizard, in a typical pose for a Chuckwalla or any lizard, basking high on top of a rock.

fringe-toed lizard fringe-toed lizard fringe-toed lizard zebra-tailed lizard
Fringed-toed lizards use fringed scales on their toes to help them run over loose sand. Shown here is the rear left foot of a Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard. Fringed-toed lizards also have fringed eyelids to help keep sand out of their eyes, as you can see on the closed eye of this Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard. This short video shows a Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard burying itself in the sand to hide. This lizard was captive and sluggish and buries itself slowly and incompletely. In the wild, fringe-toed lizards run quickly then suddenly dissapear as they dive into the sand. On this Western Zebra-tailed Lizard you can see the Parietal Eye, or Third Eye, which is the small dark circle in the middle of the top of the head, slightly behind the eyes. Studies have shown that lizards use this patch of light-sensitive cells as a type of compass which lets them calculate their position and navigate by the sun.
texas horned lizard Western Side-blotched Lizard desert spiny lizard plateau striped whiptail
This Texas Horned Lizard has elevated its body and filled itself with air to make it appear more threatening and too big to swallow. Sometimes it's easy to understand why a species was given its name. This one's name is Side-blotched Lizard, for obvious reasons - it has a dark blotch on it's sides. Lizards shed their skin, usually a few times each year. Here, an adult male Desert Spiny Lizard in Arizona is shown with skin shed from its face and tail, but not yet from the rest of its body. In this video, a Plateau Striped Whiptail, digging in a hole, stops and slowly waves its arms and tail in a strange behavior I can't explain.
sf alligator lizard alligator lizard alligator lizard lizard
Disturbed from his hiding spot under a rock, an alligator lizard threatens to bite and hisses several times when he is touched, in this short video. Alligator lizards have strong jaws which let them bite hard and hold on. Horned lizards have nasal valves which they can close to keep soil from entering their nostrils and lungs when they bury themselves to hide or sleep. This Southern Desert Horned Lizard has closed its nasal valves. The closed valves leave a small crescent-shaped opening through which the lizard can still breathe when it is buried. © Filip Tkaczyk
lizard lizard fence lizard lizard
In 2010, researchers at UC Santa Cruz discovered that Desert Night Lizards - Xantusia vigilis, live in family groups, showing social behavior more typical of mammals and birds such as primates, ground squirrels, and woodpeckers. The young night lizards remain with the father, mother, and siblings for several years, all living under the same plant debris.The young feed themselves and do not receive any direct care from the parents. It is not yet known what survival advantages the group living arrangement provides. (ScienceDaily 10/10)

A few other lizard species have also evolved a social system around a nuclear family, including the Great Desert Skink of Australia, which lives in families consisting of a breeding pair and several generations of young. The families live in complex tunnel systems with up to 20 entrances and separate latrine areas that have been dug and maintained by the extended family. (Science Daily 5/11)

Some lizards can excrete excess salts through their nostrils, like this Coast Range Fence Lizard.
© Guntram Deichsel
Many lizards can swim when they need to. When this Skilton's Skink was discovered hiding under an object, it ran off, jumped into the water and quickly swam to get away. © Robert Mellinger
whiptail eye whiptail eye lizard lizard
Some lizards have transparent lower eyelids, like this Great Basin Whiptail.
The eyelid is open on the left, and closed on the right.
This La Palma Lizard (Gallotia galloti palmae) from La Palma Island in the Canary Islands, is "praying" - raising her hands and feet up off the hot wood to keep them from getting burnt.  According to Guntram Deichsel "The blood vessels in her fingers and toes are so small that they cannot transport the heat taken up from the surface away sufficiently." The technical term for the position is "orate fratres", which translates as "Pray, brethren." © Guntram Deichsel 2008 Starred Agama (Stellagama stellio) Sarigerme, Turkey © Guntram Deichsel 2015.

This lizard has also assumed a "praying" or "orate fratres" position, protecting its sensitve fingers and toes from the hot surface, as seen with the La Palma Lizard to the left.
San Diego Alligator Lizard lizard
A Ventura County San Diego Alligator Lizard bites onto the nose of a predatory California Striped Racer, leaving the snake unable to strike. Eventually the lizard released its grip and the two ran in opposite directions. © Melissa Wantz

When the temperature of the surface is too high for a Texas Greater Earless Lizard's thin toes, it raises them up to keep them cool, resting on the balls of the feet which can handle the heat. Zebra-tailed lizards also do this as do other desert lizards where the temperature of a basking rock may be over 130 degrees F. (55 C.)! yet you will still see them basking on the rock with the toes of all four hands and feet raised up.

Australian geckos of the genus Nephrurus - Knob-tailed Geckos, including this Prickly Knob-tailed Gecko, have a small spherical knob at the end of the tail, the function of which is not known. The complete tail can be severed at its base by the gecko in order to distract a predator and when a new tail grows back it does not have a knob. Some theories* about the function of the knob are: it could be a sense organ that responds to some kind of sensory stimulation; it could be used for heat exchange in thermoregulation; it could be vibrated on the ground to make a buzzing sound that distracts predators; or it could be used in social encounters.

* Eric R. Pianka, Laurie J. Vitt. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity. UC Press, 2003.

This Australian Hosmer's Skink has large spiny scales on its body that make it difficult
for a predator to remove it from the cracks in large boulders where it takes shelter.
Australian Yakka Skinks live in communal burrow complexes under rocks and logs and their presence is often detected by their communal defecation site.
This Australian Frilled Lizard opens the thin skin around its neck into a brightly-colored warning to defend itself. This Australian Boyd's Forest Dragon clings to small trunks where it remains still to avoid detection. When encountered, it will slowly turn around the trunk to avoid showing its body, as this one is doing.
California Striped Racer California Striped Racer California Striped Racer lizard
I always thought alligator lizards got their name from their body shape and large scales that are similar to alligators, but this sub-adult California Alligator Lizard in Nevada County dove into a stream and swam  away like its namesake. © Lou Silva In this short video we see a tiny juvenile Eastern Collard Lizard, disturbed from its sleep under a rock, defending itself by opening its mouth then jumping repeatedly at the camera. At one point it even bit and held on to the camera.
lizard lizard
This Australian Eungella Broad-tailed Gecko has cryptic coloring and markings that match its habitat of large rainforest trees and a flattened body with a broad tail to help it remain camouflaged when it forages at night on the trees. This Australian Wyberba Leaf-tailed Gecko has cryptic coloring and markings that match its habitat of large granite rocks and a flattened body with a broad tail to help it remain camouflaged when it forages at night on the rocks.
lizard lizard lizard texas greater earless lizard
Curly-tail lizards curl the end of their tail up, often holding it over their back, and wave it back and forth when they are excited. The curl is a territorial signal from males and also serves to attract females. Lizards with broken and re-grown tails don't seem to be able to do this as well. They are not native to the United states, but two species have been introduced into Florida. The one on the left is a juvenile Red-sided Curlytail Lizard and the two on the right are Northern Curlytail Lizards. The Red-sided Curlytail Lizard doesn't curl its tail as tightly as the Northern Curlytail Lizard.
This Texas Greater Earless Lizard waves its barred tail to show its underside in order to distract a pursuer. It it is grabbed by a predator, the tail is less vulnerable than the rest of the body.
lizard Northwestern Fence Lizard Northwestern Fence Lizard  
Some lizards become bipedal when they run - they run on their back legs only to move more quickly as this
Gilbert's Dragon
is doing.
Occasionally I receive pictures of spiny lizards with this rusty-orange coloration. I have not learned what causes the color, but since it appears to be painted on I suspect it is some kind of paint or chemical that will leave when the lizard sheds its skin. (An alligator was seen in South Carolina with the same color. It was suggested that it might have overwintered in a rusty culvert pipe where the rust gave it the color.) This fence lizard was found in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles County.
© Michael DeMarquette.
These two videos show a Northwestern Fence Lizard appearing to taunt a garter snake (a Mountain Gartersnake is my guess, because it lacks red.) The lizard keeps moving down towards the snake but when the snake moves towards the lizard, apparently trying to catch it for dinner, the lizard runs up the wall away from the snake. © Rod    
Lizard Tongues
reticulate gila monster lizard lizard lizard
A Reticulate Gila Monster flicks its wide forked tongue to sense its surroundings. Burton's Legless Lizard Geckos that have no eyelids use their tongue to clean their eyes. This Australian gecko is a Western Beaked Gecko This Australian gecko, a Southern Phasmid Gecko, has no eyelids, so it cleans it's eyes with its tongue.
lizard lizard lizard
This large Australian skink, a Common Blue-tongued Skink, shows its blue tonge as a warning when it feels threatened. Pink-tongued Skink Spencer's Monitor Black-headed Monitor
lizard texas spotted whiptail Reticulate Gila Monster Eastern Collared Lizard
Perentie A Texas Spotted Whiptail showing its tongue. Another Reticulate Gila Monster Eastern Collared Lizard
Toes Specially Adapted For Climbing

Some geckos have specialized toe pads to help them climb up slick vertical surfaces, and even upside down on ceilings.
Common House Gecko Common House Gecko Mediterranean House Gecko Mediterranean House Gecko
Common House Gecko on the outside of a glass window at night Mediterranean Gecko
mediterranean gecko Peninsular Leaf-toed Gecko lizard  
This picture shows the amazing climbing abilities of a Mediterranean Gecko, as it climbs up a glass window. Peninsula Leaf-toed Gecko This Australian Southern Phasmid Gecko has toes that are adapted to wrap around and climb on the thin stalks of spinifex grass that it lives on.  
Changing Color
green anole green anole green anole Gilbert's Skink
These two pictures show the same male Green Anole. Less than a minute after the picture on the left was taken (after he finished displaying his colorful throat dewlap, he changed his body color from green to brown. This is why some people call these lizards Chameleons. In this short video you can watch a male Green Anole quickly change his color from green to brown. The bright pink color on a juvenile Western Red-tailed Skink (above) fades when it becomes an adult (below).
jackson's chameleon jackson's chameleon jackson's chameleon Gilbert's Skink
These pictures all show the same female Jackson's Chameleon over a period of about 20 minutes.
Chameleons such as Jackson's change their color to match their surroundings.
Adult Western Red-tailed Skink without the pink tail of a juvenile (above).
mediterranean gecko mediterranean gecko Skilton's Skink Skilton's Skink
Many lizards change their color depending on their temperature. Some can match the color of their surroundings. These pictures show the same Mediterranean House Gecko, first in its dark phase when it was discovered under a rock in an ice storm, and second, after it had warmed up inside the house.
Many kinds of juvenile skinks have a bright blue tail that fades with age.
These are a juvenile (left) and an adult (right) Skilton's Skinks.
Granite Night Lizard Granite Night Lizard s  
In the daytime, when they hide in the shade, Granite Night Lizards are in their dark phase (left) but when they come out at night to hunt on large boulders they are in their light phase (right).    
Changing Color During the Breeding Season
Common Five-lined Skink Common Five-lined Skink northern brown skink lizard
This male Five-lined Skink in Kansas has developed bright red coloring during the breeding season (left). A non-breeding Five-lined Skink from Maryland is shown on the right for comparison. This adult male Northern Brown Skink has developed red coloring on the head and tail during the breeding season. During the breeding season, male Fence Lizards develop a more intense blue coloration to show off to females and to rival males, as you can see in this confrontation between two adult male lizards. © Kathleen Scavone
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard Mearns' Rock Lizard Mearns' Rock Lizard
Female Long-nosed Leopard Lizards develop red spots when they are full of eggs in the breeding season. Female Great Basin Collared Lizards also develop red coloring during the breeding season. Female Mearn's Rock Lizards develop red and blue breeding colors. © Stuart Young
Western Sagebrush Lizard Skilton's Skink Skilton's Skink Skilton's Skink
This gravid female Western Sagebrush Lizard shows her bright red breeding colors. This adult male Skilton's Skink is showing his red breeding colors (left & middle). © Alan Barron
A non-breeding colored adult is shown on the far right.
Changing Color with Age
These are not pictures of three different lizards but they illustrate how the color changes in the Peninsula Banded Gecko. Hatchlings have a brightly colored body with a bright black and white tail (1) but as they grow the body turns brown and the tail starts to fade (2) until it attains its adult coloration (3 and 4).
Peninsular Banded Gecko
Peninsular Banded Gecko Peninsular Banded Gecko Side-blotched Lizard
© Jason Jones © Kevin Law Adult from San Diego County Adult from Baja California
© Stuart Young
Green Iguana Green Iguana Green Iguana  
Juvenile Green Iguanas (left) start out bright green, but become dull green or grey when they become adults (middle and right.)  
lizard with ticks lizard with ticks fence lizard skink with tick
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. This adult male Coast Range Fence Lizard has several ticks on the side of his head.

In California, western black-legged ticks (deer ticks) are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. Very tiny nymphal deer ticks are more likely to carry the disease than adults. A protein in the blood of Western Fence Lizards kills the bacterium in these nymphal ticks when they attach themselves to a lizard and ingest the lizard's blood. This could explain why Lyme disease is less common in California than it is in some areas such as the Northeastern states, where it is epidemic.

More Information
Adult male Short-lined Skink, parasitized by a tick behind the right foreleg.

Scale Types of California Lizards
lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
The Collared Lizards, genus Crotaphytus, have granular scales on the back.

The Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone. The North American Legless Lizards, genus Anniella, have smooth cycloid scales. The Side-blotched Lizards, genus Uta, have small keeled spineless scales on the back.
lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard Western Fence Lizard Sagebrush Lizard Granite Spiny Lizard
The Spiny Lizards, genus Sceloporus, have overlapping scales with sharp spines on the back.

lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
The Chuckwalla, Sauromalis ater, has a back covered with granular scales. The Toothy Skinks, genus Plestiodon, have smooth shiny cycloid scales that are reinforced with bone. The Zebra-tailed Lizard, genus Callisaurus, has smooth granular scales above. The Gila Monster, genus Heloderma, has round scales on the back that look like beads.
lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
The Banded Geckos, genus Coleonyx, have fine granular scales on their soft skin. The Peninsular Banded Gecko, Coleonyx switaki, has soft skin with small granular scales interspersed with larger tubercles. Leaf-toed Geckos, genus Phyllodactylus, have small granular dorsal scales that are interspersed with enlarged keeled tubercles. The Desert Iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis has small granular scales on the back with a row of slightly larger keeled scales on the middle of the back.
lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
Tree Lizard Long-tailed Brush Lizard Black-tailed Brush Lizard The Leopard Lizards, genus Gambelia, have granular scales on the body.
The Tree and Brush Lizards, genus Urosaurus, have a mixture of small
granular scales and larger weekly-keeled scales on the dorsal surface.

lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
The Night Lizards, genus Xantusia, have small granular scales on soft skin. The Fringe-toed Lizards, genus Uma, have soft and smooth skin with granular scales.
The Whiptails, genus Aspidoscelis, have small granular dorsal scales.
lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
Flat-tailed Horned Lizard
Blainville's (Coast) Horned Lizard  Desert Horned Lizard Pigmy Short-horned Lizard
The Horned lizards, genus Phrynosoma, are covered with small granular scales interspersed with larger pointed scales on the dorsal surfaces.

lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin lizard skin
The California Rock Lizard, Petrosaurus mearnsi, has small granular scales on the dorsal surfaces, and pointed keeled scales on the tails and limbs.
The Green Anole, Anolis carolinensis, has small granular scales.

The Brown Anole, Anolis sagrei, has small granular scales. The Mediterranean House Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, has soft skin with prominent knob-like tubercles.
lizard skin lizard skin    
The Italian Wall Lizard, Podarcis siculus, has small granular scales on the back. Moorish Wall Geckos have small granular scales with intermittent large tubercles.

A California Lizard Travels to Germany
The lizard shown directly above was found in a freight container containing only metal boxes at the BMW plant in Dingolfing / Bavaria / Germany on Oct 17, 2006. The container was shipped from Stockton CA on Sep 14, 2006. The lizard survived a 33 day voyage without food and water. The container was placed most likely on the top deck of the vessel and hence cooled down considerably at night which explains the good condition of the animal upon arrival. The lizard shown directly above was found in a freight container containing only metal boxes at the BMW plant in Dingolfing / Bavaria / Germany on Oct 17, 2006. The container was shipped from Stockton CA on Sep 14, 2006. The lizard survived a 33 day voyage without food and water. The container was placed most likely on the top deck of the vessel and hence cooled down considerably at night which explains the good condition of the animal upon arrival.  
The lizard shown directly above was found in a freight container containing only metal boxes at the BMW plant in Dingolfing / Bavaria / Germany on Oct 17, 2006. The container was shipped from Stockton CA on Sep 14, 2006. The lizard survived a 33 day voyage without food and water. The container was placed most likely on the top deck of the vessel and hence cooled down considerably at night which explains the good condition of the animal upon arrival.

Photos © Jochen Späth
Information: Guntram Deichsel

Many species of plants and animals have been introduced into areas of the planet where they did not naturally evolve. The journey of this lizard illustrates one way animals can spread around the globe: If the lizard was a gravid female who found conditions favorable to her survival once she arrived, laid her eggs, and eventually the offspring began reproducing, or if other lizards arrived at the same location and bred with her, then an established breeding population could develop.

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