As you can see on this adult female in Kern County, when running, zebra-tailed lizards raise up and wave their tail to show the zebra-like black and white bars on the bottom of the tail. This draws the predator's attention to the more expendable tail and away from the vulnerable body.
Adult male, Inyo County.
Zebra-tailed lizards are very tolerant of extreme heat. The air temperature was 100 degrees F. when this lizard was seen out in the sun on top of a rock. The temperature of the rock was 130 degrees F. ! (54.44 C.)
Adult female, Kern County
This close-up shows the fringed protective scales around the eyes, the third eye on top of the head, and the ear on side of the head behind the eye (which can help differentiate a zebra-tailed lizard from a similar earless lizard.)
Zebra-tailed Lizards, genus Callisaurus, have smooth granular scales on their upper sides.
Habitat, sandy wash, San Diego County
Habitat, sandy wash during a good spring wildflower bloom (1998), Riverside County
Habitat, Kern County
Inland habitat, creek flowing out of San Gabriel Mountains near Cajon Pass, Riverside County
Habitat, windblown sand and sandy wash, San Bernardino County
Habitat, lava flow,
San Bernardino County
Habitat, rocky wash, Inyo County
Habitat, Kern County
This video shows several views of zebra-tailed lizards from the Colorado Desert in San Diego County, waving their striped tails to divert attention away from their main body, running off quickly, and doing the territorial push-up display.
One early afternoon during a summer cold front in the Mohave Desert in Kern County, I was able to get close to several zebra-tailed lizards and follow them around as they moved relatively slowly compared to how fast they move when it's hot.
On a late spring day in Kern County I followed this zebra-tailed lizard around its sandy wash habitat. Most zebra-tails run away as fast as they can, but this one seemed curious of the large hairless ape with a funny hat crawling on its knees and only ran a short distance then stopped, allowing me to approach her closely again. But she still exhibits the flight behavior typical of this species - wagging her striped tail as a distraction from her body, and even doing a push-up display warning me not to come any closer.
2.5 - 4 inches from snout to vent (6 - 10 cm), up to almost 9 inches including tail.
A pale thin lizard with very long legs and a long flat tail with black crossbars.
Scales are small and granular.
Color and Pattern
Gray or light brown above with light spots and paired dark blotches, which are more distinct on females.
As with many lizards, the coloring is darker during lower temperatures, and lighter with very high temperatures.
Dark crossbars or bands on the tail become very distinct black and white underneath.
This black and white zebra-like pattern gives this lizard its name.
There is pale yellow and orange coloring on the sides and the center of the throat often has a pink or orange spot.
Male / Female Differences
Males have two dark bars and develop a patch of blue-green coloring on the sides of the mid belly, which is visible when viewed from the side, during the breeding season.
Dark belly markings are faint or absent on females.
Life History and Behavior
Tolerant of high temperatures.
Often seen basking on rocks, even on extremely hot afternoons.
A countersunk lower jaw makes it easier for this lizard to burrow into loose or sandy soil to rest.
Capable of running very fast (possibly the fastest lizard in the desert) facilitated by long legs and streamlined body.
After speeding away, this lizard sometimes stops far ahead in the open, but it will also run to the far side of a bush, out of view, or into a bush or burrow for protection.
Before running, a lizard may curl the tail up towards the back, exposing the black and white bars, and wag it nervously, then continue this behavior while running and after stopping.
This tail display tactic concentrates a predator's attention on the tail, which, if attacked and broken off, can grow back.
Diet and Feeding
Small invertebrates such as insects and spiders, small lizards, occasional plant material.
Mating occurs in Spring. Eggs are laid June - August.
Open sandy desert washes, desert pavement, and hard pan, with scant widely-spaced vegetation and open areas. Sometimes found in wind-blown sand dunes near hard-packed ground.
In California, this species inhabits the Mojave and Colorado Deserts up to the desert slopes of the Peninsular and Transverse Mountains, and from the Owens Valley north along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Found on the coastal slopes of the mountains at San Jacinto Wash and Cajon Wash, where one was observed as far south as the Santa Ana River.
The species ranges outside California north into northern Nevada, east into extreme southwest Utah, south through Arizona and extreme southwest New Mexico, to the cape region of Baja California and across the gulf along the west coast of Mexico.
Notes on Taxonomy
Some experts do not recognize any subspecies of Callisaurus draconoides.
Others recognize three subspecies occurring in the United States:
C. d. rhodostictus, Western Zebra-tailed Lizard
C. d. myurus - Northern Zebra-tailed Lizard C. d. ventralis - Eastern (or Arizona) Zebra-tailed Lizard
Some experts classify this lizard as Callisaurus draconoides draconoides - Common Zebra-tailed Lizard.
Callisaurus - Greek kalos beautiful and saurus lizard - "we have given the name Callisaurus to indicate the extreme beauty of this little animal."
draconoides - Greek draco dragon and -eidos similarity to a - the species of true dragons rhodostictus - Greek rhodon - rose, red color and Greek stiktos - dotted or dappled
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.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
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.
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either 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.
This animal is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.