A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Sierra Alligator Lizard - Elgaria coerulea palmeri

(Stejneger, 1893)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Northern Alligator Lizards California Range Map
Range in California: Orange & Gray

Click the map for a guide
to the other subspecies

observation link

Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult with partly regenerated tail, Tulare County
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard v Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult with mostly original tail, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Adult with mostly original tail, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
  Adult with partly regenerated tail, 5,600 ft. Tuolumne County  
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult with partly regenerated tail, 5,600 ft. Tuolumne County The powerful jaws of this lizard allow it to bite hard and hold on.
Human skin is rarely broken, just pinched hard.
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult with original tail, Plumas County Adult with regenerated tail and juvenile, with broken tail, Plumas County
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult with original tail , Butte County
© Jackson Shedd, specimen courtesy of John Stephenson
Adult, Tulare County Adult with partly regenerated tail, Tuolumne County Adult, Butte County, probable intergrade with E. c. shastensis. © Mela Garcia
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizards
Adult female, Inyo County
© Adam Clause
Adult male, Inyo County
© Adam Clause
Sub-adult male, Inyo County
© Adam Clause
Adult missing its tail, Nevada County
© Lou Silva
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard
Adult, Mono County © Keith Condon An adult male with his hemipenis everted.
lizard with ticks lizard with ticks Great Basin Collared Lizard  
It is common to find blood-engorged ticks attached to alligator lizards, especially in and around the ear openings, as you can see on the Shasta Alligator Lizard on the left and on the San Francisco Alligator Lizard on the right.

Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).
Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard Sierra Alligator Lizard  
Juvenile with broken tail, Plumas County Juvenile, Nevada County
© Robin Chanin
Adult and juvenile, Plumas County  
Breeding Behavior
Sierra Alligator Lizards    
These two mating adults were spotted on a forest trail on an afternoon in late June in Plumas County.
© 2005 Todd Accornero
sierra alligator lizard habitat Western Sagebrush Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat
Habitat, small creek in forest,
7,200 ft., Tulare County
Habitat, 7,200 ft., Tulare County
Habitat, 4,100 ft., Plumas County Habitat, Inyo County © Adam Clause
Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat Sierra Alligator Lizard Habitat  
Habitat, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Habitat, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Habitat, 5,600 ft., Tuolumne County  
Short Videos
Sierra Alligator Lizard Alligator Lizard Tail    
A Sierra Alligator Lizard bites and holds onto my finger, then releases its jaws and crawls into a rock crack. 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.    
Elgaria coerulea ranges from 2 3/4 - 5 7/8 inches in snout to vent length (7 - 13.6 cm) (Stebbins)

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.
The underside is yellowish or greenish.
Scales are keeled on the back, sides, and legs, with 16 rows of scales across the back at the middle of the body.
The temporals are all 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 dark around the pupils.
(Compare with the light eyes of a similar species - the Southern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata.)
The head is usually not heavily mottled with dark color.
The head of a male is broader than a female's with a more triangular shape.

Usually there are faint dark lines running lengthwise on the underside which run between the scales, along their edges.
(Compare with the underside lines on Elgaria multicarinata which run through the middle of the scales.)
Color and Pattern
Color is olive-brown, bluish, or greenish above, with dark mottling but usually no definite crossbands.
Newborn lizards are very thin and small, roughly 4 inches long, with smooth shiny skin with a plain tan, light brown, or copper colored back and tail. The sides are darker and sometimes mottled or barred as they are on adults. Juveniles gradually develop the large scales and heavy dark barring found on the back and tails of adults.

Life History and Behavior

Active during the day.
Inactive during cold periods in winter.
This subspecies has a shorter activity period than the others due to its higher-elevation habitat.
Moves with a snake-like undulating motion.
A good swimmer, sometimes diving into the water to escape by swimming away.

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.
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 away from the lizard.

Males sometimes also extrude the hemipenes when threatened.

Often when an alligator lizard is observed lying still or basking, it will tuck its legs back toward the body. This is probably a defensive measure to break up the outline of the lizard's body so that a predator can't tell that it's an animal with legs. This might be to give it the appearance of a stick or shadow or something not alive, or it might be to imitate a snake, since many animals are naturally afraid of snakes and will hesitate to approach or attack a snake.

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 and Feeding
Eats a variety of small invertebrates, including slugs, snails, and worms. Will also eat small lizards and small mammals.
Occasionally feed on bird eggs and young birds. (Stebbins)
After mating, the female carries her young inside her until they are born live and fully-formed sometime between June and September.

During the spring/summer 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.

Woodland, forests, grassland. Commonly found hiding under rocks, logs, bark, boards, trash, or other surface cover. Prefers wetter and cooler habitats than E. multicarinata, but generally found near sunny clearings.

Geographical Range
The subspecies Elgaria coerulea palmeri is found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from Plumas County south to Kern County where it occurs as far south as the Piute Mountains and Breckenridge Mountain.

The species Elgaria coerulea ranges from Southern British Columbia south chiefly west of the Cascades and Coast Ranges to northern Monterey County, east into northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, with isolated populations occurring in southeastern Oregon, northwestern Nevada and the Warner Mountains in California, and south through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Kern County.

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range
Stebbins (2003) shows the elevational range of the species Elgaria coerulea as sea level to around 10,500 ft. (3,200 m.) but only the subspecies E. c. palmeri can be found that high up. The other subspecies range much lower.

Notes on Taxonomy
In a study published in April, 2018 * Brian R. Lavin et al reported the results of sequencing mtDNA of Elgaria coerulea:

"Our phylogeographic examination of E. coerulea uncovered surprising diversity and structure, recovering 10 major lineages, each with substantial geographic substructure."
They did not recommend any taxonomic changes, but they did name the lineages and illustrate their distribution:

1. Pacific Northwest
2. Interior Coast Range
3. North Coast Ranges
4. South Coast Ranges
5. Northern California
6. Yolla Bolly Mountains
7. Lower Cascades
8. Central Sierra Nevada
9. Northern Sierra Nevada
10. Southern Sierra Nevada

"The taxon appears to have a Sierra Nevada origin and then moved both north and west to occupy its current distribution (as postulated 60 years ago), diversifying into a number of geographically confined clades along the way. The patterns of range limits and clade boundaries shared between E. coerulea and other codistributed forest and woodland species provides compelling evidence that a handful of major biogeographic barriers and historical events (e.g., San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay outlets, Sierra Nevada glaciation) have been instrumental in shaping phylogeographic patterns and have likely influenced species range limits and even patterns of community assembly in the California Floristic Province."

* Brian R. Lavin, Guinivere O.U. Wogan, Jimmy A. McGuire, and Chris R. Feldman.
Phylogeography of the Northern Alligator Lizard (Squamata, Anguidae): Hidden diversity in a western endemic.
© 2018 Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Zoologica Scripta. 2018; 1–15.

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Elgaria coerulea palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 2003)
Gerrhonotus coeruleus palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard (Smith 1946, Stebbins 1954, 1966, 1985)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Family Anguidae Alligator Lizards & Allies Gray, 1825
Genus Elgaria Western Alligator Lizards Gray, 1838
Species coerulea Northern Alligator Lizard Wiegmann, 1828

palmeri Sierra Alligator Lizard (Stejneger, 1893)
Original Description
Elgaria coerulea - (Wiegmann, 1828) - Isis von Oken, Vol. 21, p. 380
Elgaria coerulea palmeri - (Stejneger, 1893) - N. Amer. Fauna, No. 7, p. 196

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."
- Latin - dark colored, dark blue - referring to the dorsal color of the type specimen
palmeri - honors Palmer, Theodore S.

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

Related or Similar California Lizards
E. c. coerulea - San Francisco 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. m. webbii - San Diego 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 are copied from the April 2018 Special Animals List and the 2017 Endangered and Threatened Animals List, both of which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either CDFW 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.

Check here to see the most current complete lists.

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


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