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 Forest Alligator Lizard on the left, on the Shasta Alligator Lizard in the middle, and on the
San Francisco Alligator Lizard on the right.
As we were photographing the Alameda County alligator lizard seen above, my herping companion picked it up to get a better pose. The lizard had already been handled for 5 to 10 minutes and seemed to tolerate it, but this time it decided to drop its tail. We felt terrible to be responsible for the loss of such a nice unbroken tail. Sometimes when you pick up a lizard too close to the tail, or push the tail against a hard sufrace, you can accidentally cause it to detach, but that wasn't the case here. I put the writhing tail on the ground where it moved around for 4 - 5 minutes until it stopped, shooting some video of it, then set it back next to the lizard to get these photos. You can see the video here. The lizard was then put back under his log unharmed, but unable now to use a detached tail as a decoy until it grows another one.
Sometimes when the tail of a Southern Alligator Lizard is broken off, two tails grow back from the break point.
Adult in situ as it was found under a board in a forest clearing in Santa Clara County
A Forest Alligator Lizard is discovered under a board on a sunny spring afternoon. It tries to bite, crawls across the ground in snake-like fashion, tries to climb over the camera, sticking out its tongue, then ducks back under its board.
An adult is discovered under a piece of wood on a grassy hillside on a cold February afternoon in Contra Costa County.
A brief look at a juvenile Forest Alligator Lizard that refused to do anything interesting for the camera.
This video shows how an alligator lizard's tail thrashes around after it has been dropped to distract a predator. This is the same dropped tail seen above. 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.
Two short movies of juvenile Forest alligator lizards uncovered in winter that don't want to move much for the camera until it's time to escape.
E. multicarinata ranges from 2 7/8 - 7 inches in snout to vent length (7.3 - 17.8 cm) (Stebbins, 2003) and up to aprox. 12 inches (304 mm) in total length.
Alligator lizards, genus Elgaria, are members of the family Anguidae, a family of lizards found in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
They are characterized by a thick rounded body with short limbs and long tail.
Large bony scales, a large head on an elongated body and powerful jaws probably give the lizards their common name.
The tail can reach twice the length of its body if it has never been broken off and regenerated.
Scales are keeled on the back, sides, and legs, with 14 rows of scales across the back at the middle of the body.
(Compare with the 16 rows of scales found on Elgaria coerulea.)
The scales of this subspecies are less heavily keeled than E. m. webbii.
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 head of a male is broader than a female's with a more triangular shape.
Color and Pattern
Color is brown, grey, or yellowish above, with red blotches on the middle of the back.
Usually there are 9 - 13 dark bands on the back, sides, and tail, with adjacent white spots. On some lizards these dark bands are very pronounced, on others they are covered with reddish or yellowish color.
The head is usually mottled with dark color.
The eyes are light yellow around the pupils.
(Compare with the darker eyes of a simillar species - the Northern Alligator Lizard -Elgaria coerulea.)
Lines on the Belly
Usually there are dark lines or dashes lengthwise on the belly which run through the middle of the scales.
(Compare with the lines on the belly of the Northern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria coerulea, which run between the scales, along their edges.)
Hatchlings 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
Diurnal, crepuscular, and sometimes nocturnal: active during daylight and twilight, but sometimes active at night during hot weather.
Inactive during cold weather in winter.
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. They are common inhabitants of suburban yards and garages. (I have received many emails asking me to identify alligator lizards found in yards and garages, and inside houses, mostly in Southern California, the Bay Area, and the Sacramento area.)
Moves with a snake-like undulating motion, often tucking the rear legs up against the side of the body and pulling itself along on its belly with the front feet.
The slightly prehensile tail can be used to wrap around vegetation when climbing.
A good swimmer, sometimes diving into the water to escape by swimming away.
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 from the lizard.
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 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. Will also eat small lizards and small mammals. Occasionally feed on bird eggs and young birds. (Stebbins)
Mating occurs in Spring, most likely from April to May.
Eggs are laid sometime from May to July and they hatch during late summer and early fall.
Young hatch fully-formed.
During the 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.
Grassland, open forest, chaparral. Common in foothill oak woodlands. Commonly found hiding under rocks, logs, boards, trash, other surface cover.
The subspecies Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata ranges from Washington State south along the coast to Monterey Bay and through the northern Central Valley east to the Sierra Nevada south to northern Kern County.
The species Elgaria multicarinata ranges from southern Washington State south to northwestern Baja California, including San Martin and Los Coronados islands. Also found on most of the Channel Islands. Introduced into Las Vegas (where, apparently it is found in gardens.)
Most range maps, including mine, have shown the species absent from much of Del Norte and Humboldt counties along the northern California coast. After more than 50 years of showing that gap in his field guides, Stebbins shows the species present there in his 2012 field guide, and after learning of specimens found near Arcata and Crescent City, I have also filled in that gap. (The distribution of the species is probably fragmented in this area.)
Most range maps also show the species absent from most of the San Joaquin Valley due to the wetlands in the area in the past and the current agricultural development, but since they have been found in yards in cities in the valley such as Los Banos, it's possible they have spread to other cities and towns in the valley.
Elevational Range of the Species
In his 2003 field guide, Stebbins mentions that the species Elgaria multicarinata occurs from sea level to over 5,000 ft. in elevation (1,524 m.) but since then E. m. webbii has been found at 7,250 ft. (2,210 m.) on Frazier Mountain in Ventura County and at 8,000 ft. (2,438 m.) in the eastern San Bernardino Mountains. In June, 2019 Joseph Esparza took pictures of one basking on rocks with 2-3 feet of snow on the ground nearby at 10,362 ft. (3158 m.) on top of Marion Mountain in the San Jacinto State Park Wilderness.
Notes on Taxonomy
The 2008 SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 37, Crother et al., included the following information about E. multicarinata subspecies:
molecular phylogeographic study of Feldman and Spicer (2006, Mol. Ecol. 15: 2201–2222) failed to support currently recognized subspecies boundaries within E. multicarinata (Fitch, 1938, Am. Midl. Nat. 20: 381–424). Haplotypes from the central Coast Ranges of California (formerly multicarinata) are more closely related to those from southern (webbii) rather than northern (multicarinata) California, while haplotypes from the Sierra Nevada (formerly webbii) are more closely related to those from northern (multicarinata) rather than southern (webbii) California. In addition, haplotypes representing E. m. multicariniata and E. m. scincicauda are phylogenetically intermixed, calling their separation into question."
The 2017 SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 43 Standard Names List follows two studies that don't support the traditional subspecies boundaries within E. multicarinata, changing the common names of the subspecies:
E. m. scincicauda - Oregon Alligator Lizard is no longer recognized. Lizards formerly recognized as that subspecies become E. m. multicarinata - Forest Alligator Lizard. E. m. multicarinata - California Alligator Lizard becomes E. m. multicarinata - Forest Alligator Lizard E. m. webbii - San Diego Alligator Lizard becomes E. m. webbii - Woodland Alligator Lizard
E. multicarinata in the Sierra Nevada mountains, formerly E. m. webbii, become E. m. multicarinata - Forest Alligator Lizard. E. multicarinata in the central Coast Ranges, formerly E. m. multicarinata, become E. m. webbii - Woodland Alligator Lizard.
The contact zones between the subspecies are in the Monterey Bay area and in Kern County north of the Kern River.
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.
Flaxington, William C. Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Field Observations, Distribution, and Natural History. Fieldnotes Press, Anaheim, California, 2021.
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.
Chris R. Feldman and Greg S. Spicer.
Comparative phylogeography of woodland reptiles in California: repeated patterns of cladogenesis and population expansion.
Molecular Ecology (February, 2006) 15, pp. 2201–2222
Dean H. Leavitt, Angela B. Marion, Bradford D. Hollingsworth, Tod W. Reeder.
Multilocus phylogeny of alligator lizards (Elgaria, Anguidae): Testing mtDNA introgression as the source of discordant molecular phylogenetic hypotheses.
Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 110 (February, 2017) pp.104–121.
Joseph Grinnell and Charles Lewis Camp. A Distributional List of the Amphibians and Reptiles of California. University of California Publications in Zoology Vol. 17, No. 10, pp. 127-208. July 11, 1917.
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the October 2021 California "Special Animals List" and the October 2021 "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.