CaliforniaHerps.com

A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Forest Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata

 (Blainville, 1835)
Click on a picture for a larger view



Southern Alligator Lizards Caifornia Range Map
Range in California: Red and adjacent Gray

Click the map for a guide
to the other subspecies






observation link





California Alligator Lizard
Adult with complete original tail, Yuba County
California Alligator Lizard
Adult with tail that was broken off and has regenerated (grown back), Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Contra Costa County Adult with regenerated tail,
Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult with original tail, Yuba County Adult with original tail, Alameda County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
  Adult with regenerated tail,
San Mateo County
  Adult as found beneath a log in
Napa County in January.
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult with original tail, Contra Costa County
Adult, Yuba County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult with regenerated tail, Santa Clara County Adult with regenerated tail, Sierra Nevada foothills, El Dorado County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult with original tail, Contra Costa County Adult, Santa Cruz County
California Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Adult, Contra Costa County Adult with regenerated tail, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County © Olly Burrows Adult female with original tail , Napa County © Adam G. Clause Adult, Alameda County
       
       
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard lizard with ticks lizard with ticks
Adult with original tail,
Santa Cruz County
Adult with yellow back, Colusa County
© Andy Stocker
Adult from along the Stanislaus River in Stanislaus County © Anonymous
California Alligator Lizard California Striped Racer San Diego Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Very dark adult from Sacramento County. Adult with original tail,
Contra Costa County
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 in Tulare County.
© Sylvia Durando
Adult, Sutter Buttes, Sutter County.
© Jackson Shedd.
Specimen courtesy of Eric Olson.
California Striped Racer California Striped Racer Western Zebra-tailed Lizard Western Zebra-tailed Lizard
This California Alligator Lizard was found on a screen door in Alameda County.
© Ameet Zaveri
Adult found in a Sacramento yard, Sacramento County 
© Benjamin Martinez
This California Alligator Lizard was found with the rear half of its body stuck inside a discarded beer can in Santa Clara County. This might be proof that some lizards use beer cans as protective shells in the same way that hermit crabs use borrowed shells. Or more likely it just shows that the lizard entered the can looking for food or shelter (or maybe beer) and got stuck trying to get out. © Katie Quehl.
California Striped Racer California Striped Racer California Striped Racer California Alligator Lizard Habitat
I always thought alligator lizards got their name from their body shape and large scales that are similar to the scales on an alligator, but this sub-adult in Nevada County dove into a stream and swam away like its much larger more aquatic namesake. © Lou Silva Adult where it was found under a board in a forest opening in Santa Clara County
 
Forest Alligator Lizards From Northern California Formerly Recognized as Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda - Oregon Alligator Lizard
Oregon Alligator Lizard
Adult, Siskiyou County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard
  Adult, Siskiyou County   Adult, Siskiyou County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard
Adult, Siskiyou County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Oregon Alligator Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard  
Adult, Del Norte County © Alan Barron

Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).
 
       
Juveniles
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Juvenile, Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
Juvenile, Contra Costa County Juvenile, Contra Costa County Juvenile, Contra Costa County
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard  
Young juvenile, Contra Costa County    
   
Breeding Behavior
California Alligator Lizards California Alligator Lizards San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard
These lizards were found breeding in early May in Placer County. The photo on the right was taken the day after the photo on the left. They had been seen together for 2 days, travelling back and forth over a distance of about 30 feet.  © Rod Two males attempting to court a female in southern Mendocino County. It looks like the bottom male is a Forest Alligator Lizard, but the other two are San Francisco Alligator Lizards, a different species. © Emily Nelson
San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard
These copulating lizards were found in the middle of the city of Sacramento, in Sacramento County. © Leslie Hurlburt This copulating pair of Forest Alligator Lizards
was found in Sacramento in mid May.
San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard  
San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard San Francisco Alligator Lizard  
This female alligator lizard was observed sitting on a trail in Santa Clara County. She started slowly moving in a circle lifting her tail and turning her head under her tail in a circle around her eggs. Normally a female would dig a place or find a sheltered place to lay and brood her eggs, so this behavior is hard to understand. Perhaps she was injured and laid the eggs prematurely. There's no way to know for sure but it's doubtful she was able to successfully incubate the eggs out in the open.
© Wim de Groot
 
California Alligator Lizards California Alligator Lizard    
A pair of adults mating in late May in Contra Costa County. © Naomi Schiff Male and female courting in early May in San Joaquin County.    
       
Parasites
lizard with ticks lizard with ticks lizard with ticks  
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.

 
       
Predators
california kingsnake california kingsnake california kingsnake  
california kingsnake california kingsnake california kingsnake California Striped Racer
This California Kingsnake was observed battling a Forest Alligator Lizard on a hiking trail in Santa Clara County. The alligator lizard clamped its jaws down on the snake's tail and held on tight even after it died. The snake had to pull and thrash about for more than 20 minutes before the lizard let go of the badly-damaged tail, finally allowing the snake to swallow it. © Wim de Groot A California Striped Racer has caught a Forest Alligator Lizard in
El Dorado County © Jim Bennett
     
Tail Loss Defense (Caudal Autotomy)
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard tail California Alligator Lizard tail  
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.
 
Forked Tails
Sometimes when the tail of a Southern Alligator Lizard is broken off, two tails grow back from the break point.
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard  
Adult, Placer County, with  a forked re-generated tail. © Sara Walhovd Adult, Los Angeles County with a large forked tail. © Joshua Nyhus  
 
Habitat
Coast Range Fence Lizard Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat Pacific Ring-necked Snake Habitat San Diego Alligator Lizard Habitat
Oak woodland habitat,
Contra Costa County
Habitat, Contra Costa County Habitat, Contra Costa County Habitat, Yosemite Valley,
Mariposa County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat California Alligator Lizard Habitat Pacific Gopher Snake Habitat
Habitat, 1900 ft., Siskiyou County
Oak, Pine, grassland habitat,
Napa County
Habitat, Yuba County Habitat, San Mateo County
Oregon Alligator Lizard Habitat Coast Range Fence Lizard Habitat Coast Range Fence Lizard Habitat  
Habitat, 2500 ft., Siskiyou County Habitat, East Bay Hills,
Contra Costa County
Habitat, Alameda County  
       
Short Videos
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard tail
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.    
   
Description
 
Size
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.

Appearance
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 thick rounded 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.

Scales are keeled on the back, sides, and legs, with 14 rows of scales across the back at the middle of the body.
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 eyes are light yellow.
(Compare with the darker eyes of a simillar species - the Northern Alligator Lizard -Elgaria coerulea.)
The head is usually mottled with dark color.
Usually there are dark lines running lengthwise on the underside which run through the middle of the scales. (Compare with the underside lines on Elgaria coerulea, which run between the scales, along their edges.)
Young
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

Activity
Active during the day, crepuscular and nocturnal during hot weather. Inactive during cold periods 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.)
Movement
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.
Defense
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.

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 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)
Breeding
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.

Habitat
Grassland, open forest, chaparral. Common in foothill oak woodlands. Commonly found hiding under rocks, logs, boards, trash, other surface cover.

Geographical Range
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 Sierras south to northern Kern County.

The species Elgaria multicarinata ranges from southern Washington state mostly west of the Cascades and Sierras, including most of the Channel Islands, into northwestern Baja California, including San Martin and Los Coronados islands, and has been introduced into Las Vegas. (Apparently it is common in casino gardens.)

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range of the Species

In his 2003 field guide, Stebbins states that the species Elgaria multicarinata occurs from sea level to 5,000 ft. in elevation (1,524 m.) but I've seen them at 6,200 ft. in the San Bernardino Mountains and they have also been found at 7,250 ft. (2,210 m.) on Frazier Mountain in Ventura County.

Notes on Taxonomy

The 2008 SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 37, Crother et al., included the following information about E. multicarinata subspecies:

"A 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.


Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)


Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata - California Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 2003, Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)

Gerrhonotus multicarinatus multicarinatus - California Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 1985)
Gerrhonotus multicarinatus -
Foothill Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 1954)
Gerrhonotus multicarinatus multicarinatus
- Red-backed Alligator Lizard (Smith 1946)
Formerly placed in the genus Gerrhonotus, with the Latin name Gerrhonotus multicarinatus multicarinatus.

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None
Taxonomy
Family Anguidae Alligator Lizards & Allies Gray, 1825
Genus Elgaria Western Alligator Lizards Gray, 1838
Species multicarinata Southern Alligator Lizard (Blainville, 1835)
Subspecies

multicarinata Forest Alligator Lizard (Blainville, 1835)
Original Description
Elgaria multicarinata - (Blainville, 1835) - Nouv. Ann. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris, Vol. 4, p. 298, pl. 25, fig. 2

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."
multicarinata
- Latin multi many, and carinata keeled - refers to the keeled scales

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. palmeri - Sierra Alligator Lizard
E. c. shastensis - Shasta Alligator Lizard
E. c. principis - Northwestern Alligator Lizard
E. m. webbii - Woodland 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.

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.


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.


Organization
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
IUCN

 

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