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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Panamint Alligator Lizard - Elgaria panamintina

(Stebbins, 1958)
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Panamint Alligator Lizard Range Map
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Map with California County Names



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Panamint Alligator Lizard
Adult, Inyo County
Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard
Adult, Inyo County
Panamint Alligator Lizard
Panamint Alligator Lizard
Panamint Alligator Lizard
Adult, Inyo County Adult, Inyo County Adult, Inyo County
Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard
  Adult, Inyo County  
Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard
  Adult, Inyo County Adult underside, Inyo County

Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard
Adult, Inyo County. © Adam Clause. (Animal captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit and released at point of capture.) Adults, Inyo County. © Adam Clause. (Animals captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit and released at point of capture.) Adult, Inyo County. © Adam Clause. (Animal captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit and released at point of capture.)
Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard
Adult, Inyo County, note the different color pattern from others shown here.
© Adam Clause. (Animal captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit.)
Adult with a complete, un-regenerated tail, Inyo County. © Adam Clause.
(Animal captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit.)
Young adult male, Mono County
© Adam Clause.
(Animal captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit.)
Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard Panamint Alligator Lizard
Adult, in habitat, Inyo County © Richard Porter Juvenile, Inyo County
© Brad Alexander
  Great Basin Collared Lizard  
  Western Alligator Lizards, genus Elgaria, have large rectangular keeled scales on the back that are reinforced with bone.
(Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata is shown here).
 
     
Habitat
Panamint Alligator Lizard Habitat Panamint Alligator Lizard Habitat Panamint Alligator Lizard Habitat
Habitat, 6,000 ft. Inyo County
Habitat, 6,300 ft. Inyo County Habitat, 6,000 ft. Inyo County
Panamint Alligator Lizard Habitat
Panamint Alligator Lizard Habitat
 
Habitat, 6,000 ft. Inyo County Microhabitat, Inyo County  
     
Short Video
  Panamint Alligator Lizard  
  A large old Panamint Alligator Lizard crawls around in a brush pile at a desert spring in Inyo County, then jumps off and hangs from his tail and hind legs before dropping to the ground.  
     
Description
 
Size
3 5/8 - 6 inches long from snout to vent (9.2 - 15.2 cm).

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 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.
Color and Pattern
Color is light yellow, beige, or gray with broad light or dark brown bands circling the top and sides, and white marks on the sides behind each band.
The underside is cream colored with gray flecks.
The tail is banded.
The eyes are pale yellow.
Male heads are broader and more triangular than that of females.
Young
The dark bands of juveniles contrasts stronly with a light background.

Life History and Behavior

Activity
Diurnal, crepuscular, and sometimes nocturnal.
Secretive and not frequently seen, spending much time in dense rock piles and plant growth.
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.
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 away from the lizard.
More information about tail loss and regeneration.

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 small invertebrates.
Reproduction
Not well known.
Probably lays eggs. Mating has been observed in May.

Habitat
A relict species inhabiting limited riparian areas in the desert, mostly rocky canyon bottoms near streams and springs, grown with creosote bush, sagebrush, and at the lower edge of the piñon-juniper zone. Found in dense vegetation near damp soil, and also in rocky talus outside of riparian areas.

Geographical Range
Endemic to California.
Found in Inyo and Mono Counties in desert mountain ranges, including the Panamint Mountains, the White Mountains, the Inyo Mountains, the Nelson Mountains, and the Cosos Mountains.
Elevational Range
From 2,500 to 7,513 ft. (760 - 2,290 meters).

Notes on Taxonomy
Formerly Gerrhonotus panamintinus

First discovered in 1954 in the Panamint Mountains. Occurs about 10 miles from Elgaria multicarinata, but more closely related to Elgaria kingii, (found in Arizona) from which it was isolated during the drying of the deserts.

The results of Feldman and Spicer (2006, Mol. Ecol. 15: 2201–2222) indicate that E. panamintina is derived from within E. multicarinata.


Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Elgaria panamintina - Panamint Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 2003)
Gerrhonotus panamintinus
- Panamint Alligator Lizard (Stebbins 1958, 1966, 1985)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Considered to be threatened due to alteration of its limited available habitat from mining, livestock grazing, and off-road vehicle use.
Taxonomy
Family Anguidae Alligator Lizards & Allies Gray, 1825
Genus Elgaria Western Alligator Lizards Gray, 1838
Species

panamintina Panamint Alligator Lizard (Stebbins, 1958)
Original Description
(Stebbins, 1958) - Amer. Mus. Nov., No. 1883, p. 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."
panamintina
- Panamint Mountains, in east central CA

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

Alternate Names
Formerly Gerrhonotus panamintinus

Related or Similar California Lizards
E. c. palmeri - Sierra 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. c. coerulea - San Francisco Alligator Lizard

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Biology, Ecology and Current Research

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.

Macey, J. Robert and Theodore Papenfuss."Herpetology." The Natural History of the White-Inyo Range Eastern California. Ed. Clarence Hall. University of California Press, 1991.

Conservation Status

The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the July 2022 State of California "Special Animals List" and the July 2022 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and can be downloaded here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals.
You can check this link to see if there are more current lists.

A detailed explanation of the meaning of the status listing symbols can be found on the
Special Animals List. For quick reference, I have copied some of them on my Special Status Information page.

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.


Organization Status Listing  Notes
NatureServe Global Ranking G3

Vulnerable

NatureServe State Ranking S3

Vulnerable

U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife SSC Species of Special Concern
Bureau of Land Management S Sensitive
USDA Forest Service S Sensitive
IUCN VU Vulnerable


 

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