Friday, November 6, 2009

San Diego Alligator Lizard

The San Diego alligator lizard has a slim body, short legs and a very long tail. The tail can be up to twice the length of the body. They can be from 3 to 7 inches in length, from the snout to the vent, and up to 16 inches overall, including the tail. They are brown, gray or yellowish above and can have reddish or orange coloring on the middle of the back. There are usually 9 to 13 dark bands along the back, sides and tail with adjacent white spots. The scales are keeled on the back, sides and legs and this subspecies is more heavily keeled than others. The eyes are a light yellow. This particular alligator lizard was caught in our yard on our back hill in a pile of tree limbs.
A closer look at the body reveals the keeled scales and the fold along the side of the body that allows them to expand when necessary.
I caught this alligator lizard on a backpacking trip in Mission Creek Canyon at about 5,900 feet, much higher than the high range of 5,000 feet stated on an on-line herp guide. Note the dramatically different coloration. It is very gray, compared to the brown we find in Redlands. The combination of their large head, elongated body and powerful jaws are where it gets the name "alligator" from. I have been bitten by them several times and they tend to hold on and not let go. They also tend to let go the contents of their cloaca when caught. As a consequence, many people that are familiar with them are afraid of them.

A closer look at the keeled scales of the gray alligator lizard.

A view of the yellow eyes.

These two, contrasting colored, alligator lizards are on our front lawn. They move with the undulating motion of a snake, but are more awkward in their motion and are very funky to watch.

A side view of the gray lizard. The San Diego alligator lizard is found in southwestern Southern California, northeastern Baja California and the center of central California.

The first time I saw an alligator lizard was when we first moved to Redlands in 1986. I got a call from Judy saying that they had found a large mean lizard in our garage and didn't know what it was. I came home and didn't have a clue what kind of lizard it was. I caught it and it bit me good. In fact I ended up having to pry its mouth off my finger and it left a nice indentation. Then it wasn't until we moved into our home off of Live Oak Canyon that we encountered alot more. We had the large brown and large gray alligator lizards in a terrarium at home for about a year, along with some other lizards and a snake or two. The large brown lizard, in particular, ate a pretty healthy diet of crickets.

Look at his enormous fat tail compared to what it was when we first caught it.

Another view of its long, fat tail.

A little view of the belly, while it stares at a spiny lizard which was also sharing space in the terrarium.
Young alligator lizards lack the dark barring that the adults have. This young lizard was found in Redlands.

Finally, a photo of four alligator lizards in the terrarium. These were caught by Sam in our yard in April 1993.

Updated April 10, 2010:

A week or so ago Judy found an alligator lizard on our back porch. Its tail was much longer than its body (the picture is of it climbing our outdoor wall and the picture has been turned)
and it had a red coloring
I've never seen in an alligator lizard.
That makes a brown, gray and red phase we've seen locally, in addition to the yellow phase I found in the Sierras.


  1. awesome! Thanks for sharing. We just picked one up from grandma's in Sun City and set up a terranium for it. I've been searching for other alternatives than crickets to feed our guy.

  2. My Grandparents house in Lakeside CA. had a lot that was cut into the side of a hill. There was a block retaining wall around the back yard that the Alligator Lizards would sun themselves on. They often fell into the yard. It wasn't unusual to see 10 to 15 Alligator Lizards back there.

  3. love this post! i was instantly captivated by alligator lizards as a little kid and once i got a job i started buying fish tanks and equipment and now have had a a couple for several years,

    my grandpa found a red one like yours for me in yorba linda i still have it, but they are extremely hard to find in southern california, i guess they are really popular up in santa barbara, if you ever find a red one again i would def be willing to drive and come pick it up, ive successfully bred a clutch of six alligator eggs before and want to do it again with a red pair! thanks... Reid

  4. My backyard is filled with these lizzards and they are very active. I just now spotted one on our lava rocks and noticed it emitted a blue color under its jaw and some of the belly area. This blue color would come and go and then the lizzards ran away as my dog was getting closer. The color was a definite blue not grey at all!

  5. i just got 1 at a place im working and some one thought it was a snake i did not know what kind of lizard it was or if it was poisones now i no it not just that it has 1 heck a bit

  6. I have one with a red back living in my house right now...he's been here for a few months, seems to be eating our crickets and black widows, yay! we call him Emmit and he is welcome to roam my home as long as he wants to...

  7. i have caught one to nurse it back to health what do they eat i live in marposa ca.

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  9. i think i caught one but i cannot tell for sure if it is a cannundrum lizard is there any way to tell for sure if it is

    1. I'm giving you a link to a site that will help you to distinguish alligator lizards if you are in California.