Alligator or Lizard?


Photo courtesy of Harry Vanderburg

Alligator lizards, large scaly lizards with slightly prehensile tails, are native to most ecosystems in California with the exception of the highest elevations and most of the deserts. Since these lizards are active during the day, you may come across a particular subspecies – the Sierra Alligator Lizard – on the trails in Yosemite. This lizard species is easy to recognize due to its size as they can grow up to 12 inches in length including the tail. However, Sierra alligator lizards don’t bask on the sun-warmed granite like many other lizard species in the park. Instead, they seem to prefer sunny spots with cover nearby, in case they need to disappear.

Alligator lizards live in western states from Washington to northern Baja California, west of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains including islands off the coast of southern California. They live at elevations from sea level to 7500 feet and isolated populations of a subspecies occur in the desert east of the Sierra Nevada, known as the Panamint Alligator Lizard. Alligator lizards may have earned their name from the snake-like undulation they utilize to swim, similar to the way an alligator uses its tail. Common to many types of lizards, the tail of an alligator lizard is easily broken off, and the lizard may intentionally detach its tail as a defensive tactic. As the detached tail writhes around for several minutes, this distraction may deter a hungry predator. Eventually the tail will regenerate, though never in quite the same condition as the original. During the spring breeding season, the male lizard grabs on to the head of a female with his mouth until she is ready to let him mate with her. Besides keeping her from choosing another male, this behavior may demonstrate strength and suitability as a mate. The video of a large alligator lizard below was captured in the fall in Yosemite Valley.


One comment on “Alligator or Lizard?

  1. Pingback: Alligator or Lizard? | Yosemite Sentinel

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