San Diego Alligator Lizard

Scientific Name: Elgaria multicarinata webbii

Believe it or not, the San Diego Alligator Lizard has not been well studied. Little is known about its mating habits and a lot of its lifestyle as well. What we do know is below:

On top of their serpentine demeanors, some of these reptiles grow to more than 20 inches. It’s no komodo dragon, but it’s certainly formidable.   And what it doesn’t have in size, it makes up for in attitude.

When left alone, these lizards are said to be generally skittish and will scurry out of sight in short order.  This spunky little lizard has been seen fighting off predators as formidable as snakes and even crows.

When approached closely or menaced, two behaviors in particular have been observed.

First, when attacked in the wild by snakes and other  predators larger than themselves, the alligator lizard attempts to intimidate predators by opening their mouth and showing teeth. If that doesn’t scare the menace away, the Alligator lizard has been observed to bite the attacker on the nose and hold on tight, making it impossible for the lizard itself to be swallowed. They also defecate on their attacker. Pretty clever! However, when human fingers get too close, they can be mistaken for hungry snakes. This writer picked up a very large Alligator Lizard and was bitten so hard, the lizard had to be shaken off. The lizard left quite a mess and some scarring on my hand. Please do not forget to keep your fingers, and any little fingers that you may be supervising, at a safe distance away from those powerful little jaws.

Second, the Alligator Lizard is one of several species that have gained notoriety for another clever trick employed to evade predation – shedding their tails. When bitten by a predator in the wild, the lizard may twist until its tail detaches. In order to ensure an effective diversion, the tail will continue to thrash about for some time after it has detached, hopefully distracting predators long enough to allow escape. A new tail will grow in its place, but it will rarely be as long as the original.

The tail is probably the  most notable and interesting characteristic of these lizards.  The long, slender tail, according to, can stretch up to twice the length of their body. This, along with a rather serpent like head, has lead to more than a few gardeners initially mistaking the lizard for a snake.

The alligator lizard 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. 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 lizard feeds primarily on insects and small invertebrates, but will also feed on larger prey like young rodents and lizards when it can get them. While some California lizards have been observed to snack on flowers and buds, the carnivorous Alligator lizard is not known to be among them, making it harmless to your produce. Quite a bit more than that however, a number of gardeners across the web have pointed out that the presence of lizards of any type in a garden can usually be taken as a good indicator of both garden health and ecosystem functioning. As one poster put it – “Lizards are good guys!”

There is little difference between the sexes, and it is difficult for observers to determine sex by casual inspection. Mating occurs in Spring, most likely from March through May. 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.

Normally 5 to 20 eggs are laid between May, June and July. Eggs are placed in rock crevices or burrows of rodents. The lizards hatch after 11 weeks and are about one and one-third inches in length, and weighing about 2 ounces. Female lizards also have the capacity to lay two or three hatches of eggs per mating season.

The alligator lizard reaches its maturity in about 18 months and can live as long as 15 years.

Quick and Cool Facts

  • ¨Just like snakes, alligator lizards shed their skin in a single intact piece by essentially turning it inside out as they crawl out of it.
  • ¨ Observations suggest that they are able to eat animals close to or greater than their own body length.
  • ¨ As with most lizards, they may detach their tail deliberately as a defensive tactic, however the tail will grow back, although generally not as perfectly as the original.

  • ¨ Tail regeneration is energetically expensive. Reproductive fitness and survival have been shown to be decreased during the regeneration process.
  • ¨ Sometimes when the tail is broken off, two tails grow back from the break point.
  • ¨ Tail is slightly prehensile; it helps the lizard hold onto branches when climbing
  • ¨ Its predators are snakes, loggerhead shrikes, red-tailed hawks, and domestic cats.
  • ¨ A prominent skin fold runs down both sides the length of the body; this fold allows flexibility when lungs are expanded, when large volumes of prey consumed, and perhaps when eggs distend the body cavity.
  • ¨ The alligator lizard doesn’t have a nose. Its tongue is slightly forked at tip to aid in gathering air-borne scents as odors are transferred to the scent organ in the roof of its mouth

It is also worth noting that the collection and possession of native California reptiles without proper licensing and permits may violate state or federal law.