Southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata)

Close up of a southern alligator lizard on the ground
Alligator lizards are the only lizards in Washington with rectangular scales. Southern alligator lizards have gold or yellow eyes.  (Alan Schmierer - Creative Commons Public Domain)
Category: Reptiles
Family: Anguidae - Alligator lizards
If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

This lizard has a limited range in Washington but can be common in suitable habitat.

No declines have been reported; the lack of recent observations from some areas is likely due to a lack of survey effort and interest.

According to NatureServe, the state conservation status of the southern alligator lizard population is considered “apparently secure” in Washington. 

Description and Range

Physical description

The southern alligator lizard is a large, slim, gray-brown to brown lizard with keeled scales, short legs and a long tail. An adult grows to 5.6 inches snout to vent length with a tail that is twice the body length. The dorsal (topside) and ventral (underside) scales are rectangular. Along the sides of the body, between the dorsal and ventral scales, there is an area where the scales are small and the skin is able to expand and fold. The overall dorsal coloration is brown with black spots forming transverse bands across the dorsal surface. White spots may be present on the edges of the lateral scales. The underside is light colored with no dark pigmentation on the lateral edges of each scale. The eyes are yellow or gold. The tail is easily shed. Males have a head that is broader and more triangular than females.

Hatchlings and juveniles are similar to adults, but the dorsum is plain brownish to reddish and the dorsal scales are typically lighter in color than the body folds. The northern and southern alligator lizards are the only lizards in Washington with square scales and folds on the sides of the body.

Northern alligator lizards differ in being smaller (less than 3.9 inches snout to vent length), having dark pigmentation on the lateral edges of the ventral scales and in having brown eyes.

For more details, see the Washington Herp Atlas.

Ecology and life history

The southern alligator lizard is typically found in rocky, grassy or brushy openings within open forested landscapes, primarily Oregon oak-ponderosa pine. They are also common along creeks and have been observed swimming and basking on rocks within creeks.

They are active during the day and much less secretive than the northern alligator lizard. This may be due in part to the fact that they are much larger and therefore easier to see and hear as they move along the ground. They also climb with assistance from their prehensile tail and can be seen on the lower portions of tree trunks and in shrubs.

This species is aggressive and will bite when captured. The tail is easily shed when the lizard is threatened. This behavior can be life saving for the lizard but is not without negative consequences. Until the individual regenerates the tail and energy resources stored therein, reproductive fitness, and even survival, is lower than for lizards with intact tails.

The species’ activity starts in early April depending on location and weather conditions. Similar to our other lizard species, activity probably continues into October or early November. Breeding behavior starts soon after surface activity commences. Females lay eggs in talus in June. In Oregon, hatchlings start to appear in September and October. Similar to northern alligator lizards, overwintering most likely occurs in rock features such as talus.

Geographic range

Southern alligator lizards occur in the East Cascades Ecoregion.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of southern alligator lizard in Washington as of 2016. 

Southern alligator lizard distribution map of Washington as of 2016: Clark, Skamania, Klickitat, Yakima, Kittitas counties
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Redlist.

Regulations

Licenses and permits

Be advised that collection of this species is only permitted under a WDFW Scientific Collection Permit for research and educational activities.

Conservation

The state conservation status of the southern alligator lizard is “apparently secure” based on the assumption that it is common according to the most current records.

Resources

References

 

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie, Jr., and R.M. Storm. 1983. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 332 pp.

Stebbins. R. C. 2003. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 3rd Edition. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 533 pp.

Storm, R. M. and W. P. Leonard (Coordinating Editors). 1995. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society, The Trailside Series, Seattle, Washington. 176 pp.

WDFW publications

WDFW educational resources

Other resources