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Reptiles of Washington

Elgaria multicarinata, Southern alligator lizard

Description. The southern alligator lizard is one of the largest lizards in Washington. It can be up to 12 inches long, half of which is the long, slender tail. It is usually light or medium brown with variable cross-bars on the back and some black and white spots along the sides. All alligator lizards have a fold of skin along the lower sides, where the scales of the belly meet the scales of the back; this fold expands when the lizards breaths deeply (as in the picture above) or eats a lot. Southern alligator lizards have faint, thin black stripes on the belly that run through the middle of each scale row.

Distribution (GAP Analysis map)  The southern alligator lizard occurs in the Columbia River Gorge and along the southeastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Outside Washington, the southern alligator lizard occurs in western Oregon, California, and northern Baja California, Mexico.

Habitat. These lizards live in dry, open woodlands of ponderosa pine and oak. They often occur among rocks, and in the leaf litter of oaks, wild grapes and other vines, and poison oak.

Cool Biology Facts. Alligator lizards are so-named because they look somewhat like tiny alligators, because they can swim well, and because they bite vigorously. Sometimes they even bite and then twist their entire body. They eat a variety of small invertebrates, including black widow spiders. When attacked or captured by predators, alligator lizards will often lose their tails, which then thrash vigorously for several seconds or minutes. The tail eventually grows back, but is never as long as the original tail and has a different pattern of scales. The southern alligator lizard lays eggs, in contrast to its close relative, the northern alligator, which bears its young alive.

Conservation status. Southern alligator lizards have a limited range in Washington, but can be common in appropriate habitats. They are subject to habitat loss due to human activities such as agriculture, development, and logging.

Elgaria multicarinata, Southern alligator lizard
Elgaria multicarinata, Southern alligator lizard
Photo by Brad Moon