of a very hot place. Lots of sun, stunted short dry grass, howling
wind, patches of bare baked sand. That's Pixley National Wildlife
Refuge, Tulare County, California (above). That remote site is one of
the very few places in the world to see the endangered Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard.
This lizard would be special any time but for a brief time in early
summer, the otherwise sandy-colored male turns into a bright orange
caricature lizard, like a child's toy in its garish pattern. Few see
this incredible brute, perhaps because he lives in the netherworld
below ground most of the time. He emerges to defend his ground, seek
mates, and devour prey during the hottest days of summer.
is one kick-ass lizard. It is large as California lizards go; it is
wary and very fast (it can even run bipedal if needed); and it is
beautiful. Ordinarily the complex back pattern is exquisite even on the
dullest examples, but these few bright orange males are astonishing. I
had no idea they existed in this color until we encountered one, thanks
to the efforts of Pam Williams & Steve Laymon, wildlife biologists
studying the vertebrates of Pixley. It was the most impressive lizard
I've seen in California.
Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia sila
is one of three species of Leopard Lizard in n. Mexico and sw. United
States, and one of a dozen species in the family Crotaphytidae
[collared & leopard lizards]. All are fast, agile, long-limbed and
long-tailed carnivores, dining primarily on smaller lizards and
grasshoppers. When first encountered above ground, these leopard
lizards held a pose with tail raised in an arch (above), as if ready to
run at an instant. These are two different individuals (above &
left) showing the typical pattern when not in full breeding condition.
Small yellow blotches on the sides suggest immaturity (Pam Williams, in
litt.). The dorsal pattern is a complex mosaic of spots, interspersed
with pale cross-bars on the back. The back pattern reminds me of the
dorsal pattern on the huge Whale Shark.
Leopard Lizard's color patterns are adapted to their habitats, and over
the species' range in California there is wide variation within the
paler to darker continuum. Many examples of this can be seen on Gary
Nafis's great website on California herps.
Leopard Lizard is a California endemic. It was once widespread across
the San Joaquin Valley but most of its habitat has been developed to
agriculture and only isolated fragments remain. There is no population
estimate, but a multi-year study on the Elkorn Plain (a stronghold)
recorded 1078 lizards during their project (Germano & Williams
2005). The worldwide population may not be much higher. Many of the
fragmented populations no longer have corridors of access to other
populations, and one wonders about the eventual genetic effect of
in-breeding. There is also concern about the impact of global warming
on this and other lizards that require a specific temperature zone for
Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizards require rodent
burrows for shade and predator protection. During the summer they are
never far from a burrow, and in the winter they spend half-a-year
underground. At Pixley NWR those burrows are provided by California
Ground-Squirrels and Heermann's Kangaroo-Rats. We also encountered two
other lizard species using burrows on the refuge: Coast (Blainville's) Horned Lizard Phrynosoma blainvillii (=Anota coronatum; below left; see fn1) and Common Side-blotched Lizard Uta stansburiana (below right).
|Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard is closely related to the more widespread Long-nosed Leopard Lizard G. wislizenii of eastern California and the Great Basin. [A third species, Cope's Leopard Lizard G. copeii,
resides primarily in Baja California.] I've encountered Long-nosed
Leopard Lizard a couple of times in the Death Valley area, and here are
some comparative photos of the two species (below). At one time
Blunt-nosed and Long-nosed were said to interbred in the upper Cuyama
Valley, Ventura Co., but that habitat is now degraded; their ranges may
no longer meet. A recent study in Ballanger Canyon, upper Cuyama
Valley, found only pure Blunt-noseds (P. Williams, pers. comm.).
Leopard Lizard also brightens in color during breeding season. Gravid
females get extensive orange spots and blotches. The photos below
compare gravid females (i.e., those ready to lay eggs). The Long-nosed
shown is very bright, but Blunt-noses can get a lot brighter than the
female I photo'd (whose orange spots are reduced in size). You can see
differences in shape of the head/length of nose in this comparison.
Leopard Lizard was my favorite California lizard before I visited
Pixley. Rita and I had seen a Blunt-nosed in the Kettleman Hills of w.
Fresno County, back in April 1991, but that lizard was not in breeding
condition. Seeing this one at Pixley was a superb event. Given the
beauty and cockiness of this male, and recognizing its status as
Endangered and difficult to find, Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard is now my
choice for "California's best lizard."
prime habitat at Pixley NWR for Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard is not open
to the public. Access to the refuge is limited to a short walking trail
to an overlook of winter wetlands there. Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard
occurs in Carrizo Plains National Monument, where it can be found along
the edge of Temblor Range [my friend John Sullivan saw his there]. There is a lot more information at Gary Nafis's California herps web site.
visit with Rita Carratello to Pixley NWR on 13 June 2010 was arranged
almost a year in advance, and we were just lucky that conditions were
good and the wildlife biologists had 'staked out' a couple of active
burrows for us.
Photos: All photos of Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard
were taken 13 June 2010 at Pixley NWR, Tulare Co., California [as were
the horned lizaed & side-blotched lizard]. The first Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
was photographed at Big Sandy Spring, Death Valley NP, Inyo Co., in
June 1987. The gravid female Long-nosed Leopard Lizard was photographed
at Saline Valley, Death Valley NP, Inyo Co., on 27 May 1978. All photos
© Don Roberson, all rights reserved.
D.G., and D.F. Williams. 2005. Population ecology of Blunt-nosed
Leopard Lizard in high elevation foothill habitat. J. Herpetology 39:
1: regarding Coast Horned Lizard — some recent research suggests that
the population in Baja California is distinct and it bears the nominate
name, cononatus, making our lizard blainvillii ("Blainville's Horned
Lizard). There is also a proposal to change the genus, which gives us Phrynosoma blainvillii for our lizard, which had been known as Anota coronatum. The official lists have not yet sorted this all out.