California alligator lizards
Three alligator lizards inhabit California, and two of them are widespread: Southern Alligator Lizard Elgaria multicarinata (above; photo taken in Monterey Co.) and Northern Alligator Lizard E. coerulea (right; from Del Norte Co.). There are 8 species of alligator lizards in this genus in a family of about 100 lizards, mostly New World denizens but of Asiatic distribution as well (Stebbins 2003) Despite the names, the California ranges of Southern and Northern Alligator Lizards overlap broadly in northern California in both the coast ranges and the Sierran foothills, but only the Southern occurs south of Monterey Co. and south of the Sierra in southern California. The Southern Alligator Lizard generally prefers drier habitats but both are usually found near water. In addition, the Panamint Alligator Lizard E. panamintina occurs in the Panamint, White, and Inyo Mts. of s. Mono and Inyo counties.

Alligator lizards can give a nasty bit when caught, so I don't try to catch them. Yet all the older literature (e.g., Stebbins 1966, Brown 1974) emphasize the importance of looking at the pattern on the underside of the lizard: Northern has dark longitudinal lines between the scales whilst Southern has lines or dashes down the center of the scales. One is also told to count the number of scales in certain rows. I find these point exceptionally frustrating since I'm never looking at the bottom of the lizard! Even the new literature (Stebbins 2003) puts emphasis of these points. Perhaps this is because many herpetologists are looking at specimens in which eye color cannot be determined. More recent literature (Basey 1976, Stebbins 1985, 2003) do point out that eye color much more readily separates Southern Alligator Lizard (yellow eyes; top photo) from Northern Alligator Lizard (dark eyes; below same lizard as right). [Panamint is also a yellow-eyed lizard.]

Now that is the type of character a birder can really get a grip on! But somehow I had completely overlooked this point and, because I had relied on painted differences of back pattern in Brown (1974), all of my photos of alligator lizards were misidentified! Apparently both species can like the top lizard, although Southern is more heavily cross-banded on average, and apparently both species can be gray-headed and brown-bodied. I now note, however, that Stebbins (2003) states that it is the Shasta Alligator Lizard E. c. shastensis the subspecies of Northern that occurs in northernmost California where my photos here were taken that is said to have "head may be slate gray and body yellowish green or tan."

There are many on-line resources for lizards. My favorites are:

A very fine resource for southern California is Sherburn Sanborn's (1994) Lizard-Watching Guide (but it doesn't have any California allizator lizards...). Taxonomy and English names are discussed in Crother et al. (2001). The Stebbins' (1966, 1985, 2003) field guides now in a greatly revised 3rd ed. provide the standard identification material.

Literature cited:

Basey, H.E. 1976. Discovering Sierra Reptiles and Amphibians. Yosemite Natural Hist. Ass'n, Yosemite NP, CA.

Brown, V. 1974. Reptiles and Amphibians of the West. Naturegraph Publ., Healdsburg, CA.

Crother, B.I., chair. 2001. Scientific and standard English names of amphibians and reptiles of North America north of Mexico, with comments regarding confidence in our understanding. Committee of Standard English and Scientific Names, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Herpetological Circular 29 (as supplemented in Herp. Review 32: 152-153).

Sanborn, S.R. 1994. The Lizard-Watching Guide. Lorraine Press, Salt Lake City, UT.

Stebbins, R.C. 1966. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Stebbins, R.C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 2d ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Stebbins, R.C. 2003. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3d ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

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