California horned lizards
There really is nothing else quite as cool as a horned lizard. They look prehistoric and yet oh sooo cute. When I was just a young lad, I was given one as a pet. It lived in a terrarium and I caught ants for it to eat. My best recollection is that I had it for almost two years.

As I grew up in Lake County in northern California, I presume that my pet lizard was actually a Coast Horned Lizard Phrynosoma coronatum (above). This is the widespread California species west of the deserts and the Sierran-Cascade mountains. Finding them in the wild, though, is difficult. Despite living and birding in their habitat throughout my life, I've only encountered a handful of them. The "hand-full" below (held by Rita Carratello) is one of three in adult patterns found during Breeding Bird Atlasing in a remote corner of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Otherwise, I've only seen solitary lizards, and they rarely move. They don't like to be picked up (once one squirted blood from its eyes in defense). According to Stebbins (2003) this "blood comes from a pore in the eyelid region" and can spurt "several feet. It has a repellent effect on coyotes, foxes, and perhaps other predators." This species of horned lizard, and most others, feed heavily on ants.

In autumn, I once found a juvenile Coast Horned Lizard high up in montane chaparral (below right). It was only the size of a U.S. nickel and was almost invisible against the dirt patch it was crossing. It lacked the adult's colorful patterns but did have a banded tail.

Coast Horned Lizards

Top: May 87 near San Clemente Reservoir, Monterey Co.

Left: 24 May 1992 in w. Ft. Hunter Liggett, Monterey Co.

Right: juvenile 30 Sep 2003 at Chews Ridge, Monterey Co.

To date, the only other California horned lizard I've encountered is Desert Horned Lizard P. platyrhinos (below; photographed at Deep Springs, Inyo Co., in May 1985). Stebbins (2003) calls it the "desert counterpart of Coast Horned Lizard." It inhabits a wide range of arid habitats (dunes, alluvial fans, patches of rocks and sand) throughout the higher deserts of southeastern California and the Great Basin east of the Sierran-Cascade divide. This photo is of the northern nominate subspecies P. p. platyrhinos.
There are two other horned lizards in California: Pigmy Short-horned Lizard P. douglasii of sagebrush plains mostly north of us (e.g., eastern Oregon, w. Idaho) but also recorded from extreme northeastern California,  and the endangered Flat-tailed Horned Lizard P. Mcallii around the Salton Sink and vicinity. It survives in hardpan desert flats, often near sand dunes, from Anza Borrego State Park east to the Arizona border. Dan Singer & I once looked for it on a blazing hot June day but without success. We learned (too late) that researchers had been conducting a census just the previous day....

The is a Horned Lizard Conservation Society with a web site and a lot more information on biology and other topics.

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. 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:

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.

  • PHOTOS: All photos © 2003 Don Roberson, all rights reserved. The specifics are with each photo.








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