California night lizards
Night lizards are a small New World family ranging from southwestern U.S. south to Panama. Most are from Mexico or Central America. Three or four species (depending on your taxonomy) all in the genus Xantusia occur in California. I've seen two of them but can show you photos of only one: the Desert Night Lizard X. vigilis (both photos). I was leading an American Birding Association tour in Joshua Tree Nat'l Monument in April 1978 (before a big ABA Convention) when we stopped to try for this little guy. We turned over a few old Joshua Tree fronds lying on the ground and... voila! As you can see, this is a tiny little lizard barely 3 inches in total length [this is either my photo and Steve Ballard's hand, or Steve's photo and my hand.... not sure which]. This dwarf lizard seems to be wearing a tiny suit of medieval chain-mail.

Desert Night Lizard occurs in a variety of desert and arid habitats throughout southern California and north along the San Joaquin Valley foothills to Pinnacles Nat'l Monument, east side in San Benito Co., and to the Greenhorn Mts. of Kern Co. Unlike many lizards, they bear live young. Despite their name, they are chiefly diurnal or crepuscular but may be nocturnal in the warm summer months. Indeed, it appears that all the night lizards are actually diurnal! Stebbins (2003) says "Because of its secretive habits, this lizard was at one time considered extremely rare, but is now known to be one of the most abundant lizards in the U.S." That's a surprise to me I haven't encountered one since. Guess I need to look more closely under (to quote Stebbins) "cow chips, soil-matted dead brush ... and beneath logs and under bark of foothill pines." I will admit to having turned very few "cow chips."

Dan Singer and I recently looked for Sandstone Night Lizard X. [h.] gracilis in Anza Borrego SP, San Diego Co. It is apparently a recent split from Granite Night Lizard X. [h.] henshawi (together they are known as Henshaw's Night Lizard). Both live in deep crevices in rocky canyons, but the Sandstone true to its name occurs in a huge sandstone formation. We looked at night with flashlights, but without success.

The final species is the somewhat larger Island Night Lizard X. riversiana of California's Channel Islands. It is known from San Clemente I., San Nicolas I., and Santa Barbara I., plus Sutil Islet. On 17 Oct 1975, I was among a boatload of birders visiting Santa Barbara I. to search for vagrant birds (and quite a few were found), but we also found one of these great little lizards under a sheet of metal lying on the ground. Alas, I didn't take photos.

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 and/or Steve Ballard, all rights reserved. These are the specifics: TOP




Page created 5 July 2003