California is a state of diverse and varied habitats. There are thick forests with tall redwood trees, salt-covered rocky cliffs, and hot scrubby deserts. Lizards thrive in these environments and many more. Their habitat adaptations range from strategically-colored scales to strong muscles to aggression. This article takes a look at 20 common and uncommon lizards native to California. Continue reading to learn about each species’ habitat, diet, and appearance.
20 Species of Lizards in California
1. Great Basin Collared Lizard
Scientific name: Crotaphytus bicinctores
The Great Basin Collared Lizard makes most of California’s inland deserts home. Its range is east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and south into the Mojave Desert. Some populations may be spotted in the southern Central Valley, but it is rare.
Its scale patterns are very memorable. It has Dalmatian-like black and white spotting on its body, legs, and head, as well as two black and white collar stripes around its neck.
In some habitats, the body and legs are yellow and gray. This lizard basks on rocks and eats spiders, flowers, and insects.
2. Forest Alligator Lizard
Scientific name: Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata
The Forest Alligator Lizard is so named because it is native to Northern California and parts of the Central Valley. It also has a wide alligator-like body and way of walking. They can swim, climb into trees, and run quickly.
Their coloring is usually red-brown or green-brown, with large scales. They prefer to live in open woodlands throughout the state.
Although their habitat range extends west to the Pacific coast, they rarely venture into coastal environments. Forest Alligator Lizards eat insects and other small lizards.
3. Sierra Alligator Lizard
Scientific name: Elgaria coerulea palmeri
The Sierra Alligator Lizard lives in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s one of four subspecies of the Northern Alligator Lizard, which is native to California and Oregon.
This subspecies is dark green with a light greenish-yellow belly, but juveniles range in color from orange to green to blue. They have wide mouths, powerful jaws, and large eyes. These lizards rely heavily on forest environments at high altitudes.
They camouflage themselves underneath rocks and leaf litter to avoid being preyed on by numerous predators, including birds, snakes, and mammals. They usually eat insects and smaller lizards.
4. Panamint Alligator Lizard
Scientific name: Elgaria panamintina
The Panamint Alligator Lizard lives west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Basin and Range portion of California. This region butts up against Death Valley, a hot and inhospitable habitat uninhabitable by most wildlife.
The exact types of habitat it prefers are brush and mountainous grasslands above 6,000 feet elevation. Identify this lizard by way of its striped orange and yellow scales.
Like most alligator lizards, the jaw is strong and it has well-pronounced eye pupils. They are adept tree climbers and often hide in thickets and fallen logs.
5. Northern Legless Lizard
Scientific name: Anniella pulchra
The most common species of legless lizard in California is the Northern Legless Lizard. It also has the largest range of any of the six legless lizard species present in the state.
It’s a small, lithe legless lizard with a metallic silver-grey back and a bright yellow underbelly. They average about 6 inches long. They live in the meeting zone of grasslands and coastal dune habitat.
Areas they live in include sandy-soiled oak woodlands, sand dunes, and grassy foothills. Tell them apart from a snake by watching for blinking – snakes don’t have eyelids, so they can’t blink!
6. Northern Sagebrush Lizard
Scientific name: Sceloporus graciosus graciosus
The Northern Sagebrush Lizard is native to inland California. It lives in the Modoc Plateau area close to Oregon and south into the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are usually gray in color with a few light white stripes along the lateral edges of the back.
This lizard is most active during the day in the spring and summer. During the winter, they hibernate in small burrows or rocky crevices. Their diets include most insects and spiders. Spot them basking in full sun in brushy areas high in the mountains.
7. San Diegan Legless Lizard
Scientific name: Anniella stebbinsi
The San Diegan Legless Lizard is a brown and yellow lizard that resembles a snake in many facets. They are about 6 inches long. You’re most likely to see one in the morning or evening, when they are most active.
Habitat suited to this lizard includes the edges of streams and rivers in the desert and chaparral. Tell them apart from snakes by watching when they blink.
They can also detach their tail when threatened. They are effective burrowers and eat insects and spiders.
8. Big Spring Legless Lizard
Scientific name: Anniella campi
If you’re lucky, you may have the opportunity to spot a Big Spring Legless Lizard. This rare lizard’s range is very limited. It lives only in a small oasis area around Big Spring, a desert spring south of the Sierra Nevadas.
A few other specimens have been discovered in neighboring Kern and Inyo counties. This lizard eats insect, insect larvae, and spiders. Like most legless lizards, it lies in wait underneath leaf litter or sand and pounces when prey approaches.
Identify it thanks to its bright yellow sides, silvery back, and the three black stripes running from its head to its tail. This lizard’s range is limited by the presence of water. They rely heavily on streams and springs to support a hospitable environment.
9. Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Scientific name: Gambelia wislizenii
Long-nosed Leopard Lizards are robust and muscular lizard with white bodies and dark brown or black spots along the back, head, limbs, and tail. They have wide mouths and strong eyes. They are good climbers and can live well in high-elevation meadows.
It is carnivorous and will eat anything from insects to spiders to other small lizards. They lie in wait during the day until prey goes by. Their jaws are powerful compared to other lizards and they use them to dispatch prey.
10. Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard
Scientific name: Gambelia sila
The Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard looks a lot like its Long-nosed relative, but it lives further west. This lizard’s main habitat range is the southern central valley of California. Specimens have been found further west into San Luis Obispo county.
They live in the open grasslands and sandy dune habitats there. This lizard averages about 4 inches long. Its snout is shorter than the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard.
Most of its diet consists of insects, spiders, and other lizards. It is most active during the day and regularly uses a burrow to hide in.
11. Western Banded Gecko
Scientific name: Coleonyx variegatus
There are two subspecies of Western Banded Gecko. The San Diego subspecies lives in a small range near the San Diego area. The Desert subspecies inhabits most of California east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Some populations foray farther west near Los Angeles. The Western Banded Gecko has a light underbelly and a tan and dark brown back. On the back are spots or stripes that help the animal blend in with the sandy, tan environment.
Colorations range from orange and red to black and yellow. The San Diego variation’s stripes are larger and more blocklike. Both are around 2-3 inches long.
They are nocturnal and hibernate from November to February. Prey includes small invertebrates like insects and spiders.
12. Desert Iguana
Scientific name: Dipsosaurus dorsalis dorsalis
The Desert Iguana is petite compared to the iguanas in the eastern United States and Caribbean. It averages about 5 inches long, not including the tail.
It basks during the day on exposed perches and stays hidden at night by digging a burrow into sandy, soft soils. Despite their large size, they are primarily herbivorous.
Most of their diet consists of flowers and leaves. Many are not afraid of humans and regularly go about their business in sight of people. They use their powerful legs and quick stride to flee any perceived danger.
13. Blainville’s Horned Lizard
Scientific name: Phrynosoma blainvillii
The Blainville’s Horned Lizard is a well-armored reptile! Every inch of this California lizard’s skin is covered with a defensive layer of spikes or scales. Even its head is dragon-like because of the six major horns that spike off from the sides and crown.
It ranges throughout most of middle, southern, and coastal California. They regularly hide themselves in sand and rocky rubble by pressing themselves flat against the earth. Like other Horned Lizards, they can defend themselves by shooting blood from their eyes.
14. Western Zebra-tailed Lizard
Scientific name: Callisaurus draconoides rhodosticus
Western Zebra-tailed Lizards inhabit the dry deserts of Southern California. They live in the dry eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as the Mojave Desert and even Death Valley. This lizard is so heat-tolerant that it basks even in the noonday sun.
Their diet consists of occasional plants, spiders, insects, and small lizards. When exposed to a threat, they run away on their hind legs. They’re very aerodynamic because of their thin legs and trunk.
15. Pygmy Short-horned Lizard
Scientific name: Phrynosoma douglasii
The Pygmy Short-horned Lizard is a native of northern California. It dwells in the pine forests of the Modoc Plateau, where it eats small insects and tiny grasshoppers.
This squat horned lizard is very small and easy to miss if you’re not concentrating hard on the forest floor. They exist in a range of colors from white to tan to gray and black. While females are bigger than males, the maximum size is 2.5 inches long.
16. Western Sagebrush Lizard
Scientific name: Sceloporus graciosus gracilis
The Western Sagebrush Lizard is one of the three subspecies of three Californian Common Sagebrush Lizards. It lives in Northern California, the northern coast, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It lives in mid to high-level elevations.
Males are territorial and do “push ups” to impress females during the breeding season. Both sexes are olive green or dark brown in appearance.
They’re about 2-3 inches long and most active during the day. They eat insects and spiders.
17. Great Basin Fence Lizard
Scientific name: Sceloporus occidentalis longipes
The Great Basin Fence Lizard is adapted to the interior mountains and deserts of California. It lives in the foothills of the Sierras, the San Gabriel Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. It’s one of the most common lizards in California.
You’re likely to see one sitting on the top of a fencepost, stone, or other prominent sun-dappled location. They are very aggressive and males usually fight over access to females during the breeding season. They do “push ups” to assert their dominance over their claimed territory.
Their maximum size is 4 inches, not including the tail, which can break off if threatened. Most of their diet consists of insects, scorpions, or spiders. Larger lizards will eat smaller ones, even of their own species.
18. Western Side-blotched Lizard
Scientific name: Uta stansburiana elegans
The Western Side-blotched Lizard is one of two subspecies of the Common Side-blotched Lizard. The western subspecies is common throughout most of California south of San Francisco.
It is dark in color with variegated spots ranging from yellow to blue. The body is muscular and the tails are long. They live in deserts and canyons where water is scarce and plant material is minimal.
The maximum size is about 4 inches long. It eats insects and beetles during daytime hunts.
19. Western Skink
Scientific name: Plestiodon skiltonianus
The Western Skink is a lizard native to Northern California and the Pacific Coast north of San Diego. It lives in the rocky grasslands, coastal woods, and stream habitats along the coast and in the forests of the state.
It’s easy to recognize this skink because of its bright blue tail and black and white body. Their limbs are short and somewhat stubby compared to the rest of the body. Not including the tail, they’re about 2.5 inches long.
Even though Western Skinks are active during the day, they’re very shy and rarely emerge from underneath rocks and leaf litter. Their favorite prey meals are small invertebrates like insects, spiders, and roly-polies.
20. California Whiptail
Scientific name: Aspidoscelis tigris munda
California Whiptails are native to coastal and central California. They live in the grasslands and open woodlands of the central valley as well as the dunes and rocky scree slopes of coastal dunes near Monterey and San Luis Obispo. This lizard can grow up to 13 inches long, but most of that length is from the long, whiplike tail.
You’re most likely to see the California Whiptail during the day. It likes to dig for prey – spiders and scorpions are regular favorites – and is a quick runner. When threatened, it retreats into crevices and holes in rock or piles of brush.