The California alligator lizard in many ways is the dragon of the Santa Monica Mountains. This sly scaly beast rules over the small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects of the forest floor, and creek beds. Occasionally reaching up to two feet in length, the alligator lizard is the biggest and toughest of the lizards in the coastal Los Angeles region. The only lizard that comes near the brawn of the alligator lizard is the western whiptail. These two lizards are similar in build however the alligator lizard sacrifices speed and sleekness for muscle and might, while the whip tail evolves down the opposite path.
Alligator lizard sleeps almost fully submerged.
There are noticeable differences in behavior between these two lizards. The alligator lizard is purposeful and bold. it’s the most self-confident of any animal I’ve ever come face-to-face with. Often these lizards will square you up and refuse to move from their perch. They will often allow you to touch them without even batting an eye. The whiptails on the other hand are skittish and highly paranoid. They are constantly twitching almost uncontrollably as they skitter through the dry grass.
Western whiptail male and female
There are many types of alligator lizards, featuring different colorations throughout the state. However most common in the Los Angeles area is the woodland alligator lizards, who feature varying gray modeled scales with light striping. A wide head with cheeks protruding is emblematic of the predatory Jaws that are feared by all the small creatures of the undergrowth.
While these beasts rule the micro world we step into, they must beware of an endless supply of predators. Herons, hawks, snakes, coyotes, bobcats, ravens, and many other flying and furry friends would love a tasty alligator lizard. Yet somehow when I approach, these lizards are peerless and proud in confronting my advances.
Alligator lizard snuck into my house so we took some pictures before releasing him outside
Maybe this bravado explains why they feature the name alligator, or maybe it comes from this unique technique to cool off that I discovered one of these lizards employing. In perfect harmony with the bliss, meditation, and relaxation this lizard was asleep completely submerged except for his nostrils just above the surface to breathe. Almost like an alligator, he rested there balancing his tail and back legs on a rock and snoozing away the day.
I was truly jealous of this modality of slumber as I was only just beginning my 5 mile bushwhacking scratch-giving hike in 105 scorching degrees. However, every slip on wet rocks, bruise on my shin, and stick poking my eye, is worth seeing such animal magic. The most incredible things I always find in the most adverse and harshest conditions.
So I encourage you, to never fear a few scratches and push on a little further on your next hike! Of course, be very careful, know your poisonous plants and animals, and have a buddy with you or a satellite phone in case of emergency!
Back to the alligator lizards for a quick and interesting aside. Lyme disease is feared by many of us, and rightfully so! It is a dangerous illness, however surprisingly, alligator lizards are the main players in preventing the spread.
Lyme disease is much more prominent on the East coast than on the West coast. Weirdly it’s not that there are more ticks in the East, but rather it is because there are fewer lizards.
Ticks generally have two feeding stages in their lives. The first has them feeding on a smaller creature, something around the size of a rat, mouse, or lizard. Rats and mice carry Lyme disease and lizards, do not. So in the East, ticks hitch a ride on rats and mice and contract Lyme. While in the West, they bite into alligator lizards and others, by aiming for the soft skin where the arm meets the body of the lizard. Lizards don’t have Lyme so the ticks in the West remain free of disease.
American dog tick, I removed from my leg during a hike
Next, the ticks enter their second feed and attach to a large creature, deer, fox, or human. So if they were on a rat first you are at risk of Lyme, but if they were on a lizard, you better thank him for keeping you healthy!
Now if you don’t think alligator lizards are the coolest animals around, you’re brick-wall stubborn! Either way, these critters are clever, relaxed, bold, and brilliant. So keep an eye out when on your next adventure!
Photos by Isaac and Ezra Yelchin
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions