By Aida Rodriguez
North County’s Escondido Creek Watershed is home to a beautiful, natural landscape. The vibrant surrounding chaparral and oak woodland habitats host a variety of flowers, trees, and shrubbery. The wildlife that inhabits the watershed is just as amazing.
A wide variety of creatures great and small have made their homes here among the watershed and are simply wonderful to observe. Join us this week as we learn about an often-mistaken little reptile that could be your next-door neighbor or at least next door to your neighborhood.
At first glance, you may think that the woodland alligator lizard, also known as Elgaria multicarniata webbii, is a short snake, but you would be wrong! The woodland alligator lizard (also known as the San Diego alligator lizard) is a long brown or grey lizard with speckled red, white, and black blotches along its back and tail.
The lizards have large heads and short limbs on an elongated body with an extra-long tail. Adult woodland alligator lizards can grow to approximately 16 inches long in total, with their tail making up the majority of their length.
Woodland alligator lizards are West Coast reptiles, ranging from Baja California to Washington state. They are known to live in a variety of habitats including grassland, forest, chaparral, oak woodland, and even in suburban neighborhoods.
Look for them in San Diego County on hiking trails, in backyards, and around rocks and shrubs.
Woodland alligator lizards are known to be spunky reptiles, often fighting off larger predators such as birds or snakes. Their powerful jaws give the lizards their common name. These lizards move with a snake-like motion which causes many people to misidentify them as small snakes.
It may detach its tail deliberately as a defensive tactic. When the tail detaches, it will writhe around for several minutes, long enough to distract a hungry predator away from the lizard.
The lizards consume insects, and in turn, are great at keeping the pest population in check. Woodland alligator lizards are most active during the day, but you will not catch these creatures laying out like other lizards. They prefer a sunny spot near a great hiding place.
Adult woodland alligator lizards mate in the spring months, typically between April and May. Their eggs are then laid between the summertime and early fall.
These lizards lay anywhere from 5 to 20 eggs per clutch in decaying wood, vegetation, and fallen leaves so their eggs can keep warm. Mother woodland alligator lizards will defend their nests and stand guard until their eggs hatch.
Currently, these lizards are considered a “Least Concern” species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, but population numbers have been declining in recent years due to habitat loss.
Aida Rodriguez is an Outreach Associate at The Escondido Creek Conservancy.
A message from the Conservancy: We need your support. In giving to the Escondido Creek Conservancy you are helping protect the woodland alligator lizard and other creatures and their habitats in the Escondido Creek Watershed. To donate go to escondidocreek.org/donate. Now thru January 15, 2022, you can double your donation by giving to our Boulder Outlook campaign thanks to a $75,000 matching grant from Parker Foundation. For questions please contact [email protected].