California Lizards [Identification & Full Guide]

The Golden State boasts around 60 native lizard species.

Among them are some of North America’s most unusual and fascinating reptiles.

California lizards feed primarily on arthropods such as insects and spiders. They are found in practically every habitat throughout the state.

This handy guide should answer all of your questions about California’s lizards.

It will also help you to quickly identify native species.

Are California Lizards Dangerous to Humans or Pets?

The short answer: No (though there is one exception).

Many lizards can inflict a fairly painful bite if handled carelessly. This is one way they defend themselves from predators. Almost all lizards are completely harmless to humans.

Only one Californian lizard species possesses venom.

This species – the Gila monster – is native to deserts throughout the Southwest. It is rare in California. It can be found in the Mojave desert near the borders of Nevada and Arizona.

Gila monster bites can be incredibly painful but are RARELY life-threatening. No fatal bites have been recorded in almost 100 years!

California lizards – including the Gila monster – prey on insects, small rodents, and other reptiles.

There is no need to be concerned about lizards harming pets.

Most Common California Lizards

The following species make up the vast majority of lizard sightings in California.

They are a great place to start if you’d like to quickly identify an animal you have found.

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
The western fence lizard is the most common lizard in California

The western fence lizard is by far the most commonly-encountered lizard in California.

It can be found in a variety of habitats and is often spotted in agricultural areas.

It is a medium-sized lizard – reaching around 8 inches long – with strongly-keeled (“spiny”) scales.

Most individuals are black or brown with black stripes on their upper (dorsal) surface. Some possess a bright blue underside. Blue patches can also be present on the throat.

Adult males typically possess more vivid color than females or juveniles.

See Fence Lizards and Spiny Lizards for more information about Sceloporus species.

Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata)

Southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata)
Southern alligator lizards are known to inhabit a range of habitats but tend to favor moist, vegetated areas.

Southern alligator lizards are a familiar sight for most Californians. They frequently inhabit urban areas.

Alligator lizards are large and serpentine, with long snouts.

They also possess a “mosaic-like” pattern of scales on their upper surface.

Alligator lizards are found mostly in the Sierra foothills and along the coast from Baja to Santa Rosa. They are less common in Northern California but do range as far north as Washington.

Northern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea)

Wild Northern Alligator Lizard
This species can appear very similar to its Southern counterpart.

Northern alligator lizards are found along the coast of Northern California and in the Monterey Bay area. They also inhabit areas of the Sierra Nevada.

Compared to its southern counterpart (which can look quite similar), the northern species possess darker eyes and a slightly different belly pattern.

See the later section on Alligator Lizards for more information about Elgaria species in California.

Common Side-Blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana)

Common-side-blothed-lizards-Uta-stansburiana
Common side-blotched lizards are most abundant in California’s drier regions.

They can be identified by the presence of dark blotches on either side of the body. These botches are located just behind the front limbs and are present in both sexes.

Color and pattern vary significantly among individuals.

See our section on Side-Blotched Lizards to learn more about members of the genus “Uta”.

All Native Lizards (by Family)

Lizards – like all living organisms – can be grouped loosely by family (e.g. Iguanidae – the iguana family) or more closely by genus (e.g. Sauromalus – the chuckwallas).

Each genus contains one or more individual species.

Some species – such as the Gila monster –  are easy to identify at a glance. Others can look very similar to one another.

This can make lizard identification seem pretty daunting in a species-rich state like California,

In this section, you will learn to quickly identify all lizard groups native to California.

Alligator and Legless Lizards (Anguidae)

Alligator Lizards (Genus: Elgaria)

Range: Virtually statewide. Not usually found in arid desert areas.

Total Length: Up to 12 inches

Description: Elongated with short legs. Large, mosaic-like scales on upper (dorsal) surface. Long, triangular head. Fold of skin across each flank, separating upper and lower body scales.

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats including urban areas

Species:

  • Northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea) Northern California, Central Coast, and Sierras.
  • Southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) Widely distributed throughout the state
  • Panamint alligator lizard (Elgaria panamintina)Found only in Mono and Inyo counties.

Fun Fact: Alligator lizards are named for their long set of jaws and broad, mosaic-like upper scales. They may bite if handled but – unlike their namesake – are completely harmless to humans.

Legless Lizards (Genus: Anniella)

Range: Coastal areas ranging as far north as San Francisco and as far east as the Sierra foothills.

Total Length: Up to 8 inches

Description: Long, slender, and serpentine. Lacking external limbs. Shovel-shaped snout. Can be plain grey, brown, or purple. Yellow belly and black dorsal stripes present in some species. Possess eyelids.

Habitat: Areas with loose, sandy soil such as dunes and washes.

Species:

  • Temblor legless lizard (Anniella alexanderae)
  • Big Spring legless lizard (Anniella campi)
  • Bakersfield legless lizard (Anniella grinnelli)
  • Northern legless lizard (Anniella pulchra)
  • San Diegan legless lizard (Anniella stebbinsi)

Fun Fact: Annielids are often mistaken for snakes due to their lack of appendages. Unlike snakes, they possess eyelids.

Collared/Leopard Lizards (Crotaphytidae)

Collared Lizards (Genus: Crotaphytus)

Range: Throughout the dry areas of southeastern California.

Total Length: Up to 10 inches

Description: Large, broad head. Long hind legs. Pair of black bands forming a “collar” on the neck. Coloration is usually brownish with light or dark spots and crossbands. May possess brightly colored stripes of yellow or orange, and/or yellow legs.

Habitat: Rocky desert and scrubland.

Species:

  • Baja collared lizard (Crotaphytus vestigium) – Limited to a small area of far southern California
  • Great Basin collared lizard (Crotaphytus bicinctores) – Found throughout the southeastern portion of the state.

Fun Fact: Collared lizards are able to run on their hind legs like tiny bipedal dinosaurs!

Leopard Lizards (Genus: Gambelia)

Range: Eastern California (along Nevada border) and parts of southern California.

Total Length: Up to around 12 inches. 4 to 6 inches without tail

Description: Similar in appearance to collared lizards but lacking telltale “collar” patterns. Very long tail. Grey, brown, or tan in color. May possess round, black spots (like their namesake, the leopard). Spots can also be orange/red. May also possess light crossbars.

Habitat: Arid/semi-arid areas such as deserts and plains.

Species:

  • Blunt-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia sila) Found only in isolated parts of San Joaquin Valley and surrounding hills
  • Cope’s leopard lizard (Gambelia copeii) Restricted to far southern San Diego County and Baja
  • Long-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) Found throughout much of eastern California

Not So Fun Fact: The blunt-nosed leopard lizard is listed as an endangered species on the IUCN red list. This is due to loss of much of its San Joaquin valley habitat.

Eyelid Geckos (Eublepharidae)

Range: Southern California and Death Valley

Total Length: 5 to 6 inches

Description: Large, triangular head with prominent eyes and moveable eyelids. Small scales give the surface a “velvety” appearance. Yellow/tan with darker spots and crossbands.

Habitat: Desert

Species:

  • Western banded gecko (Coleonyx variegatus)Found throughout much of Southern California
  • Switak’s banded gecko (Coleonyx switaki) Restricted to areas of San Diego County

Fun Fact: The eyelid gecko family also includes the leopard gecko – a species familiar to most hobbyists. Check out our one-stop guide to leopard gecko care.

Gila Monsters (Helodermatidae)

beaded lizard, american agila monster-min
The Gila Monster is the only dangerous lizard in California. Luckily is can easily be recognised.

Range: Found in a small area of the Mojave desert in extreme southeastern California. Close to the Colorado river and Arizona/Nevada borders.

Total Length: Up to 2 feet

Description: Large, stocky lizard. Broad head and short, thick tail. Round “bead-like” scales on the upper surface. Orange to pink color with black crossbands. Banded tail.

Habitat: Rocky desert and scrub.

Species: Only one (Heloderma suspectum) found in California. Rarely encountered.

Fun Fact: The Gila monster certainly does NOT live up to its “monstrous” reputation. It will only bite when provoked and is rarely encountered by humans.

Iguanas and Chuckwallas (Iguanidae)

Chuckwallas (Genus: Sauromalus)

Range: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts

Total Length: Up to around 1.5 feet

Description: Large lizard with flattened body and small scales. Males mostly black with reddish brown or tan coloration on body and/or tail. Females are brownish with reddish spots.

Habitat: Desert

Species: Common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater)

Fun Fact: Chuckwallas – when threatened – can “inflate” their body to wedge themselves into crevices.

Desert Iguana (Genus: Dipsosaurus)

Range: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts

Total Length: Up to 2 feet

Description: Medium-sized lizard with long tail and short, blunt head. Pale grey or tan in color. Back is usually brown with tan blotches. Row of keeled scales along spine.

Habitat: Desert

Species: Desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis).

Horned lizards and Allies (Phrynosomatidae)

Horned Lizards (Genus: Phrynosoma)

desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos)
These lizards can famously squirt blood from their eyes!

Range: Southern California and central coast. Occasionally also found in northern areas of the state.

Total Length: Up to around 6 inches

Description: Extremely round and flattened body with spines at fringes. Spiny crest at rear of head. Brownish coloration varies with species. Can be beige or dark brown with a range of patterns.

Habitat: Desert and scrub

Species:  

  • Desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos)
  • Pygmy horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglasii)
  • Blainville’s horned lizard (Phrynosoma blainvillii)
  • Flat-tailed horned lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii)

Fun Fact: Horned lizards are able to squirt blood from their eyes when threatened. This stream of blood can travel up to 5ft!

Zebra-Tailed Lizards (Genus: Callisaurus)

Range: Southeastern California

Total Length: Up to 9 inches

Description: Slender and long-legged. Very fast-moving. Light brown or grey with light and dark blotches. Zebra-like tail stripes. Yellow/orange coloration on flanks. Males may possess blue blotches on underbelly.

Habitat: Sandy desert

Species: Zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides).

Spiny Lizards (Genus: Sceloporus)

Range: Statewide

Total Length: Around 8 inches

Description: Stocky bodied. Overlapping, spiny scales on upper surface. Short, blunt head and slender tail. Brown, grey, or tan with variable pattern of spots and crossbands. Patterns may include black collar. Males may possess vivid blue patches on flanks, throat, and belly.

Habitat: Wide range of habitats. Prefers open areas with sun exposure for basking.

Species:

  • Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) – Very common
  • Sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus)
  • Desert spiny lizard (Sceloporus magister)
  • Granite spiny lizard (Sceloporus orcutti)
  • Yellow-backed spiny lizard (Sceloporus uniformis)

Banded Rock Lizards (Genus: Petrosaurus)

Range: Riverside County and inland San Diego County.

Total Length: Up to around 12 inches. Only 3 to 5 inches without tail.

Description: Fairly slender lizard with flattened body and long, spiny tail. Long, triangular head. Grey, bluish, or olive brown with blotches and small, light spots. Blotches usually brown or reddish. Spots can be bluish or off-white. Blotches may connect to form a banded pattern. Also possesses a thin, black collar.

Habitat: Rocky areas such as canyons, cliffs, and foothills.

Species: Mearns’ Rock Lizard (Petrosaurus mearnsi)  

Tree and Brush Lizards (Genus: Urosaurus)

Range: Inland areas of Southern California

Total Length: Up to around 10 inches.

Description: Small lizards with slim bodies and very long tails. May possess a fairly plain pattern with stripes running down sides of the head and body, or irregular patterns of dark and/or white spots and crossbands. Overall black, brown, or tan coloration, sometimes with rust color at base of tail.

Habitat: Usually associated with trees and bushes, particularly riparian forest areas.

Species:

  • Long-tailed brush lizard (Urosaurus graciosus)

  • Small-scaled lizard (Urosaurus microscutatus)

  • Ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus)

Fringe-Toed Lizards (Genus: Uma)

Range: Southeastern California

Total Length: Up to around 7 inches

Description: Short, triangular snout. Upper jaws overlap lower jaws. Tan with an intricate, dark brown spotted pattern.

Habitat: Sandy desert

Species:

  • Coachella fringe-toed lizard (Uma inornata)

  • Colorado desert fringe-toed lizard (Uma notata)

  • Mojave fringe-toed lizard (Uma scoparia)

Side-Blotched Lizards (Genus: Uta)

Range: Southern and Central California.

Total Length: Up to around 5 inches

Description: Small lizards with highly variable coloration. Identified by the presence of dark blotches on either side of the body (just behind their front limbs).

Habitat: Desert and other arid areas.

Species: Common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana)

Fun Fact: Male side-blotched lizards appear in three main color morphs. Herpetologists have found that these are associated with different behaviors. These traits are linked in a manner similar to a game of “rock-paper-scissors”.

Leaf-Toed Geckos (Phyllodactylidae)

Range: Riverside county.

Total Length: Around 3 inches

Description: Large, lidless eyes. Leaf-like toe pads. Grey, brown, or pinkish coloration.

Habitat: Rocky desert and scrub areas. Excellent climbers.

Species: Peninsula leaf-toed gecko (Phyllodactylus nocticolus)

Skinks (Scincidae)

Range: Throughout most of the state.

Total Length: Up to 8 inches

Description: Serpentine with large, glossy scales. Can appear similar to alligator lizards, but lacks mosaic-like dorsal scales. Moves with snake-like motion but does possess 4 visible (though relatively small) limbs. Brown, grey, yellow, or red coloration. May possess longitudinal stripes along back and/or vibrant blue/red tail.

Habitat: Grassland and scrub.

Species:

  • Gilbert’s skink (Pleistodon gilberti)
  • Western skink (Pleistodon skiltonianus).

Whiptails and Racerunners (Teiidae)

Western Whiptail Look
A Western Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris) in the dirt. This image was shot in Highline Lake State Park, Mesa County, Colorado.

Range: Throughout most of the state

Total Length: Up to around 9 inches (< 3 inches without tail).

Description: Slim with notably long, slender tail. Fairly long limbs. Triangular head with large, plate-like scales. Tail vibrant blue in juveniles. May be dark colored with orange throat and yellow stripes running head to tail (A. hyperythra) or brownish with tiger-like pattern of spots and stripes (A. tigris).

Habitat: Desert and other arid areas

Species:

  • Orange-throated whiptail (Aspidoscelis hyperythra) – Found only in southwestern California
  • Tiger whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris) – Found throughout most of the state

Night Lizards (Xantusiidae)

Range: Southern and southeastern California including the Channel Islands.

Total Length: Up to 6 inches

Description: Small lizards with large eyes and tiny scales. May be grey or light/dark brown with plain coloration, blotches, or spots.

Habitat: Usually associated with rock formations and outcrops. Nocturnal and rarely seen.

Species:

  • Sandstone night lizard (Xantusia gracilis)Limited to Anza-Borrego State Park.
  • Granite night lizard (Xantusia henshawi)Found only in Riverside, San Diego, and Imperial counties.
  • Island night lizard (Xantusia riversiana) Limited to Channel Islands
  • Sierra night lizard (Xantusia sierrae) – Found only in small area of Kern county
  • Desert night lizard (Xantusia vigilis) – Found throughout much of southeastern California
  • Wiggins’ night lizard (Xantusia wigginsi) – Found only in small areas of San Diego County

Fun Fact: The Sierra and sandstone night lizards are endemic to California, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world!

Non-Native Lizards

California is also home to several non-native or exotic lizard species.

These include species native to other parts of the US, such as anoles.

There are also species imported from other countries such as chameleons, wall lizards, and house geckos.

The jackson’s chameleon is not a native species to California. It seem that the combination of fog and sunshine in urban areas provide it with the necessary temperature and moisture requirements.

Non-native species can outcompete native species.  This can cause native lizard populations to decline.

It is important to report any sightings of non-native species.

This can be done via the California Department of Fish and Wildlife web form.

Coexisting With California’s Lizards

Many people find lizards to be cute, charismatic creatures. The vast majority are harmless and all are afraid of humans.

Most of California’s native species are insectivores.

They will happily munch household pests such as spiders and cockroaches!

In this section, we’ll discuss some important aspects of living alongside lizards.

What if I Don’t Want Lizards in my Home?

Some lizards may enter homes to shelter from the cold or seek out insect prey.

These timid and harmless species shouldn’t pose much of a problem for most homeowners.

The best ways to prevent lizards from seeking shelter indoors are as follows:

  • Exclusion – Block all possible routes of entry
  • Remove potential prey – Use mosquito repellents and avoid leaving insect attractants (such as food debris) around your home.

Note: Traps, particularly glue traps, can be extremely inhumane. Glue traps can inadvertently kill lizards and other harmless vertebrates. Avoid using glue traps wherever possible.

Can I Keep a Lizard as a Pet?

Californian lizards are wild animals and should be left in their natural habitat.

Reptiles should always be purchased from reputable breeders to prevent the depletion of wild populations.

Our friends over at XYZ Reptiles are an excellent source for healthy, beautiful reptiles.

If you are planning to keep a lizard as a pet, be sure to check out our reptile purchasing guide BEFORE you get your new pet.

Remember: Taking on any pet is a big commitment.

To learn more about the native US reptile diversity, check out our guides to Florida lizards and Florida Snakes or read about what you should know about the different types of lizards.

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