Telling Alligator Lizards from Fence Lizards

Just as I am doing here, so did I boldly post a picture of a lizard in front of my last post, the June bloom day pics one. I just wanted to share it, in each case.

The bloomday post shows a baby lizard that found its way into our house. Another shot of him below. He walked right into the old yellow tumbler (one I use in the garden) and I got a good look at him, before letting him slither away into the undergrowth. "Bye-bye, baby fence lizard!" I crooned.

Obviously I was looking with my brain and not my eyes. A friendly comment from biobabbler put me on the right track: "Pretty sure it's an alligator lizard vs fence lizard..."

The eyes are one thing that is different. The alligator lizard, has those dramatic golden irises, whereas our friend the Coast Fence Lizard has warm brown eyes. For a lizard.
The eyes of the Southern Alligator Lizard are yellow or light. Its Northern kin, who I think are also found around the Bay Area, have darker eyes. My baby really had bright yellow eyes. (It wasn't just that yellow plastic tumbler.) So it was the Southern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata. Also known as California Alligator Lizard, and found throughout the state.

As for other differences, you can see that the toes are much shorter on the alligator lizard. By comparison, look at the length of this fence lizard's hind toes!

The pattern and shape of the scales down the back is different too. Here's an alligator lizard that was in a wood pile in a clearing in our chaparral area.

Smoother more rectangular looking scale patterns. You can see he's growing a new tail!

The adult alligator lizards like the above photo are very easy to tell because they are simply much bigger. Not huge, but heftier and about twice as long maybe. We've only seen one or two here. They're pretty shy I think.

I had just assumed my young captive was a fence lizard because that's what lives in abundance around here.

I think they're Sceloporus occidentalis bocourtii - Coast Range Fence Lizard. The page on Coast Range Fence Lizard has some shots that could be in my photo files.

But then so does the page on the North Western Fence Lizard. I'm not sure how you tell them apart. Hm. It looks like their range doesn't overlap in our area at least.

Here's one in mid moult. I haven't before or since caught a lizard in mid molt. or moult in the UK.

I do see a variation in the fence lizards here. Some are a bit smoother and often darker, sleeker looking, but with the same basic shape as the other lizards. I had thought it was just another variation on a fence lizard. Now I think they might be Western Sagebrush lizards S.G. gracilis. A new theory to explore.

Here is a not too great shot I got of a light and dark one together; they were darting in and out of a deck that sits on a slab of concrete. The darker one also looks pregnant to me. Just because she has a very swollen looking middle.

And just as my last post was all flowers shots headed by one lizard, let this one be all lizard shots, followed by one flower:

Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri. I forgot to take its picture for the bloom day post. The stalks are about eight feet tall, some of them!


Really cool lizard shots. We've got a population explosion of Western Fence Lizards and Western Whiptails around the property this year. Love watching them do their 'pushups' as they bask in the sun. Your Matilijia Poppies are also looking great. Mine are starting to wind down for the season.
Helen said…
So many lizards! We're clearly lacking in the reptilian department up here in Ontario (the Canadian Ontario). The most lizardlike creatures here are, or were, the amphibian salamanders I occasionally saw as a kid. In those days, the rare sightings was due to their shyness; these days, pollution has seriously diminished their numbers.
I also have the two different colors of "fence" lizard and after reading your post I think you may be right - one looks very like the Western Sagebrush lizard . I had wondered if it was a gender difference as the two in my garden are often in close proximity - though it is hard to tell if these little guys are fighting or lovin'! I also have a huge alligator lizard, and a gopher snake visits from time to time - coming from Ireland it's very exciting to have all these reptiles in the garden here - especially the snake - but shhh - don't tell St Patrick!
Chloe m said…
I will need to show these to my son when he gets back from camp. He loves lizards! They are great shots! Thanks for stopping by dung hoe.
Country Mouse said…
Camissonia - we too are seeing way more. Wet spring = more food for them?

Hi Pam!

Helen, growing up in the Uk I didn't see such wonderfulness as lizards scampering around either - just read about them in David Attenborough books! Makes me appreciate them all the more here, even though they are all over. Why should common things be seen as less marvellous anyway?

Byddi - glad if my forays into lizard ID are of any help. maybe an expert will weigh in - i think that photo of the darker lizard on my post may be a sagebrush one. Good old St Pat. If I would ever add any Christian iconography to the garden, of course it would be St. Patrick with a bird or two upon him!
I just love reptiles of all sorts! And your very interesting and informative post on the differences was right up my alley.

Thanks for sharing your lizards with us.
CM, if you note on the California Herps website range-maps, although they're in parts of the East Bay, the Western Sagebrush Lizard isn't quite in our part of this county. It's more of an inland, rather than coastal species. I agree that our fence lizards are Sceloporus occidentalis bocourtii. There can be quite a bit of individual variation in the fence lizards, especially during the breeding season when the males are running around showing off their brilliant blue colors. I love the alligator lizards too, and we seem to have an abundance of both this year. Remember the two I caught mid 'love-bite' this spring? I've accidentally intruded on two more pairs since then. Hopefully we'll have a bumper crop of baby lizards this spring :P
Laura Z said…
I rarely see lizards in my garden, but I am more jealous of your Matilija poppy!
Country Mouse said…
OK, CVF - I have to recant on the sagebrush lizard I think. I can't find anything on the web about them being here. Coastal redwood forests yes, but more north. I will keep observing though. I mean, populations do shift. I have to get more into the key characteristics so I can check for them - I don't know what this means: "The gular fold is incomplete" - all I can find is "The gular fold is found on the ventral throat, and looks like a collar" which doesn't altogether help. Also "There is usually a bar of black on the shoulder and rusty coloring on the armpits and sometimes on the sides of the body and the neck. Unlike the Western Fence Lizard - Sceloporus occidentalis, there is normally no yellow coloring on the rear of the limbs."
biobabbler said…
Wow, you have LOTS of lizard photos! Nice work, and SUPER great point re: length of toes HUGELY different between alligator and fence lizards. I didn't think of it or other more useful ones off the top of my head just 'cause I worked with them (monitoring them for years) that it's instinctive. How often does one get to use eye color in the field when you're talking lizards? =) oops.

I love the way those long, delicate toes feel when you hold them (did this for the study, I don't do it for "fun" 'cause it's not fun for them)--those creatures are SO light it's a-MA-zing. Delightful. =)

And I LOVE that poppy. Such an outrageous plant--huge fan. =) Thanks for that interesting post! =)