Along the Path: Leapin’ Lizards!

By Susan Rothrock Deo

 Every time I see a lizard, I can’t help watching it. I’m not alone. Some people even become herpetologists, scientists who study reptiles (like lizards and snakes) and amphibians (like frogs and salamanders). Reptiles are vertebrates: they have an internal bony skeleton, including vertebrae that protect their spinal nerve cord. Their skin is composed of scales, and sometimes plates.

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Reptiles are cold-blooded: they can’t maintain a constant body temperature like birds and mammals. Instead, they move in and out of the sun to warm up and cool down. When temperatures get too cold, they become inactive. The difference between lizards and snakes? Lizards have four legs, ears and eyelids, snakes have none of these.

The most common lizard in Palos Verdes is the Western Fence Lizard, the one we see scuttling across our yard, doing little “push-ups” or sometimes wandering into our house. This lizard is a “habitat generalist,” liking many different habitats: grassland, chaparral, forest, stone outcroppings, our backyards or fences. In the morning, he basks in the sun to warm up. His coloring is much darker then, so he can absorb more light/heat. He orients himself perpendicular to the sunlight (one side facing the sun) so more surface area is exposed to the heat. In 5-10 minutes, his body temperature is about the same as ours and he turns parallel to the sun (nose or tail facing it) so he doesn’t get too hot.  This lizard is brown to gray with darker blotches in two rows down its back. The males have an obvious blue or blue-green patch on the side of their bellies, the same blue coloring on their throats, and a grayish or black chin. The females may have these blue areas but usually not as bright. They eat a variety of insects and other Arthropods like spiders, centipedes, isopods and scorpions. They hunt by sight, securing a good vantage point to observe their prey. The “push up” display is territorial — to warn other males or attract females. If you happen to get too close, they may perform this behavior for you!  Don’t worry, they are not dangerous. The female digs a hole where she lays 3 to 16 eggs. There are one to three clutches of eggs per year, between April and mid-July.

The other lizards that live in Palos Verdes include: the common side-blotched lizard, the southern alligator lizard, the western skink and the California legless izard. Check out their photos online or in a field guide. How do we know the last one is not a snake? He has vestiges (traces) of legs, in addition to the two other things snakes don’t have. Can you find them listed above? If you see a lizard, stop, be patient, and observe some of their interesting behavior! Happy discovery!

P.S. If you would like to participate in a lizard citizen science project, the Natural History Museum Los Angeles wants you! Check out “How to Participate” in the RASCals program on their website:

Featured image: Western skink by Connor Long


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