top of page

Northern Alligator Lizard

Elgaria coerulea

The Northern Alligator Lizard is a small creature that, despite its diminutive size, resembles an alligator and has thus assumed its common name.  As with so many species that we study around Hotel Lake, the small size and reclusive nature of these lizards keeps them out of sight most of the time. But, if you take a moment to read our new webpage, we believe you may find that you have a better chance of seeing these benign creatures, simply because you know they are there. As with just about every creature that we study, there is a surprise waiting and the Northern Alligator Lizard is no exception. When under attack, it is able to automatically jettison its tail which proceeds to hop and bounce around on its own accord thus distracting the attacker while the lizard escapes….and yes, to go on and grow a new tail.  We hope you enjoy.

nal, .jpg

Range

The Northern Alligator Lizard can be found in south-western B.C., in the Georgia Depression, on Vancouver Island and down the south-western regions of the continent to northern coast of California.

They populate woodlands and grasslands and are often found under deadfalls and rocks. In B.C., this animal thrives and can be seen around Hotel Lake if one keeps an open eye for them on the ground.

Screenshot 2024-06-22 at 8.30.17 AM.JPG

Characteristics - Anatomy

A general resemblance to alligators has led to their popularized name, the Northern Alligator Lizard.  But they are tiny;  adult females can be about 20-25 cm in length, half of which is their tail, while males are slightly smaller with relatively wider heads than females.

Colouration of the back and sides is tan or grey with darker spots, scales and stripes. Belly colouration is much lighter with variations between grey through white along the full length of their underbodies.  Adults have a distinctive fold of skin along their sides, which facilitates the expansion of their bodies by inflation as a defence against predators. This capacity to expand also facilitates body distention when consuming prey or during pregnancy.

Life Cycle

Depending on elevation, most males and females will be ready to breed the third spring after birth. Thereafter, females may reproduce until seven years of age. Mating takes place in April to June.  Females once they find a suitable site away from predators and with adequate sunlight (thermal conditions beneficial to gestation), will use the same location in subsequent years. Males, with wider heads, use their jaws to grip the female's head thus detaining her until she is ready to let him mate with her; this can result in a mating session that may take up to 12 hours during which the pair are almost oblivious to their surroundings.

The gestation period typically produces 2-8 offspring and in some cases may produce up to 15 young.  Unlike other reptile species, Northern Alligator Lizards give birth to live young that are born fully developed. These juveniles are tiny replicas of their parents (about 3 inches long) except that their colouration is almost uniformly copper-bronze with a smooth broad bronze strip running the length of their back.

Foraging and Diet

Northern Alligator Lizards are diurnal foragers and hunt in the daytime, particularly in the warm late afternoons. Adults eat larger insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, caterpillars, spiders, snails, scorpions, millipedes, mealworms, moths, small lizards and baby mice. Stinging and biting animals are also consumed, but it is believed that invertebrates with offensive secretions are likely avoided. They employ stealth and patience, followed by rapid strikes of the lizard's head and jaws to capture their prey.

Northern Alligator Lizards are themselves prey to garter snakes, rubber boas, shrikes, red-tailed hawks, and cats etc.

IMG_2835_edited.jpg

Photo by: Brian Croft at Hotel Lake 2024

Habitat - Den 

Northern Alligator Lizards do not wander or migrate, often remaining in the same area from year to year. Movements of greater than 100 metres are believed to be rare.

 

The Northern Alligator Lizard occupies dry woodland, grassland, coniferous forests, ocean beaches and various riparian areas. It can often be found along forest edges or amidst rocky outcroppings and talus slopes. They also thrive in disturbed areas such as logging mills, clearcuts, and railway and hydro right-of-ways.  Rocks and surrounding vegetation can be important for providing shelter.

 

They spend much of their time out of sight but will employ cryptic basking sites that permit them to expose their tail or head to direct sunlight for warming. They are not often seen in the open and prefer the cover provided by vegetation, deadfall and rocks.

Northern Alligator Lizards tolerate cool weather well but in late-September they enter hibernation using rock crevices or other vacant opportunities that extend below the frost line. Hibernation sites are located in the same general areas at or adjacent to summer habitat.

Special Habits or Abilities

 

In an attempt to defend themselves, Northern Alligator Lizards may use their very-long tail as a decoy to attract the attention of predators. If necessary, when they are attacked, they can detach their tail which, although detached, keeps on wiggling in a very dynamic way thus serving as an impressive distraction while the lizard tries to escape. The tail will grow back over time but that re-growth requires a lot of energy that can hinder the lizard’s overall growth and even it’s survival.

 

Can they swim?  This question was not easy to answer because various sources state that lizards cannot swim and they certainly don’t have webbed feet. However video can be found showing that Northern ALligator Lizards can propel themselves underwater quite efficiently by wiggling like fish and pausing buoyantly on the surface to rest. Other sources also suggested that they may resort to the water to escape being attacked.  So if you see  a Northern Alligator Lizard swimming in Hotel Lake, that might be a great photo to take.

Photo by: Tarren McKay, at Hotel Lake

Endangered or Invasive Species

As is the case for so many species the primary threat is quite often the destruction of habitat with urban development and fire presenting the most serious challenges.  Northern Alligator Lizards are somewhat tolerate to habitat disturbances such as logging or construction and will adapt to take advantage of associated piles of woody debris or exposed rock piles with cavities and the like. This tolerance and adaptability contribute to the species being currently: 

COSEWIC: Not at Risk
CDC: Yellow

Frank Jensen NAL.jpg

Photo by: Frank Jensen, at Hotel Lake

How can Humans Help and Respect

If you encounter a Northern Alligator Lizard around Hotel Lake, simply keep your distance and enjoy the experience.  They have limited patience when they are intruded upon but, if you keep clear, they will very likely let you watch. While they move about quite slowly in the underbrush, they are feisty and capable of very fast escape movement if threatened or pestered. Threatened, they will open their mouths and bare their tiny teeth. The very last thing you want to do is frighten them unnecessarily to the point they sacrifice their tail. 

NAL bite.JPG

Activities or Behaviour That Might Cause Harm to Humans

These lizards do not have fangs nor do they inject venom. But these lizards do bite sometimes, particularly if stressed and for this reason they are not recommended as pets.  Their bite can be painful to humans and detaching the lizard from the bite-site can be challenging. 

 

Even though they are nonvenomous, medical care should be sought immediately. Keep in mind that these reptiles can carry salmonella and therefore it is advisable that you wash your hands after handling them. Be aware that if you are infected with salmonella, you may experience upset stomach and fever.

1.Rainy Day viewing.png

Perhaps not the most pleasant video out there but it is quite helpful in coming to a full understanding of what happens when a Northern Alligator Lizard releases its tail when it is under attack.

bottom of page