Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata)

Activity Cycle

  • Has ability to be active in cool temperatures during foggy or cloudy periods of the day.
    • Can be active (and grow and digest food) with body temperature as low as 11° C (52° F) (Brattstrom 1965)
    • Its capacity for activity despite low body temperature is distinctive. Many other lizards are 'obligate' thermoregulators and need to be warmer to function well. (Kingsbury 1994).
  • Active in the day (diurnal) or at dusk and dawn (crepuscular)

Home Range

  • Largely unknown for Southern Alligator Lizards, although may be similar to northern species
    • Northern species studied by Rutherford and Gregory can be found under favored rocks and do not travel far throughout the year; only one out of 334 lizards moved as far as 750 m (slightly less than .5 mile)
    • Northern species rarely found in the open; remain close to a rock and within 2 m (6.6 ft) of a shrub

Territorial Behavior

  • Largely unstudied although may be like the Northern Alligator Lizards which may have territorial behavior since they inhabit the same site for many years (are 'site tenacious') (Gillette 2008) 



  • Not the primary means of communication for lizards (Ditmars 1933).


  • Has snake-like undulating pattern to its locomotion on the ground
  • Is the most arboreal of the alligator lizards
  • A good swimmer; swim in serpentine manner rather than "dog-paddle" swimming (Cowles 1946)
  • Tail is slightly prehensile, helping hold onto branches when climbing
  • Tailless individuals run slower and are more secretive than ones with intact tails (Pough et al 1998)
  • Females with eggs are less mobile

Interspecies Interactions

  • Snakes, loggerhead shrikes, red-tailed hawks, domestic catsare predators on alligator lizards (Morey 2008)
    • Around human habitations, cats killing of alligator lizards may lead to a significant increase in unwanted garden and yard 'pest' insects (which are food items for the lizards)
  • When threatened by a predator, alligator lizards open the mouth widely, showing teeth
  • When caught, bite strongly and may defecate on predator
  • When attacked or caught, quickly shed their tail
    • Wriggling tail left behind distracts predators
    • Losing a tail is energetically costly; may result in a missed reproductive season (Pough at al 1998)
  • Both Northern and Southern Alligator Lizards often found co-existing at same sites with Western Skinks ( Rutherford and Gregory 2003)
    • Nature of the relationship with the skinks is unknown - perhaps it is competitive
    • Southern Alligator Lizards are also known to eat Western Skinks (Cunningham 1956)

Scale Adaptations

Head of a Southern Alligator Lizard

The scales of alligator lizards help them to survive in arid environments.

Image credit: © Franco Folini via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Brattstrom (1965)
Cowles (1946)
Kingsbury (1994)
Morey (2008)
Pough et al. (1998)
Rutherford & Gregory (2003)
Stebbins (1972)

SDZG Library Links