Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
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