What to Know About Eastern Fence Lizards

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 26, 2022

Reptiles, especially lizards and snakes, are popular pets in American households. More than four million American households own at least one reptilian pet. 

Some reptiles are closely related like snakes and lizards — with some lizards resembling snakes because they have no legs. Many lizards also resemble their ancestors, ancient reptiles that roamed the earth 200 million years ago during the dinosaur era.

Over 4,675 species of lizards have been discovered, including iguanas, geckos, chameleons, and eastern fence lizards. You’ve probably heard of the first three kinds of lizards, but what’s an eastern fence lizard, and what goes into eastern fence lizard care?

If you live in North Carolina, you may already be familiar with eastern fence lizards — they’re one of the more common reptiles there.

As the name suggests, these small reptiles love to crawl against wooden fences. Sometimes, they’re also called fence swifts or pine swifts because of how agile they can be. Their scientific name Sceloporus undulatus comes from the eastern fence lizard’s femoral pores — a row of small holes on the underside of their thighs — and the dark, rippling lines on their back. 

In the United States, eastern fence lizards are found not only in North Carolina but also in New York, Florida, Texas, and Colorado. They can often be spotted on the sides of buildings and in rural and suburban yards. 

Many people fear eastern fence lizards, believing them to be poisonous, but these lizards are completely harmless. If you're thinking of — catching and — keeping them as pets, know that eastern fence lizards aren’t easy to manage, so they don’t make good pets. 

Eastern fence lizards are medium-sized lizards, which can grow to be around 4 to 7 inches long. Also, female eastern fence lizards tend to be slightly bigger than their male counterparts. 

The eastern fence lizard size varies depending on their location. For example, lizards found in New York and Maryland are smaller than those found in southern states like Virginia and Florida. 

Eastern fence lizards are spiny, with rough, pointed scales lining their backs. Also, their dorsal colors can be gray, brown, or bronze with several narrow, wavy, and dark crossbands, which are more prominent in adult females and young lizards than in adult males. 

Male eastern fence lizards are typically more colorful than females with patches on their stomachs and throats. These patches are used during mating seasons to show dominance over other males. During the colder months, the patches turn green. 

Female lizards, on the other hand, have black horizontal stripes on their backs.

Eastern fence lizards aren’t ideal to keep as pets and are best left in the wild. They can be found in various habitats, but they prefer dry, open woodlands of pines and hardwoods. They tend to avoid too wet or shaded habitats, but they like to dwell in trees or wooded structures like stumps, buildings, and rock piles. 

Eastern fence lizards are diurnal, which means they’re active during the day and sleep at night. They’re fond of the sun and love basking on sunny days. When they feel disturbed or threatened, they may dash up trees or take shelter underneath debris. 

Male eastern fence lizards are territorial and can be aggressive when their territory is threatened. They’re quick to defend their territory, especially when faced with a competing male. To defend their territory, they show their blue underside with a series of cutting “pushups”. However, they may become aggressive if this threatening display fails. 

Eastern fence lizards mate over April and May and lay their eggs any time from June to early August. Female lizards typically lay 5 to 15 eggs in rotted logs, soil, or debris. These eggs usually hatch around late August.

What do eastern fence lizards eat? Eastern fence lizard diet mainly includes insects and arthropods, and eastern fence lizards typically forage twice a day all year round. To have enough energy for laying eggs, female lizards tend to consume more insects during spring than in other months. 

To catch their prey, eastern fence lizards sit and wait — that is, they’ll find a place to hide and spy on their prey and attack only at the right moment. They rely on their sight to find prey and recognize only those that are living and moving.

Sometimes, eastern fence lizards may also consume snails and plant matter, like needlegrass.

The average lifespan of an eastern fence lizard is unclear, but it’s thought to be more than five years. Their life expectancy may be shortened because of snakes, birds, and other mammals that prey on them. But eastern fence lizards have many tricks to avoid predators. These include camouflaging and playing dead.

Like most lizards, eastern fence lizards are able to break their tails off to avoid being captured. They’re quick on their feet and can escape predators easily — which is why some eastern fence lizards may have a considerably longer lifespan.

Predators aren’t the only threat to eastern fence lizards. They're also common hosts for parasites like botflies. 

Eastern fence lizards have a stable population, which hasn’t been threatened so far. But an increased frequency of flooding may threaten this species by destroying its hatchling populations. Eastern fence lizard hatchlings are often left to fend for themselves, so their death rate is high.

Show Sources

Animal Diversity Web: “Sceloporus undulatus.”
iNaturalist: “Eastern Fence Lizard.”
INHS Herpetology Collection: “EASTERN FENCE LIZARD.”
North Carolina Wildlife Profiles: “Eastern Fence Lizard.”
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance: “Lizard”.
Terrebonne Parish Library: “Top Five Reptile Pets.”
The National Wildlife Federation: “Eastern Fence Lizard.”

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