What to Know About Northern Alligator Lizards

Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on December 08, 2022

The northern alligator lizard is a small lizard found in the northwestern United States. They have a lot of similarities to their southern counterpart, but they tend to stay in the wooded areas of central California up through British Columbia and can be found as far east as Montana.

These small lizards are most active during the daytime, and you can often see them moving around on the ground or scurrying under bushes. They don't bask in the sun like other lizards, but they enjoy sunny spots with coverage. You can find them around grassy, brushy, or rocky openings. They typically hang out in forested areas. But they're also found around people's homes. They tend to spend time near rock piles and other outdoor debris. 

There's much to know about the northern alligator lizards, including where they tend to live, what they eat, and if they make good pets.

The northern alligator lizard has a flat, wedge-shaped head. The body is about as wide as its head, and its legs are small and thin. One notable trait is the distinct lateral fold that runs along their lower sides. The line goes from the corner of the mouth to the tail.

The northern alligator lizard has an olive-brown body with dark spotty bands. It prefers cooler, damp habitats, rather than the high-heat areas enjoyed by its southern counterparts. 

Northern alligator lizards are shy and difficult to spot in nature. They usually come out in the spring to mate and then retreat to their homes in the fall to prepare for winter. They typically go into burrow pits and hillsides for the winter.

The northern alligator lizard is cold tolerant and can handle being active in springtime, depending on location and weather conditions.

The northern alligator lizard is small with rough scales and a long tail. An adult alligator lizard reaches around 4 inches long from the snout to the back side, not counting its tail. 

The tail can add an extra 6 inches to its length. Their underbellies are light gray, and each scale has a dark shadow around it. 

Their scales are rectangular and can expand and fold. Northern alligator lizards typically shed their skin like a snake once a year.

Open forests, woodlands, and grassland are preferred habitats for Northern alligator lizards. They look for places where they can take cover and live under rocks, logs, and sometimes even trash. 

The lizards can tolerate areas with low or mild development. This means you may find them near newly built construction, under rock piles near a house, or around rock retaining walls in your neighborhood. 

You'll likely find these lizards in northern Idaho, western Montana, and along the Pacific coast, including:

  • Southern British Columbia
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Northern California
  • Central California

If northern alligator lizards are in captivity, they need a semi-moist terrarium with places to hide. They also need plenty of space to climb. Keep a terrarium for them, and give them access to a water bowl they can get in and out of. You can fill your terrarium with moss and plants or branches, whatever you'd like to give them to move around on.

Northern alligator lizards are fascinating creatures. They're tolerant of many types of climates and habitats. This helps them survive in cities and wooded areas. 

Alligator lizards feed on various invertebrate species, like ground beetles, grasshoppers, or crickets. They can also sometimes feed on small mammals and birds. In some cases, they may eat other small lizard species. Some northern alligator lizards also eat spiders, caterpillars, moths, snails, and baby mice. 

The northern alligator has a long body and triangular head. When they move, they wiggle their body in an almost snake-like manner. When you first see one, you may assume the lizard is a snake. They are very skittish and are more likely to run away from you than stand their ground and bite.

Another interesting fact about the alligator lizard is that they can live up to 15 years. They also have defense mechanisms that help elongate their lives. Detaching their tails is one of the most common defense mechanisms. However, regrowing their tail takes longer and can impact their reproductive fitness and overall survival.

Common predators of the northern alligator lizard include hawks, owls, mammals, and other larger reptiles they cross paths with in their habitat. Destruction of habitat by new development can also endanger alligator lizards.

In general, alligator lizards do not make great pets. You may see these lizards in suburban areas, but that doesn't mean they should be kept as household pets. Unless you specifically rehabilitate a northern alligator lizard, a life in captivity can shorten its 15-year lifespan. 

Alligator lizards are also likely to bite when they feel threatened, and keeping them in captivity can heighten that.

Though alligator lizards are not endangered, keeping them as pets is still not recommended. They have a large population and tolerance for many habitats but are not domesticated animals.

When deciding on a reptile to bring home, make sure you do your research. Tropical reptiles and small mammals are often traded in the illegal pet trade and don't do well in a home setting. If you buy a northern alligator lizard online and decide you don't want it anymore, you cannot just release it back into the wild.

The illegal pet trade is a threat to the northern alligator lizard. In some countries, they are protected under the law. 

Alligator lizards are unique reptiles that are best left in the wild and appreciated when you get the chance. Other reptiles make better pets, including certain species of turtles, other lizards, and snakes.

Show Sources

Burke Museum: “Northern Alligator Lizard.”
Herp Care Collection: “Alligator Lizard.”
Lindsay Wildlife Experience: “Northern Alligator Lizard.”
National Park Service: “Northern Alligator Lizard.”
Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute: “Alligator lizard.”
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: “Northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea).”

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