I so clearly remember the afternoon about 20 years ago, working in my yard. I was rummaging around some old rotting logs that were mixed in under a thick growth of salal when suddenly something quickly moved and stopped. I immediately of course assume “oh, yet another garter snake”. But then I looked more closely: what WAS this thing!? I was thinking “salamander” but no, it sure wasn’t that either. After getting photographs developed (yes, this was WAY back in ancient times of only shooting with film!) I finally figured out that we have lizards around our neck of the woods! Yes, the Northern Alligator Lizard is a remarkable reptile that is fairly common but usually hidden from view.
The Northern Alligator Lizard ranges up to 13 inches in length. However all of the specimens I’ve witnessed over the past 20 years have been in the 7-8 inch range. This alligator lizard species prefers our cool shady forests. They range from the southern portions of British Columbia down through the Pacific Northwest. One thing that makes the Northern species stand out from others is that they give birth to live young. The Southern Alligator Lizard and most others lay eggs. Northern Alligator Lizards are found in cooler and wetter environments than most any other species of lizard. They are often found in forest clearings or edges, under logs and other surface debris. They can also be found in talus slopes that are associated with forests. And what an amazing banquet of foods they eat. They feed on a wide range of little critters such as insects, ticks, spiders, millipedes, and snails. Thus I’m a very huge fan of these amazing creatures if they eat ticks---one of the few things on this earth that I completely detest!
Able to reproduce each year, they have anywhere from one to eight young. I was surprised to learn that they have a life expectancy of up to eight years. You may not have ever seen them before, but it isn’t likely due to your not paying attention. They make extensive use of cover such as rocks, logs, and shrubs. But they don’t go far either. Most individuals are site faithful, remaining in the same area (within a 100 foot radius) for three consecutive years. I was greatly humored over one last fact about them which was news to me: lizards with shorter tails have slower sprint speeds. I’m still trying to find out more detailed information to know WHY this is the case, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
So get outside this summer and kick some rocks and logs around a bit. Snoop around in some dark corners of your property if you border forested areas. You just might be able to startle yourselves and see these hidden creatures of our unknown world! But if you so choose to please handle them very carefully, if at all. Alligator lizards have a tail that easily breaks off and they also have strong enough jaws to give a serious bite!