Citizen Science Coordinator
Assistant Curator, Herpetology
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In southern California reptiles can be found all throughout the year.
However, as with many animals, reptiles change their activity patterns with the seasons. In early spring, when the weather is still cool (March and April), snakes, lizards, and turtles will tend to stay underground (or possibly burrowed into the muck at the bottom of a pond in the case of some turtles) and only venture out during the warmest part of the day. Later in the spring, when temperatures rise they can be seen throughout the day, though many may retreat to shaded areas during the hottest parts of warmer days. Once temperatures soar in the summer, turtles will avoid basking in the heat of the day, lizards will spend more time in the shade, and many snakes become crepuscular — visible only during the cooler mornings and evenings, preferring to stay in their burrows during the hottest part of the day. Winter is usually a time to aestivate (a state similar to hibernation), because snake, lizard, and turtle food is scarce. However, even in winter it is possible to see reptiles out and about on the warmer days.
Reptiles can be found all throughout southern California from the bluffs and dunes at the beach to our highest mountain peaks. Southern Alligator Lizards and Western Fence Lizards may be as close as your backyard or neighborhood park or school. There just needs to be enough habitat for reptiles to find enough to eat and a few places to seek shelter from extreme heat and cold as well as from predators. So the best places to look for lizards and snakes in southern California are dry, sunny areas with rocky outcroppings or rock piles, underbrush, or wood or trash piles. Non-native turtles can be found in most urban ponds, while observing our native Western Pond Turtle will require more effort; look for them in less urbanized streams and waterways.
Once you have found a likely reptile habitat, scan the area with a pair of binoculars or your naked eyes. You are looking for movement close to the ground. If at a pond or waterway, look for bumps on logs and other potential basking sites that might be inviting to turtles. If you see no movement, begin to walk slowly through the area. As you walk, any reptiles that have been motionless may begin to move. Some reptiles are more approachable than others, so remember to use slow movements. Also many reptiles are territorial, so you may come back to the same spot next week and find the same reptile!
Try not to disturb the habitat for your safety as well as theirs!
Frogs and salamanders need to keep their skin moist so they are most active in damper areas. Most tend to be more active at night. They are also more easily encountered during the wetter months from early fall to late spring. However, around permanent water, non-native bullfrogs and our native treefrogs will be active through the summer.
Amphibians need to keep their skin moist so look for them in areas where the soil has some moisture to it. Many also breed in water with their larval stages completely aquatic. As a result, amphibians tend to be more easily encountered near ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes.
Once you are near a body of water, look for amphibians under logs and leaves, inside the cracks of rocks, or other damp areas. Also listen for the calls of frogs, especially after recent rainstorms or in the early evening during the spring. Some amphibians can be found in trees, so be sure to look above ground as well. There are also amphibians that live underground, including some that may show up in backyards and gardens (the Garden Slender Salamander got its name for a good reason!).
Some reptiles and amphibians move very quickly, so as soon as you find yourself in their habitat get your camera ready! When you see a reptile or amphibian:
REMEMBER: You are in this animal's home. Getting photos and documenting your find are really important contributions to research. However, we do not want to cause stress on the animals so always try to consider the interaction from the animal's perspective as well.
If you find an already deceased reptile or amphibian, a submitted photograph still provides an important locality record. If you happen to be in a non-natural area (meaning you are not in a national, state, or county park) you can submit the deceased animal to the Museum for our collection. The animal will be preserved by museum researchers and permanently curated in the collection. Here is what you need to do to submit a deceased animal to the Museum:
1. Write to us at email@example.com and give us as many details as possible about how the specimen was acquired, and what condition it is in. We can only accept specimens that are in relatively good condition and have appropriate data (such as the location where it was found). We do not accept pet store animals, only those with an address where they were found in the wild (e.g., USA, Los Angeles County, Burbank, 500 E. Palm Avenue near the steps of an apartment building in an alley).
2. After you e-mail us, store the specimen until you can bring/send it to the Museum. If you are going to be bringing the specimen to the Museum within the next 24 hours you can store it in a Ziploc bag in your refrigerator, or for longer storage, the specimen can be frozen.
3. Before you bring/send the specimen to the Museum, please make sure you have made arrangements with a staff person (visit our contact section). There are specific instructions we need to give you, because specimens cannot simply be left at the front desk!
As with any excursion to the out-of-doors (even in an urban setting) one should prepare properly to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
If you feel uncomfortable in the field join us for the next staff-led RASCals field trip: e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out when the next one is scheduled.
*Remember reptiles and amphibians are protected by laws; please DO NOT ATTEMPT TO KILL, COLLECT, or TAKE ANY WILD REPTILES OR AMPHIBIANS.