RASCals - Identifying RASCals | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

Southern California’s diverse habitats provide an ideal breeding ground for all kinds of life, like this Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana). Photo by TKnoxB; courtesy Creative Commons.
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RASCals Contact Information

General Inquiries
email: rascals@nhm.org
telephone: 213.763.3535

Richard Smart
Citizen Science Coordinator
telephone: 213.763.3535

Greg Pauly
Assistant Curator, Herpetology
gpauly@nhm.org

You can also follow Herpetology Section happenings on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LACMherps.

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Identifying RASCals

Online Resources For identification:

California Herps website: great website with information and images of all native California reptiles and amphibians

San Diego Natural History Museum's reptile and amphibian field guide

USGS A Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Coastal Southern California

SoCal Herps iPhone App electronic field guide

 

Recommended Field Guides

A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians - Peterson field guide by Robert C. Stebbins

Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California, Revised edition by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel C. McGinnis.

Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of the San Diego Region by Jeffrey M. Lemm

Lizards of the American Southwest - photographic field guide by Lawrence L.C. Jones and Robert E. Lovich

 

Reptiles

  • Have scaly skin, though scales can appear very sleek and smooth
  • Are often found sunning themselves on rocks, or dark surfaces like asphalt
  • Our native reptile groups are: snakes, lizards (skinks and other kinds of lizards), and turtles (which includes tortoises). Another reptile group, crocodilians, is not native to this area but have turned up occasionally. If you don’t believe this, go visit Reggie the Alligator at the L.A. Zoo and learn his interesting story. There is another major lineage of reptiles that is not mentioned above; this is the tuatara of New Zealand.

Amphibians

  • Have silky or slimy skin
  • Are often found in moist habitats such as under rocks and in or around water
  • Our native amphibian groups are: salamanders (which includes newts) and frogs (which includes toads). The last remaining major group of amphibians are the caecilians — wormlike creatures with no legs; these are not native to this area.

 

Reptiles — is it a Lizard or Snake?

A quick glance with an untrained eye can easily lead to a mistaken identification. For example, this skink is often mistaken for a snake because of its sleek appearance. When it is running fast, you can easily miss its four legs — which means it is a lizard and not a snake.

 

This image is of a legless lizard — which is often mistaken for a snake. The way to tell it is a lizard and not a snake is to look closely at its eyes. If it blinks it is a lizard, because snakes don’t have eyelids.

 

Some lizards may have dropped their tail giving them a foreshortened appearance.

 

Most Common Los Angeles Reptiles and Amphibians*

Clues to the identity of an animal often lie in the specific habitat it is found, its color, size, and behavior.  However, juveniles can look different from adults, males different from females, so always look at the basic body shape first.  After you look at the body shape you can look at color and size to help with an identification.

For more detailed information on these species or any others please visit our resources page.

*Occasionally someone may come upon a non-native lizard that was introduced or released.  Few introduced lizards can survive the California climate, but there is always a slight possibility that a non-native individual or a non-native population is hanging on somewhere.


Southern Alligator Lizard

Elgaria multicarinata

Size: E. multicarinata ranges from 2 7/8 - 7 inches (7.3 - 17.8 cm) in snout to vent length and up to about 12 inches (30cm) in total length.

Appearance:  Alligator lizards have large bony scales, a large head on an elongated body and powerful jaws.  They are characterized by a slim body with short limbs and long tail. The semi-prehensile (can hold on to things) tail can reach twice the length of its body if it has never been broken off and regenerated.

Color is brown, gray, or yellowish on the back, with red, white or black blotches in a cross-banded pattern or occasionally reminiscent of a checker-board pattern. The scales on the back and legs are strongly keeled (ridged in the center).  A characteristic band of small scales creates a fold along each side.


Western Fence Lizard

Sceloporus occidentalis

Size: Grows up to nearly 4 inches (10 cm) long from snout to vent.

Appearance: One of the most commonly seen lizards in our region, you can often watch them doing push-ups on rocks, logs, and fences — hence the name.  Another name this lizard goes by is “Blue-Belly,” which refers to the bright blue markings on their undersides, especially on adult males.

This is a fairly small lizard with keeled (ridged in the center) scales, giving it a spiny appearance.  They can be grayish brown to black with bars or blotches that form parallel rows on either side of the body.  This may not be visible on very dark individuals.

  • Males are often somewhat larger than females and have larger blue patches on their throat and bellies. Some scales on the back may be blue or greenish.
  • Females have faint or absent blue markings on the belly, no blue or green color on the upper surfaces, and dark bars or crescents on the back.
  • Juveniles have little or no blue on the throat and faint blue belly markings, or none at all.

Western Side-blotched Lizard

Uta stansburiana elegans

Size: 1.5 - 2.5 inches (3.8-6.3 cm) long from snout to vent.

Appearance:  A small brownish gray lizard with small smooth granular scales on the back, larger scales on the head and limbs. It also has a gular fold (fold of skin under the neck), a long thin tail and a dark blue-black mark on the sides of the chest behind the front limbs, which gives this lizard its name. However, this mark is sometimes faint or absent. Color is brown, gray, yellowish, or black, with dark blotches, spots, and sometimes stripes. Often there is a double row of dark spots or wedges on the back, edged with white on the rear. The underside is whitish to gray and mostly unmarked. The throat is mottled with dark and light.

  • Males are more colorful than females, sometimes having blue speckles on the upper surfaces.  The throat is marked with blue, orange, or yellow.
  • Females are blotched on top with brown and white, often with stripes, and have a less well-defined blotch on the sides. They have no blue speckling on their backs, either no or small patches of color on their bellies, and no or reduced color on their throat.

California Legless Lizard

Anniella pulchra

Size: 4 - 3/8 to 7 inches (11.1 - 17.8 cm) long from snout to vent.

Appearance: A small slender lizard with no legs, (though they have both a pelvic, and pectoral girdle internally) a shovel-shaped snout, smooth shiny scales, and a blunt tail. No external ear openings are visible. They are sometimes confused for snakes (which have no eyelids), but on close observation the presence of eyelids is apparent when these lizards blink.

Back coloration varies from metallic silver, beige, dark brown, to black. Belly coloration varies from whitish to bright yellow. Typically there is a dark line along the back and several thin stripes between scale rows along the sides. Juveniles have a stripe on their back or sides, and a very pale belly.


Salamanders

Garden Slender Salamander-Batrachoseps major
California Black-bellied Salamander-Batrachoseps nigriventris

Not a lizard!  This lizard look-alike is actually an amphibian.

Size: Adults are 1 1/4 – 2 1/3 inches (3 - 5.5 cm) long from snout to vent.

Appearance: These small salamanders do not have lungs and breathe through their smooth, moist, thin skin. They have short limbs, a narrow head, long slender body, and a very long tail, which give this species a wormlike appearance.  This is typical of most Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps), in addition to the presence of four toes on the front and hind feet. Other California salamanders have five toes on the hind feet.

These amphibians are often found under rocks, logs, bark, and flower pots. They are often mistaken for worms.

 

Frogs

Baja California Chorus Frog-Pseudacris hypochondriaca

Size: Adults are 3/4 – 2 inches (1.9 - 5.1 cm) long from snout to vent.

Appearance: A small frog with a loud voice!  These frogs have a relatively large head, large body, narrow waist, and long, slender legs. They also have round pads on the tips of their fingers and toes that aid in climbing. These small frogs vary widely in coloration from having no blotches to having many dorsal blotches. A dark eyestripe is generally present and many blotched individuals have a Y-shaped mark between the eyes.

Males of this species make a loud “ribbit” call. The call of this frog is often used for background sounds in movies and TV shows regardless of where the film or TV show is supposed to occur. It is so common, that people around the world now associate the “ribbit” call with all frogs, but in fact it is only this species that says “ribbit” and it only occurs in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico.