Northern Nevada is an ecologically diverse region marked by rivers, mountains and drainage basins. Much of the area falls within the Great Basin, a mild desert that sees both hot temperatures during the summer months and cold weather in the winter. Like many desert areas, it can seem both vast and barren on the surface, but in reality is teeming with life.
Nevada desert animals come in all shapes, sizes and types, but the region is especially rich in lizard life. What follows are some of the most common species of lizards of northern Nevada.
Great Basin Collared Lizard: Also called the Desert Collared Lizard or Mojave Black Collared Lizard, this reptile is both common and wide-ranging. Great Basin Collared Lizards can be found from southeastern Oregon clear down to southern Arizona, but their widest distribution is in Nevada. It gets its name from the pair of black bands around its narrow neck, and is often described as looking like a small dinosaur. Desert Collared Lizards have distinctive long tails and can often be found basking rather conspicuously in the sun.
Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard: Like its name suggests, this common lizard has both an elongated snout and what appear to be spots covering most of its body. The long-nosed lizard is a fast-moving predator that hunts during the day by ambushing its prey. When threatened, it sometimes hisses or squeals, and when captured can deliver quite a painful bite. Although its numbers are plentiful, the long-nosed leopard lizard is under pressure due to habitat destruction.
Common Side-Blotched Lizard: Of all the types of lizards in Nevada, side-blotched lizards are the ones most often seen by visitors to the Northern Nevada region. They are abundant in deserts and semi-arid areas, are fond of starting their day by basking in the sun in order to get up to temperature and can often be approached closely. In appearance, they look like pocket-sized iguanas, save for the telltale dark blotch behind their front leg from which they get their name.
Yellow-Backed Spiny Lizard: These lizards are frequently described using words such as “robust,” “stout” and “stocky.” Yellow-backed spiny lizards are formidable-looking reptiles of decent size and with the pointed scales from which they derive their name. They are confident climbers and can be spotted in trees and on rocks, and the males will stand tall and do “push-ups” when their territory is threatened.
Western Fence Lizard: Whether you refer to one of these common reptiles as a Western Fence Lizard, a Blue Belly Lizard, or a Blue Belly Fence Lizard, you’re talking about the same species that is identified by its distinctive bright blue belly. The Western Fence Lizard habitat is vast and wide ranging—indeed it can be found all over the American West and into Mexico. They can thrive in vastly different climates and biomes, from the desert to coniferous forests to farmland.
Common Sagebrush Lizard: Named for the sagebrush near where it is commonly found, the Common Sagebrush Lizard is nearly indistinguishable from the Western Fence Lizard, save for its slightly smaller overall size and its finer scales. This species of lizard is easily frightened and they will immediately seek shelter under rocks or in brush or crevices when under threat—and will very occasionally stay still and play dead.
Zebra-Tailed Lizard: As with other types of lizards that are named for their distinctive markings, Zebra-Tailed Lizards (or Zebra Lizards as they are also known) got their moniker from their long black-and-white-striped tails. They have also been given the Spanish name “perrito,” which means “little dog” for their habit of wagging their tails to signal their alertness when approached. They are also known for their speed, averaging between 16 and 21 mph.
Desert Horned Lizard: When is a lizard mistaken for a horny toad? When it is a Desert Horned Lizard. The “horns” that give them their distinctive appearance are actually large pointed scales that protrude from the backs of their heads and along their broad bodies. Whereas other lizards have varied diets, the preferred Desert Horned Lizard diet is ants, and they can often be found camped out near anthills waiting for dinner to stroll by.
Greater Short-Horned Lizard: Like the Desert Horned Lizard, the Greater Short-Horned Lizard is often called a horny toad—but it is indeed a lizard. It is the most widely distributed lizard in North America and can be found in the widest variety of habitats. Also like Desert Horned Lizards, the Greater Short-Horned Lizard prefers to dine on ants, but will eat the occasional cricket or beetle when the mood strikes.
Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard: A reptile with a bit of an identity crisis, the Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard (or Pygmy Horned Lizard) is not only mistaken for a horny toad, but is also often confused with the Greater Short-Horned Lizard. As its name would suggest, it is a smaller version of its “Greater” relative, but is considered a species all its own.
Western Skink: Unlike their horned and scaly brethren, Western Skink Lizards are long, smooth lizards with relatively small limbs. They are as secretive as they are agile, but can sometimes be spotted partaking of their favorite activity: basking in the sun. If you happen upon one, exercise caution before disturbing it in its natural habitat or attempting to capture it—they’ve been known to bite.
Western Whiptail: The Western Whiptail Lizard is a long, snakelike lizard that bears more than a passing resemblance to a tiny alligator as it runs from bush to bush. Unlike the alligator, it is a shy species that prefers the protection of shrubs or other forms of cover and will flee when a person or predator gets too close. An avid hunter, the Western Whiptail diet consists of spiders and insects.
The best way to gain a greater understanding of Nevada desert animals, including the lizards of Northern Nevada, how they interact with the desert environment and the impacts of human development on their habitat is through anenvironmental consultation with an expert biologist.