4 Types of Horned Lizards Found in California! (ID Guide)

What kinds of horned lizards are there in California?”

common horned lizards in california

Horned lizards are sometimes called horned toads, and it’s easy to see why. With their plump bodies, short legs, and bumpy, scaly skin, you could easily mistake one for a toad if you didn’t see its tail!

But these interesting creatures are reptiles, not amphibians, and have fascinating characteristics that separate them from other animals. For example, they have the unique ability to shoot blood from their eyes!

Today, you will learn the 4 kinds of horned lizards found in California!

#1. Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard

  • Phrynosoma douglasii

species of horned lizards in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 1.25 to 2.5 inches long from snout to vent. (Length does not include the tail)
  • A single row of fringe scales lines the sides of the body.

The Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard is commonly found in northern California in rocky terrain with pockets of fine, loose soil. It prefers open plains with sagebrush or open pine forests.

These horned lizards are more tolerant of colder temperatures than most other lizards. They are even able to live in mountainous regions at elevations of up to 11,000 feet!

Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard Range Map:

Pygmy Short-Horned Lizards are almost always found near ants, looking for their next meal! Ants are their primary source of food, and they often lie in wait outside colonies.

Its primary defense against predators is to bury itself in the soil with a “shimmying” motion, moving from side to side until its back is covered in sand! Check out the video below to see how they do it!

YouTube video

#2. Desert Horned Lizard

  • Phrynosoma platyrhinos

types of horned lizards in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 2.5 to 3.75 inches long from snout to vent. (Length does not include the tail)
  • Coloration is brown, tan, reddish, gray, or black. Wavy, dark blotches dot the back and neck.
  • Blunt snout and short horns.

As its name suggests, the Desert Horned Lizard prefers the arid climate of sandy flats and dunes in desert regions of eastern California. Areas with cactus, creosote, and saltbush are common homes for the Desert Horned Lizard.

Desert Horned Lizard Range Map:

Desert Horned Lizards have an interesting hidden talent – they’re good dancers!

They often perform mating dances that display intricate body movements, including head bobbing, weaving, and tail movements. While some lizards use body movement displays as a sign of aggression, Desert Horned Lizards use their moves most often to attract a mate!

One of the easiest ways to find a Desert Horned Lizard is to drive slowly in its habitat in the late afternoon. They’re often seen sunning themselves on the warm pavement!

YouTube video

#3. Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard

  • Phrynosoma mcallii

common horned lizards in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 2.5 to 3.5 inches long from snout to vent. (Length does not include the tail)
  • Generally light in color; pale gray, buff, or light brown that closely matches the soil of its habitat.
  • The tail and body are both very flat and low to the ground.

Flat-Tailed Horned Lizards in California have a unique camouflage adaptation.

Their extremely flat shape and coloring nearly eliminate any shadow they might create, allowing them to blend seamlessly with the ground!

Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard Range Map:

The Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard’s ability to blend in is crucial since they live in open desert areas with little vegetation for shelter. Their main food source is harvester ants that also live in the desert, but they also eat other insects.

YouTube video

This species is endangered and has the smallest range of any horned lizard in California. Their habitat is threatened by human disturbance, especially off-road vehicle use and geothermal power plants.

#4. Coast Horned Lizard

  • Phrynosoma blainvillii

species of horned lizards in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 2.5 to 4.5 inches long from snout to vent. (Length does not include the tail)
  • Two rows of pointed fringe scales line either side of the body.
  • Coloring is yellow to brown, reddish, or gray with dark, wavy lines.

The Coast Horned Lizard is found ONLY in California!

It tolerates a wide variety of habitats, but its range is limited because of urbanization and farming. Its main requirements are open lowlands with plenty of sunlight for basking, loose soil for burrowing, and plenty of insects to eat.

Coast Horned Lizard Range Map:

Interestingly, an invasive ant species from Argentina is causing a population decline here in California. The Coast Horned Lizard is a bit of a picky eater and doesn’t like the taste of this new species! These Argentine ants are taking over, making the tastier native ants hard to find.

The Coast Horned Lizard is an expert at blending into its surroundings!

Their coloring and spiky scales help them blend so well with the surrounding soil that they’re almost impossible to spot!

YouTube video

Do you need additional help identifying horned lizards?

Try this field guide!

Which of these horned lizards have you seen in California?

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