Are you wondering what reptiles you can find in California?
This is a great question! Although these reptiles are widespread, they can be difficult to find. Most reptiles, including snakes, turtles, and lizards, are secretive and shy. But observing and finding reptiles is a really fun experience!
Below you will find a list of the most common and interesting reptiles that live in California. In addition, you will find detailed pictures, along with range maps for each species to help with your identification!
9 COMMON Reptiles in California:
#1. Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
- Crotalus atrox
- Adults typically grow to about 4 feet in length.
- Coloring ranges from brown, gray, brick red, pinkish, and chalky white. Look for the darker diamond-shaped blotches down its back, outlined by white scales.
- Broad, spade-shaped head with a black mask over the eyes. Elliptical pupils and pits between eyes and nostrils.
- A rattle on the tail alternates between black and white-colored bands.
This famous VENOMOUS snake is a well-known reptile in California!
You might spot them in deserts, grassy plains, forested areas, coastal prairies, rocky hillsides, and river bottoms. But your best chance to see one might be on a rural road in the evening because of the pavement’s heat.
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake Range Map
The Western Diamond-backed feeds on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, prairie dogs, rabbits, mice, and rats. They also consume birds that fly within reach. Like other pit vipers, they ambush their prey and track them while the venom takes effect.
When threatened, these reptiles typically stand their ground. They rattle and coil, lifting themselves off the ground to prepare to strike.
If you hear their characteristic rattle, leave the area slowly! Due to their specialized fangs and large venom glands, these reptiles can deliver a lot of venom in a single bite! Untreated bites have a 10 – 20% mortality rate, so make sure to get to the hospital quickly if struck!
#2. Terrestrial Garter Snake
- Thamnophis elegans
- Adults range from 18 to 41 inches in length.
- Most adults have three yellow, light orange, or white stripes; one down their back and two down their sides.
- Coloration is widely variable. Individuals may be brownish or greenish. Some have red and black spots between the stripes, and occasionally all black individuals are found.
Although they’re common in California, these reptiles can be difficult to identify!
Even trained herpetologists have issues! Its coloration varies widely, and there are believed to be six subspecies, although scientists still debate this.
Terrestrial Garter Snakes occupy various habitats, including both grasslands and forests. They can even be found in mountainous areas up to 13,000 feet above sea level. As the name suggests, they’re primarily found on land. But interestingly, these reptiles are great swimmers!
This species is the only garter snake with a tendency to constrict prey! Most garter snakes grab their prey quickly and just swallow, rubbing their prey against the ground if necessary.
Terrestrial Garter Snakes aren’t aggressive or dangerous, but they possess mildly venomous saliva! It can cause a muscle infection or even kill some muscle tissue. Most bites on humans just cause pain and some swelling.
#3. California Kingsnake
- Lampropeltis californiae
- Adults range from 36 to 48 inches in length.
- Most individuals are black or brown, with whitish bands running down their bodies.
California Kingsnakes are among the toughest reptiles in California!
Most of the year, these California Kingsnakes are found out during the day, except during cold weather when they retreat underground to enter a hibernation-like state called brumation.
California Kingsnake Range Map
Do you know how kingsnakes got the name “king?”
It refers to their ability to hunt down and eat other snakes! Incredibly, California Kingsnakes will even go after venomous rattlesnakes.
This species has the incredible adaptation to constrict its prey. In fact, California Kingsnakes have the strongest squeeze compared to their body’s size! It’s thought they evolved this trait since their main diet consists of other reptiles, which don’t require as much oxygen as mammals.
#4. Western Whiptail
- Aspidoscelis tigris
- 2.5 to 5 inches long from snout to vent (length does not include the tail).
- Body coloring is gray-brown to yellowish, with dark bars or spots that form a web-like pattern.
- Skin folds are present on the neck, making the throat appear wrinkled.
- Rust-colored patches are often present on the sides of the belly.
You can find this reptile in California in sandy, rocky, or firmly packed soil.
Their habitat preferences range from open forest to arid scrubland. Western Whiptails eat other reptiles, scorpions, spiders, termites, and beetles. As you can see, this lizard is anything but picky!
Their physical characteristics and habitats are so varied that there are sixteen distinct subspecies! As you can see in the map above, five subspecies are present throughout the Southwest.
#5. Common Sagebrush Lizard
- Sceloporus graciosus
- 1.9 to 3.5 inches long from snout to vent (length does not include the tail).
- Coloring is gray or brown with a light stripe on each side, a black bar at the shoulder, and blue patches on the belly.
- They have unusually long, almost spidery back claws.
As the name suggests, look for this common reptile in sagebrush in California.
Common Sagebrush Lizard Range Map:
Common Sagebrush Lizards eat a wide variety of insects and even scorpions! They hibernate during winter when temperatures drop, and food becomes scarce.
The easiest way to tell if you’ve found a Common Sagebrush Lizard is to look at its belly. The brilliant blue spots on its throat and abdomen are a dead giveaway!
#6. Western Fence Lizard
- Sceloporus occidentalis
- 2.25 to 3.5 inches long from snout to vent (length does not include the tail).
- Black, gray, or dark brown coloring with uneven lighter blotches.
- The sides of the belly are blue, and the backs of the limbs are orange or yellow.
If you see a dark lizard on the ground or a fence, chances are you’ve found a Western Fence Lizard.
They’re the most commonly seen reptile within their range! They aren’t picky about their habitat and live in most ecosystems except the desert.
Western Fence Lizard Range Map:
A fascinating talent of Western Fence Lizards is that they can help lower YOUR risk of Lyme disease.
This spiny lizard’s blood can kill the Lyme Bacteria that many ticks carry! So once an infected tick feeds on the lizard’s blood, they’re cured!
#7. Common Side-Blotched Lizard
- Uta stansburiana
- 1.5 to 2.5 inches long from snout to vent (length does not include the tail).
- Coloring is brownish, occasionally blue-gray, with a blue to black blotch on either side of the chest.
- This species often has white speckles dotting its back in the light color phase.
Common Side-blotched Lizards are comfortable in many different habitats. They’re abundant in their range and easy to find by concentrating on the ground where they spend most of their time.
There are three separate morphs of the male Side-Blotched Lizard, and interestingly, this plays a huge role in the mating habits of this species.
They employ a Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanism, with one morph being dominant over the second (like paper over rock) but not over the third (like scissors cutting paper). This unique mechanism causes a “rotation” of the most common morph each breeding season! The three morphs are pictured below:
#8. Western Pond Turtle
- Actinemus marmorata
- 3.5 to 8.5 inches long.
- Their limbs have prominent scales, and the head is spotted or webbed with black.
- Carapace coloring is black or dark green to brown with some yellowish spots. Usually, a pattern of dots or lines radiates from the center of each shell plate.
These reptiles can be found in ponds, lakes, rivers, and even irrigation ditches. They prefer habitats that give them access to plenty of aquatic plants like watercress, water lilies, and cattails.
Western Pond Turtle Rangemap:
The Western Pond Turtle is one of the most endangered reptiles in California.
Over-hunting for food and the pet trade has put pressure on their population. For example, Western Pond Turtles were once the main food source for hogs bred on Hog Island in California! The hogs learned to dive for the reptiles in the lake’s shallow water. They got so good at hunting and eating the turtles that, unfortunately, the population there is now extinct.
#9. Desert Tortoise
- Gopherus agassizii
- 8 to 15 inches long.
- The carapace is high and domed with no definite pattern but usually ridges in concentric circles on the plates.
- Coloring is brown, gray, or horn. The belly is yellowish or light brown.
Desert Tortoises live in arid climates and can withstand very little rain and intense heat. They prefer firm ground for building burrows and also use rocks as shelter. Their burrows have a characteristic half-moon-shaped opening.
Desert Tortoise Rangemap:
This species is one of the toughest reptiles in California!
This tortoise spends 95% of its life underground, conserving water and energy and only coming to the surface to eat and breed. Yet, it can survive ground temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit! The Desert Tortoise is one of few species that can withstand the extreme heat and lack of rain in Death Valley.
The Desert Tortoise is an “indicator species,” one that shows the health of an ecosystem by its population health. Unfortunately, this species is in widespread decline throughout its habitat. Reasons for this decline and the decline of many desert species include urban expansion, mining, natural predation, and off-road vehicle use that destroys their burrows.
What types of reptiles in California have you seen?
Let us know in the comments!
And if you’re looking for a more comprehensive list of specific reptiles like snakes, lizards, or turtles, check out our ID guides to these fascinating creatures!