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What is a Leopard Lizard?

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  • Written By: Lynndee Molyneaux
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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There are three generally-accepted species of leopard lizard — the long-nosed, or Gambelia wislizenii; the blunt-nosed, also known as Gambelia sila, and Cope's, or Gambelia copeii. The long-nosed variety is mainly found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, though it is sometimes found in southeast Oregon and Idaho. The blunt-nosed type is typically seen only in the deserts of Central California, while Cope's leopard lizard may be found in southern California and in the part of Mexico known as Baja California.

Lizards of the genus Gambelia are characterized by a gray, yellow, or brown body covered with a pattern of spots and crossbars. They also typically have a light-colored underbody and gray markings on the underside of the neck. They can range from about 3 to a little more than 5 in (7.6 to 14.6 cm) long, not including the tail.

Leopard lizards mainly eat insects, arthropods, and other lizards, though on occasion they also eat flowers, seeds, leaves, berries, and other plant matter. Cannibalistic in nature, they sometimes consume other leopard lizards as well. They primarily hunt and kill their prey by ambush, or waiting motionless and hidden by vegetation until their prey comes within striking distance. Sometimes they run after prey and leap into the air to catch it. The leopard lizard generally prefers to make its home in open areas, where there is sparse vegetation for this purpose.

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Female leopard lizards often change color when carrying eggs, and develop reddish-orange spots and crossbars under their tails and along their sides. They generally lay between two and ten eggs during the spring or summer. After this, their roles as parents are complete. They do not tend to their eggs or actively raise their young. The eggs typically hatch during late summer.

Behaviorally, leopard lizards are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. They often emerge in the mornings to bask in the sun. These reptiles are usually solitary and territorial animals with combative personalities. They may hiss and squeal when threatened, and are not afraid to bite.

The long-nosed leopard lizard is generally slightly larger than the blunt-nosed variety. It goes through light and dark phases of appearance. During its light phase, it appears gray, brown, or yellow in color, and has many dark markings. While in the dark phase, it is almost the opposite, being predominantly brown in color and having light-colored spots and crossbars. This species has been found living anywhere from sea level, up to 6,000 ft (1,830 m). Some experts consider the Lahontan Basin leopard lizard, or Gambelia wislizenii maculosus, to be its own species, though this classification is not widely accepted. For now, it is classified as a subspecies of Gambelia wislizenii.

In comparison with the long-nosed type, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard is distinguished by its truncated snout. Males of this species can change colors slightly during the breeding season, developing a pink or rust-colored tinge on their throat, chest, and, on occasion, the body. Blunt-nosed leopard lizards are not typically found at as great an elevation range as their long-nosed counterparts. They may be found residing at elevation levels between 100 and 2,400 ft (30 to 730 m).

Like the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, Cope's leopard lizard is generally slightly smaller than the long-nosed variety. Once considered a subspecies of Gambelia wislizenii, it is now recognized as its own species. This repitle will sometimes flatten its body and lay still when threatened, blending in with the ground instead of running away or fighting.

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