Texas spiny lizard is master of camouflage

Texas spiny lizard

At a New Year’s Day get-together at a neighbor’s house, talk turned to the creatures that share our suburban northwest Austin neighborhood: deer, armadillos, raccoons, coyotes, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, and alligator lizards, which someone said they never see anymore. “They’re still here,” I protested, to dubious looks. “I see them basking on the deck sometimes, and they live in the trees.” I’d taken a picture of one, I remembered, just before the holidays.

Well, you native Texans reading this no doubt realize that I’d confused two distinct types of lizards, the alligator lizard (Gerrhonotus infernalis) and the smaller Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus), pictured here. Now that I’ve done a little research, I know the difference, though if you’d asked me before, I’d have said the Texas spiny lizard looks a little gatorish.

More often, however, the arboreal Texas spiny lizard is mistaken for the ground-dwelling Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), commonly known as the horny toad. The horny toad is iconic in Texas and is, in fact, the state reptile. (Does every state have a state reptile? I have no idea.) Once common throughout Texas, the horny toad is now rare in the eastern and central parts of the state and is listed as threatened elsewhere because of habitat loss, the illegal pet trade, pesticide use, and the spread of nonnative fire ants.

The Texas spiny lizard suffers none of these problems, living as it does in the trees and perhaps being a little less distinctive and “collectible.” It grows to 8 to 11 inches long and dines on beetles and other insects. Males have blue markings along each side of the belly. Compared to the approachable, smooth-skinned, green anole, which is commonly found in Austin gardens, the Texas spiny lizard looks fierce, spiny, and, well, coldly reptilian. It’s a total chicken, however, fleeing at human approach into the trees.

I spotted the Texas spiny lizard pictured above on a live oak in the front garden and was struck anew by how well its coloring matches the tree trunk. This one froze as I neared, then skittered around the other side of the trunk. I managed one quick photo before it disappeared into the canopy. I may not see them often, but I like knowing they’re up there, eating bugs and sunning themselves under the Death Star.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

13 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Finding some native fauna in our garden is one of the great reasons to garden. I have never seen any type of lizard in my garden. Only the past couple of years have I seen a snake. Maybe the lizards will make a come back here too. Hopefully.

    No lizards? I can’t imagine such a thing, but perhaps they are more common in hotter climates like mine. We see a snake from time to time too—nothing venomous so far, but I expect there are rattlers and coral snakes in the greenbelt out back. I hope they will stay there. —Pam

  2. jenny says:

    I agree it is wonderful to have so much wildlife around us. The only time I have seen a ‘horny toad’ was out in west Texas but the alligator lizard I have seen in our garden. Just once. It was the day that Gardeners’ Supply was filming and they spotted it. Out came the camera. Will send you a photo.

    Thanks for sending the picture of the alligator lizard. What an alert-looking fellow! I’d love to see one in my garden. —Pam

  3. Layanee says:

    You are quick with the camera. I am sure he scurried out of view in the blink of a lens but you got a great shot. Nature rules.

    Well, I wasn’t as quick as I needed to be, but I did have my telephoto lens with me or I’d never have gotten a picture at all. He wouldn’t let me get close enough for that. —Pam

  4. Shirley says:

    Impressive you caught the lizard on camera, they are so fast. I found one stuck on a plant during a sudden cool down, he looked dead but as soon as the sun hit he took off. I’ve got a photo I’ll try to find.

    Seeing more of our native wildlife is one of the advantages of giving up lawn and adding native and adapted plants.

    Yes, it really is one of the more rewarding aspects of gardening. A lawn attracts so little in the way of wildlife, but add a few flowering or berrying plants, some shrubs for cover, and a water source, and boom! now you can watch birds, butterflies, and, yes, lizards! —Pam

  5. Alison says:

    I love reptiles! The only ones I ever see are snakes, though. I don’t think we have an abundance of lizards up here in the PNW. I don’t think I’d be such a fan of snakes if I lived in Texas. I don’t know if I’d even have the courage to be a gardener. Your spiny lizard does look a lot like the tree bark.

    Ha! You would have the courage, Alison. A gardener cannot be denied, even if there are rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas out there. But living close to town eliminates the chances of any of those showing up in your garden, so sometimes it just comes down to choice of neighborhood. Many people in Austin choose to live in the hills on the west side of town for the views and the wildlife, and the creepy crawlies do come along with that choice. My own neighborhood is just on the verge of that zone; my former garden was more in-town and much tamer. They’ve both been fun. —Pam

  6. Jason says:

    In Illinois we do not have a state lizard, but we do have a state reptile, the painted turtle, so there.

    There you go! Maybe every state does have a state reptile then. There’s another state turtle mentioned in the comment below yours. —Pam

  7. jen says:

    NC’s state reptile is the Eastern Box Turtle, which is just as cute as can be.

    Aw! I wonder if any state has been bold enough to select a snake as its state reptile, or whether it’s all turtles and lizards? —Pam

  8. Pam/Digging says:

    If anyone is curious to know whether other states have state reptiles, aside from Texas, Illinois, and North Carolina (mentioned in comments above), I just read Wikipedia’s entry on state reptiles and found that 26 states, mostly southern, where reptiles are more common, have designated one. The turtle is overwhelming popular, but so are lizards and even a couple of snakes. And how could I have forgotten the American alligator? Several coastal states have chosen that oversized reptile. —Pam

  9. I love to watch the TX spiny lizards running around our yard too. My husband goes on lizard patrol every day counting them and anoles. Funny. We had one TX spiny that would climb up on my patio furniture at the same time every day and rest in the same spot for a little while and then scurry away. When I had company for a week and we were using his patio furniture, he quit coming around :-( I hope he’s out there somewhere. Sometimes I see them with their tails half cut off, so it’s a wild world out there in the yard.

    It is a wild world. I’ve wondered whether screech owls eat them, but I suppose they find a nice hole to hide in at night. —Pam

  10. We have spiny lizards here. Not as many as the anoles.

    We were once ‘gifted’ with half of one, by the cat. To say I was not happy, would be quite an understatement. :(

    When I was a kid, we had ‘horny toads’ everywhere. They were fun to watch. Now, we don’t ever see them. That’s sad.

    I’m sorry I arrived in central Texas too late to see one! I hope they are holding their own in West Texas. —Pam

  11. So sad to live in a state without an official reptile, but not sad to have left the rattlesnakes behind when I left the house I grew up in.

    Not even a water-loving turtle for Oregon? That’s too bad. But I can see why you wouldn’t regret leaving rattlers behind. Still, there’s something about the wild being really wild that appeals to me. —Pam

  12. peter schaar says:

    The anoles in my Dallas garden love to run along the top of the wood fence. I have not seen any other lizard species. When I was young, “horny toads” (horned lizards) were as common in Fort Worth as mosquitos, but I never see them any more. Same for armadillos (aka Texas speed bumps).

    Man, do we have armadillos here. Too many, I’d say. They’re always trying to dig under my fence to bulldoze the garden for earthworms and grubs. —Pam

  13. Cynthia says:

    We frequently see lizards that look like this hanging around on our cedar porch posts and support beams. Perhaps they think they are on trees. I’d not ever taken the time to identify them, though, so thanks! I, too, remember seeing lots of horny toads as a kid out in west Texas.

    Enjoy your lizards, Cynthia! —Pam