Lizard Love Bites

May 27, 2015

Have you recently seen lizards in L.A. that appear to be biting each other, or maybe they are trying to eat each other? 

If you have, you are not alone. Citizen scientist, Diana Beardsley, saw these two in her lizard-filled backyard and sent us this picture. It became the latest data point in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California project (RASCals) which helps us understand the state of urban lizard populations. It also helped us realize a pattern! Diana was not the only one to send us a picture of one lizard biting another. Many of the people who sent us these pictures were not sure exactly what they were witnessing–were they fighting, trying to eat each other, or doing something else entirely? Turns out it was something else. What looks like a fight between two lizards, is actually a form of lizard courtship, a lizard love bite if you will. Museum herpetologist, Dr. Greg Pauly says, "male alligator lizards bite the female behind the head during mating, which holds her in place until she is ready." Lizards have been observed in this position for a long time—sometimes over an hour, and oftentimes moving through open spaces which makes them easily visible. Some people speculate that the mating hold is a show of strength by the male, to prove how worthy of a mate he is. However, as Greg points out, there's no data to support this claim but he concedes that it could prove to be true.  All of this might sound a little harsh to some people, but this mating behavior has not been known to harm the female. If you see lizards engaged in this behavior, please do not try to separate them or move them, as this could harm the lizards. This is their normal behavior, and an integral part of their mating ritual. When Greg saw Diana's photo he wasn't surprised, "it's mating season and this is a typical mating hold exhibited by alligator lizards." Southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) are the most widespread lizards in urban L.A., but they can be secretive and fast, which sometimes make them hard to photograph. However, during the breeding season finding two lizards out in the open—one biting another—leads to lots of curious people taking photos. All told, we received seven photos of lizards mating in March and April, which is about 10% of all RASCals submissions during the time period. Here are some more pictures of alligator lizards in the mating hold:  On March 19, Louise Whitaker saw these Alligator lizards and sent the photo in to our nature@nhm.org e-mail.

On March 27, Ron Matumoto submitted this picture to the RASCals project on iNaturalist:

Finally, on April 22, Jean Brandt sent in this photo.

These images provide photographic evidence that lizards in these areas are healthy enough to support breeding populations. If the photos come from urban and suburban areas, then Greg and other scientists can study them to understand why lizard populations are able to survive despite the proliferation of human development. Greg says, "As we grow RASCals, we should get dozens of these mating entries. Once we have them, I think I will be able to write a paper about breeding behavior of these lizards entirely based on citizen science observations. It will be awesome." So if you see lizards entangled in a love bite (or doing anything at all, Greg's really not that picky) please take a photo and send them to rascals@nhm.org. Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A. Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

7 Comments

I have observed two Southern California alligator lizards in what could only be described as their "love bite embrace" now since 7:30 am this morning. I observed this pair on my very cold patio (air temp 59 F). I thought they were dead until I looked closer and then looked them up on-line. I wonder how long they've actually been in this embrace? It will be at least 5 hours since I started keeping track. Unless he has let go one or more times that I didn't see. I have observed some movement with him dragging her around a little. I placed a warm cup next to them which they snuggled up against. Won't his mouth get tired or even stuck?

I encountered a pair in our shed in this embrace which I just looked up to see it is a natural "love bite courtship". I thought the worst at first until researching this site and see now that our shed is actually a lizard love shack of sorts here in the Sierra Nevada area.

Jeanne That is so funny my wife is freaking out about two lizards doing this at of house near Houston and ask me to look it up. I guess it's just their thing, looked mean at first I started to thump one to break up the fight.

We found a pair mating like this in our backyard in Oxnard on Saturday 23 April around 1:30 p.m. or so. The male was startled by us and dragged the female across the sidewalk to another secluded spot. As I write this (7:30 p.m. on Sunday) they're still at it. I thought they were dead, but the male at least was still breathing. That's at least 30 hours.

Saw 3 lizards on our back patio on thurs evening -- 2 were engaged in this love bite behavior. Didn't get a picture but they remained in plain view for 30 min or more, then moved together (both sets of legs moving, but with the male still biting the female) about 10 feet to a corner of the patio where we could no longer see them. Glad to find this article, as we had no idea what to think of this behavior.

My dogs were freaking out about something in the backyard this afternoon, which turned out to be two lizards in the 'courtship' position - one lizard had the head of the other lizard in his mouth. I did have to gently push at the pair, so that they'd move beyond our fence - otherwise, there was a chance that my freaked out dogs would eventually try to eat the lovers. They both ran off, but the male never let go of the female. They stayed at the bottom of our stairs, still freaking out the dogs, but out of harm's way. It's amazing that their natural skittishness disappears during this ritual. I could easily go up to them without their moving out of the way. Seems a little dangerous for the lizards - how can this behavior help the species?

My leopard gecko is biting a blanket. Is that normal?

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