Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia wislizenii)

Photo by Jim Rorabaugh

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (juvenile), Cochise Couny, AZ. Photo by Jim Rorabaugh

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The Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) is a relatively large predatory lizard, found primarily in desert plains characterized by sagebrush, creosotebush, and other low scattered vegetation within the 100-mile circle (centered at Tucson). The lizard is active during the warm periods of the day with most activity occurring during the morning hours in the summer months. During early spring mornings, the lizards can be observed basking on rocks and other objects above the ground surface. During the hot summers the lizards rarely bask on objects; instead, they spend their time in the broken shade of shrubs (Tanner and Krogh 1974).  They hibernate during the cold months (Parker and Pianka 1976, Tanner and Krogh 1974). Figure 1 depicts the range in Arizona.

Figure 1. Range of Gambelia wislizenii in Arizona.  Map courtesy of Thomas C. Brennan. www.reptilesofaz.org

Figure 1. Range of Gambelia wislizenii in Arizona. Map courtesy of Thomas C. Brennan. www.reptilesofaz.org

The Long-nosed Leopard Lizard mainly uses a sit-and-wait strategy to capture prey by means of an ambush technique (Tollestrup 1982), but can also actively search and stalk prey (Montanucci 1978). Common prey items include beetles, flying insects, grasshoppers, scorpions, and other lizards, such as Aspidoscelis tigris, Callisaurus draconoides, Uta stansburiana, Sceloporus spp., Phrynosoma platyrhinos, and Urosaurus graciosus (Figure 2; Mitchell 1984, Parker and Pianka 1976, Tanner and Krogh 1974). Cannibalism by this species also seems to be fairly common (Smith and Fritts 1969).

Gambelia wislizenii males tend to be smaller than females, with an average snout-vent length of 99.4 mm (3.9 in) and 110.1 mm (4.3 in) for males and females, respectively, in the Sonoran Desert (Lappin and Swinney 1999). In most iguanids, the males are larger because of their need to defend territories. Male Long-nosed Leopard Lizards, however, do not defend territories; therefore, there is no sexual selection for large males (Tollstrup 1982). A larger sized female, on the other hand, can lead to a larger clutch size, which ranges from 2 to 12 eggs (Parker and Pianka 1976).  In addition, a larger size may enable females to successfully pursue and consume larger prey and thus reduce direct competition for food with the smaller males (Tollstrup 1982).

The breeding ecology of the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard is similar to other iguanids. Males typically do not reach sexual maturity until after two hibernations, emerging in April or May with enlarged testes (Parker and Pianka 1976). In southeastern Arizona, the egg-laying season is more restricted than in other parts of range, probably in late May to late June or early July. Eggs are usually deposited in burrows, and hatchlings appear in July and August (Mitchell 1984, Parker and Pianka 1976). During the reproductive season female Long-nosed Leopard Lizards will develop red-orange coloration along the sides of the face, body, and ventral surface of the tail (Figure 3; Medica et al. 1973). The coloration develops when eggs are being formed inside the lizard and will fade after the eggs are deposited. Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) is the color inducing agent (Medica et al. 1973).

The Long-nosed Leopard Lizard has extensive variation in its dorsal color pattern, and Montanucci (1978) developed a classification system to identify the lizards. FiveGambelia Fig 2 jpg color patterns were described, each pattern morph predominately occurring in a particular geographic region. In the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts, as well as in Baja California, polymorphism is low or does not exist. Long-nosed Leopard Lizards in the Mojave Desert have the most variation because genetic flow from the surrounding desert regions has allowed for rich color pattern diversity. The color patterns seem to be a mechanism to conceal the lizard in its habitat. For example, the reticulate pattern (Class D in Montanucci’s system) helps conceal the animal in Artemisia-Atriplex shrub habitats in the northern deserts. The punctuate pattern (Class B) and the dorsal white dot pattern (Class C and C1) conceal the lizard in open sandy habitats. The cryptic patterns not only make it more difficult for predators to detect the lizards, but also aid in the lizards’ own predatory behaviors.

Although most lizards are silent, the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard is one of the few species that make sounds (Crowley and Pietruszka 1983). When provoked or alarmed, the lizard makes a vocal cry that sounds like a moan or a wail. Wever et al. (1966) studied the ear structure of the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard and concluded that its ear structure does not show any special features that depart from other iguanid species or that suggest an unusual ability of pitch discrimination. However, unlike other members of Iguania, the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard is sensitive to sounds in the low-frequency region from 300 to 700 cycles (Wever et al. 1966).

The genus Gambelia honors William Gambel (1821-1849; ornithologist), and the specific epithet wislizenii honors Frederick A. Wislizenius (1810-1889; physician and

Photo by Cecil Schwalbe

Figure 3. Long-nosed Leopard Lizard photographed at the
Bouse Dunes near Parker, AZ. Depicted here is a gravid female in
her post-nuptial blush. Photo credit: Cecil Schwalbe.

botanist; Moll 2003). The original description of the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard, as presented by Spencer Baird and Charles Girard, was published in 1852, and was not extensive (Baird and Girard 1852a). The text as written (Figure 4):

“Crotaphytus Wislizenii, B. and G. — Head proportionally narrow and elongated; cephalic plates and scales on the back very small: yellowish brown, spotted all over with small patches of  deeper brown or black. Caught near Santa Fé, by Dr. Wislizenius; specimens of  the same species sent in by Lieut. Col. J. D. Graham, collected between San Antonio and El Paso del Norte.”

Baird and Girard prefaced their short accounts (the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard write up was one of many) by stating that longer descriptions would appear in Captain Howard Stansbury’s report to Congress on the Great Salt Lake (Baird and Girard 1852b).

Although a fairly common species on the landscape, the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard is well worth observing in the field. Take special note of their hunting behavior, and maybe you will be lucky enough to catch them in the act of taking down another lizard. Be sure to add this colorful lizard to your “to find” list when out enjoying the herpetofauna within the 100-mile circle.

Literature Cited

Figure 4. Original text describing for the first time the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard. Image credit: Howard Clark.

Figure 4. Original text describing for the first time the Long-nosed Leopard Lizard. Image credit: Howard Clark.

Baird, S. F., and C. Girard. 1852a. Characteristics of some new reptiles in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia 6:69.

Baird, S. F., and C. Girard. 1852b. Reptiles. Pages 336-353 in: H. Stansbury, ed. Exploration and survey of the valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah. Philadelphia, PA.

Crowley, S. R., and R. D. Pietruszka. 1983. Aggressiveness and vocalization in the leopard lizard (Gambelia wislizenii): the influence of temperature. Animal Behaviour 31:1055-1060.

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard photographed near Jawbone Off-
Highway Vehicle Open Area, Mojave Desert, CA.
Photo credit: Howard Clark

Lappin, A. K., and E. J. Swinney. 1999. Sexual dimorphism as it relates to natural history of leopard lizards (Crotaphytidae: Gambelia). Copeia 1999:649-660.

Medica, P. A., F. B. Turner, and D. D. Smith. 1973. Hormonal induction of color change in female leopard lizards, Crotaphytus wislizenii. Copeia 1973:658-661.

Mitchell, J. C. 1984. Observations on the ecology and reproduction of the leopard lizard, Gambelia wislizenii (Iguanidae), in southeastern Arizona. Southwestern Naturalist  29:509-511.

Moll, E. O. 2003. III. Gambelia wislizenii (Baird and Girard, 1852) – Long-nosed Leopard Lizard. Sonoran Herpetologist 16:50-52.

Montanucci, R. R. 1978. Dorsal pattern polymorphism and adaptation in Gambelia wislizenii (Reptilia, Lacertilia, Iguanidae). Journal of Herpetology 12:73-81.

Parker, W. S., and E. R. Pianka. 1976. Ecological observations on the leopard lizard (Crotaphytus wislizenii) in different parts of its range. Herpetologica 32:95-114.

Smith, H. M., and T. H. Fritts. 1969. Cannibalism in the lizard Sceloporus chrysostictus. Journal of Herpetology 3:182-183.

Tanner, W. W., and J. E. Krogh. 1974. Ecology of the leopard lizard, Crotaphytus wislizeni at the Nevada Test Site, Nye County, Nevada. Herpetologica 30:63-72.

Tollestrup, K. 1982. Growth and reproduction in two closely related species of leopard lizards, Gambelia silus and Gambelia wislizenii. American Midland Naturalist 108:1-20.

Wever, E. G., M. Hepp-Reymond, and J. A. Vernon. 1966. Vocalization and hearing in the leopard lizard. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 55:98-106.

Author: Howard Clark

Originally published in the Sonoran Herpetologist 2010 23(5):75-77

For additional information on this species, please see the following volumes and pages in the Sonoran Herpetologist: 1998 Feb:14-15; 2003 Jul:50-52; 2011 Aug:76.


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