Color Changing Leopard Lizards

A predator that actively hunts down its prey, with the ability to leap two feet in the air and change its colors depending on its environment, the Leopard Lizard is one animal that definitely deserves its name. 

Long Nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia wislizenii
The long-nose leopard lizard, at over 5 inches, is one of the largest in the Southwest.

The long-nosed leopard lizard, Gambelia wislizenii, lives across the Western United States and is at home in the hot Mojave and Chihuahuan Deserts. They range in a variety of colors, stripes, and spots, which they can change with chromatophores in their skin. Chromatophores are specialized cells containing pigments that contract or expand to change the colors and patterns on their skin.

Females will gain an orange color when they are sexually reproductive, while males will gain a pink color on their undersides. They also change their colors depending on environmental factors such as the temperature, the need to camouflage when hiding or hunting, and depending on their temperament.

A just captured female Leopard Lizard, notice its orange colors indicating it is in a reproductive state.
The same lizard, just 30 minutes after capture and being in a cooler environment. Notice how all the dark markings have disappeared revealing its green-brown skin.

Leopard Lizards Like It Hot!  These animals only come out of hibernation when the temperatures are consistently above 80 degrees, in our area that's between April and August. Well adapted to the heat, they will remain active in temperatures up to 105 degrees, way past most other reptiles. Once temperatures begin to cool below 80 in early fall, they will head underground to spend the next eight months in hibernation.

The best time to spot the leopard lizard is during the hot summer months in areas with vegetation cover, but they avoid dense areas where they wouldn't be able to run fast. These are very agile animals that have been known to jump up to two feet when catching prey. They are also active hunters that chase down their prey ranging from insects, small rodents, and especially other lizards. They also have powerful jaws for small creatures, and their bite can break skin if you happen to catch one and put your finger too close to its mouth. 

Long-nosed leopard lizards are amazing animals with an ability to thrive in the hot summers of the Southwest. Keep an eye out for them on your hikes!


Special thanks to Doug Burkett for lending his expertise to this blog.

Photo Credits:  USDA/ARS The Jornada Experimental Range, Doug Burkett

More Information can be found at Reptiles Magazine