Q. I visited Arizona recently and learned they have dozens of kinds of lizards. Being from Alabama, I know we have a few of our own as I often see them in our yard. How many lizards do we have in the Southeast compared to those in the Southwest? Also, Arizona has Gila monsters. Are any of our lizards dangerous or unusual in any way?
A. According to “A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona” (2022; Arizona Fish and Game Department) by Andy Holycross, Tom Brennan and Randall Babb, the state of Arizona has 55 kinds of lizards, of which 49 are native. Alabama has a dozen lizards. Throughout the entire eastern United States, the total number of native lizards is only 18.
As for unusual lizards, nothing quite compares to the Southwest’s Gila monster, which is the largest U.S. lizard and our only venomous one. The Southeast, however, is home to five native lizards not found in the Southwest that are distinctive because they have no legs. One is a group of four species, the glass lizards. They have at least one representative in every southeastern state. People often mistake these legless lizards for snakes, but they can be distinguished from them because snakes cannot hear airborne sounds and have no ear openings. Also, glass lizards have eyelids whereas snakes do not.
The fifth eastern legless lizard is the worm lizard, found in Florida and Georgia. These pale pink creatures are seldom seen by people and are likely to be mistaken for a worm when they are discovered. They burrow out of sight in deep sandy soils, never appearing aboveground except during flooding or when the ground is disturbed. Arizona has no legless lizards, although a long, slender one known as the Madrean alligator lizard has tiny legs and belongs to the same family as glass lizards.
Arizona takes the lead with seven kinds of whiptail lizards, which are slender, fast-moving lizards in deserts and other arid habitats. Most of them look alike, with yellow stripes, slender bodies and long tails. Their southeastern counterpart in both speed and appearance is the six-lined racerunner, which is native to every southeastern state from Virginia to Kentucky to Louisiana. The Southeast closes the numbers gap a bit with its eight different species of native skinks, compared to only five kinds in Arizona. The most common southeastern skinks are several species noted for their bright blue tails, black bodies and yellow stripes when they are juveniles. Despite regional misconceptions, skinks (and all lizards native to the Southeast) are completely harmless to humans and provide an ecological service by eating lots of nuisance insects. An iconic lizard native to most of the Southeast but absent from Arizona is the Carolina anole with its amazing ability to change body color from dark brown to bright green. The males have the additional distinction of sporting a bright red dewlap below the throat that can be expanded during territorial displays.
So, Arizona outstrips the entire eastern United States in biodiversity of native lizards, with almost three times as many species. However, another way to consider biodiversity is to include nonnative species in the population count, especially species that have become established residents in their new habitat. Counting Florida’s 17 native species, 65 different kinds of lizards have been reported in the state. If the census were to count native and nonnative, species, including all the lizards introduced from other parts of the world that end up calling Florida home, Arizona winds up in second place.
Regardless of how the total count is done, only one lizard thrives in Florida, Alabama and Arizona. The Mediterranean gecko is a nonnative lizard that does not fare well in the wild but now lives around houses and other buildings in cities such as Miami, Mobile and Phoenix. We may as well accept these benign little creatures as naturalized citizens of the lizard world as they are clearly here to stay.