Close up of the head of a desert horned lizard, named for sharp spikes lining the back and sides of their heads. NPS / Robb Hannawacker
Lizards, snakes, and tortoises galore!

NPS / Robb Hannawacker

Reptiles are closely associated with the desert in many peoples minds. This seems to be based partly on reality and partly on perception. Reptiles do form a very conspicuous part of the vertebrate fauna of warm deserts such as are found in Joshua Tree National Park. There may not be any larger number of reptiles in the desert than in neighboring less arid areas, but the lack of dense vegetation on the desert certainly makes them easier to see. Many of the lizards are especially conspicuous as they bask atop boulders or other elevated sites.

Reptiles are better adapted to life in arid lands than are most birds and mammals. Being ectotherms (obtaining their body heat solely from the external environment), reptiles have a much lower cost of living than do birds and mammals, which require a great deal of food to fuel the metabolic process that allows them to produce their own body heat. In desert lands, where primary productivity (plant growth) is low, reptiles are thus able to maintain larger populations on the limited food supplies than is possible for birds and mammals.

The most limiting factor for life on the desert is drinking water. Reptiles are pre-adapted to such arid conditions. They do not need water for cooling because they do not perspire or pant. They just crawl into a cool hole in the heat of the day. Their scales also greatly retard water loss through the skin. In addition, reptiles do not need water for excretion; they produce no urine. Their nitrogenous wastes are excreted as a solid: uric acid. Reptiles can get all the water they need from the food they eat. Although desert tortoises and probably most other reptiles will drink water when it appears after summer rains, many lizards and snakes probably go their whole lives without a drink of water.

Check out our Reptiles album on Flickr.


Reptile List





Mojave Desert Tortoise
Gopherus agassizii
Creosote bush lowlands in the Mojave Desert. Rocky hillsides and bajadas in the Colorado Desert. threatened


Woodland Alligator Lizard
Elgaria multicarinata webbii
Prefers moderately damp areas; northwest section rare
San Diegan Legless Lizard
Anniella stebbinsi
Sandy or loose loamy soils with some moisture; northwest section special concern
Great Basin Collared Lizard
Crotaphytus bicinctores
Rocky slopes, rock outcrops of gullies, and boulder-strewn alluvial fans common
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Gambelia wislizenii
Open sandy or gravelly flats and plains; less commonly in rocky areas common
Desert Banded Gecko
Coleonyx variegatus variegatus
Most common in sandy flats; occasional in canyons and rocky areas common
Desert Iguana
Dipsosaurus dorsalis
Most common on sandy flats, dunes, and washes but also along rocky washes and on alluvial fans common
Common Chuckwalla
Sauromalus ater
Rocky outcrops, rocky canyons, rocky slopes, and alluvial fans special concern
Western Zebra-tailed Lizard
Callisaurus draconoides rhodostictus
Open areas of sandy and gravelly desert flats, sandy washes, and alluvial fans common
Blainville's Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma blainvillii
Northwest section where loose, fine soil with high sand content is present special concern
Southern Desert Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma platyrhinos calidiarum
Sandy flats and canyon bottoms common
Desert Spiny Lizard
Sceloporus magister
Most abundant in the Joshua tree woodland. Occasionally on rock outcrops. common
Great Basin Fence Lizard
Sceloporus occidentalis longipes
Rocky outcrops above 3,000 feet. common
Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard
Sceloporus uniformis
Most abundant in the Joshua tree woodland. Occasionally on rock outcrops. common
Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard
Uma scoparia
Wind-blown sand of dry lake beds, washes, and large dunes special concern
Western Long-tailed Brush Lizard
Urosaurus graciosus graciosus
Bushes and small trees; also in clumps of galleta grass, Pleuraphis rigida common
Western Side-blotched Lizard
Uta stansburiana elegans
Open, sunny ground. Usually some rocks and loose soil are present. common
Western Red-tailed Skink
Plestiodon gilberti rubricaudatus
Prefers moderately damp areas; northwest section common
Great Basin Whiptail
Aspidoscelis tigris tigris
Most common in areas where vegetation is densest common
Desert Night Lizard
Xantusia vigilis
Most common in Joshua tree woodland, especially within fallen branches of Joshua trees and yuccas. common


Rosy Boa
Lichanura orcutti
Rocky hills and canyons special concern
Mojave Glossy Snake
Arizona elegans candida
Prefers sandy areas, but also occurs on hard pan or in rocky areas; northern section common
Desert Glossy Snake
Arizona elegans eburnata
Sandy flats; southern section common
Mojave Shovel-nosed Snake
Chionactis occipitalis
Sandy desert, creosote busy, and dune areas. Occasionally in rocky canyons and on rocky slopes. common
Red Racer
Coluber flagellum piceus
Prefers open areas with high visibility. common
California Striped Racer
Coluber lateralis lateralis
Most common in pinyon-juniper woodland; northwest section common
Northern Desert Nightsnake
Hypsiglena chlorophaea deserticola
Most common in rocky areas common
California Kingsnake
Lampropeltis californiae
Found in all communities; most common in canyons with water. common
Spotted Leaf-nosed Snake
Phyllorhynchus decurtatus
Areas of mixed sandy and rocky soil common
Sonoran Gophersnake
Pituophis catenifer affinis
Creosote bush scrub; southern section common
Great Basin Gophersnake
Pituophis catenifer deserticola
Creosote bush scrub, pinyon-juniper, and Joshua tree woodlands, desert riparian community; northern section. common
Long-nosed Snake
Rhinocheilus lecontei
Creosote bush and pinyon-juniper woodlands common
Desert Patch-nosed Snake
Salvadora hexalepis hexalepis
Creosote bush scrub, desert washes; southern section rare
Mojave Patch-nosed Snake
Salvadora hexalepis mojavensis
Most common on sandy valley floors; northern section common
Variable Groundsnake
Sonora semiannulata semiannulata
Desert flats, sand hummocks, open rocky hillsides with loose soil, sandy washes, dry streambeds, and riparian thickets rare
Smith's Black-headed Snake
Tantilla hobartsmithi
Desert riparian, pinyon-juniper, and Joshua tree woodland; creosote bush and alkali scrubs; perennial grassland common
California Lyresnake
Trimorphodon lyrophanes
Rocky foothills, canyons, and mesas common
Desert Threadsnake
Rena humilis cahuilae
Sandy hills and rocky slopes where soil moisture is present; southern section common
Southwestern Threadsnake
Rena humilis humilis
Moist areas in canyons, rocky slopes, boulder piles, and among the roots of shrubs; northern section common
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
Crotalus atrox
Areas with fairly thick vegetation; southern section common
Mojave Desert Sidewinder
Crotalus cerastes cerastes
Sandy deserts, occasionally in rocky areas common
Colorado Desert Sidewinder
Crotalus cerastes laterorepens
Sandy, south-facing canyons; southwestern section common
Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake
Crotalus mitchelli pyrrhus
Rocky slopes, canyons, and rock outcrops common
Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
Crotalus oreganus helleri
Pinyon-juniper woodland communities; northwestern section common
Red Diamond Rattlesnake
Crotalus ruber
Brush shrouded granite boulders and cactus patches; western section common
Northern Mojave Rattlesnake
Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus
Desert flats; northwestern edge only common

Last updated: September 20, 2023

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