Family: Iguanidae Order: Squamata Class: Reptilia
DISTRIBUTION, ABUNDANCE, AND SEASONALITY
The desert iguana is widely distributed throughout the Mojave, Sonoran and Colorado
deserts. Typically found below 1520 m (3300 ft) (Macey and Papenfuss 1991), its range in
California broadly overlaps that of
wash and succulent shrub
habitats are used, as is
alkalai scrub. It is found in greatest abundance in sandy creosote
flats but can also be found in rocky or hilly areas (Norris 1953, Stebbins 1954).
SPECIFIC HABITAT REQUIREMENTS
These lizards are primarily herbivores, eating
flowers, buds, fruits and leaves
Individuals have been observed to
climb up to 2 m (6.6 ft) into a bush to forage. In addition to vegetation, insects, feces (mammal
and lizard) and carrion have been reported in their diets (Norris 1953, Stebbins 1954).
The desert iguana uses
extensively and also climbs into shrubs for
shelter from temperature extremes, solar radiation and
predators. Mammal burrows
are modified or new burrows are constructed by the lizards. Burrows may consist of
a shallow, short tube or a more complex arrangement with a central chamber and
several exits. The central chamber may measure up to 15 cm in diameter and lie 3-5 cm
deep in the soil. When the lizard is present the entrance is usually blocked by sand.
This could serve to discourage predators and retard heat gain or loss. These burrows
are usually constructed in the hummocks of sand that accumulate around the bases of
bushes (usually creosote). Burrows may also serve as nest sites for females. The
presence of sand hummocks seems to be important as a construction site for burrows
Little is known about the habitat requirements for reproduction.
Laboratory studies suggest that nest temperature may be a very important limiting factor
at the higher elevation of this species range (Muth 1977).
Permanent water is not required. Captives rarely drink.
This species is herbivorous, feeding on annual and perennial plants in a
but seemingly reaching greatest densities in habitats that support
the greatest productivity of such plant species (sandy desert flats and washes). These
habitats also provide sandy, friable soil that is necessary for burrow construction.
SPECIES LIFE HISTORY
This species is more heat-tolerant than any other North American
reptile. It emerges later in the year and later in the day than other lizards and remains
active longer into the hottest part of the day than other lizards. In Palm Springs, it becomes
active in late March to mid-April (depending upon the year), later further north (Norris 1953,
Stebbins 1954, Moberly 1961, Mayhew 1971). Adults remain active until mid-summer when
the young hatch. Young remain active until fall. This species emerges later in the day and
remains active later than other species of lizards. Body temperatures of 45° C have been
recorded, well above lethal levels for most other species (Norris 1953). Activity consists
largely of foraging, moving from one food plant to the next and eating. Most of the time on
the surface is spent basking in the sun on hummocks near burrows or in bushes.
One study reports male home ranges of .15 ha (.36 ac) and female
ranges of .16 ha (.38 ac) (Krekorian 1976).
Evidence suggests that this species is territorial during the mating season.
During the remainder of the active season, home ranges overlap extensively, and there
is little aggressive behavior (Norris 1953, Krekorian 1976).
Courtship and copulation occur shortly after emergence in the spring
(Norris 1953, Moberly 1961, Mayhew 1971). Egg-laying usually takes place in late May and
the young appear in late July to late August. There is considerable variation in these events
from year to year and north to south in the range. There is strong evidence that only one
clutch of eggs is laid each year (Norris 1953, Mayhew 1971, Grestle and Callard 1972) ranging
from 3-8 eggs. Adults reduce surface activity after the appearance of the young; this may
reduce competition for scarce food resources. During the period of courtship pairs of lizards
(presumably male and female) have been reported foraging together (Norris 1953). This
suggests the presence of pair-bonds.
Few reports of predation on this species are available, but it must certainly be
preyed upon by
(both lizard-eating snakes),
and other avian predators. Young are probably eaten by
and mammalian predators
Carpenter, C. C. 1961. Patterns of social behavior in the desert iguana, Dipsosaurus
dorsalis. Copeia 1961:396-405.
Grestle, J., and I. Callard. 1972. Reproduction and estrogen-induced vitellogenesis in
Dipsosaurus dorsalis. J. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. 42A:791-801.
Krekorian, C. O. 1976. Home-range size and overlap and their relationship to food
abundance in the desert iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis. Herpetologica 32:405-412.
Macey, J. R. and T. J. Papenfuss. 1991. Reptiles. Pages 291-360 in C.A. Hall, Jr., editor.
Natural History of the White-Inyo Range eastern California. Univ. Calif. Press, Berkeley,
California. 536 pp.
Mayhew, W. W. 1971. Reproduction in the desert lizard, Dipsosaurus dorsalis.
Moberly, W. 1961. Hibernation in the desert iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis. Physiol.
Muth, A. 1977. Eggs and hatchlings of captive Dipsosaurus dorsalis. Copeia 1977:
Norris, K. S. 1953. The ecology of the desert iguana Dipsosaurus dorsalis. Ecology
Pianka, E. R. 1971. Comparative ecology of two lizards. Copeia 1971:129-138.
Stebbins, R. C. 1954. Amphibians and reptiles of western North America. McGraw-Hill,
New York. 536pp.
California Department of Fish and Game. California Interagency
Wildlife Task Group. 2005. California Wildlife Habitat Relationships version 8.1 personal computer program.
Dick Schwenkmeyer, Desert Iguana. San Diego Natural History Museum
Photo by Jim Rorabaugh
The Desert Iguana is a medium-sized (10-16 inches), light colored lizard with a long tail. Its snout-vent
length can measure almost six inches, and its tail nearly 1 1/2 times longer. It has a small, rounded head with large
ear openings, and sturdy legs.
Broad dorsal bands span its light cream colored body, and eventually become rings around its tail. Narrow,
longitudinal stripes overlay the dark bands, especially in the central and posterior dorsal areas. The
bands and stripes occur in various shades of brown and gray. The dorsal scales are keeled, and become
slightly larger down the center of the back. This forms a well-defined crest that extends along the
back and diminishes down the length of the tail.
Both sexes have a pinkish hue on their sides during breeding season.
These lizards are the fastest of the desert lizards curling their tail over their backs while running.
Being the most heat-tolerant lizard it seems odd that the desert iguana will close up the entrance to its
burrow once inside; until it is considered, that if a predator does not know there is a burrow there, they will likely
pass by unaware there is prey within inches.
The Desert Iguana seems to be particularly attracted to yellow wildflowers, and seems to prefer the yellow blossoms
of the creosote bush often climbing the branches to reach the little flowers.