Surrey Amphibian and Reptile Group (SARG) 

Common Lizard

  

Nomenclature

Common name:  common lizard 
Taxonomy:  Zootoca vivipara (Jacquin, 1787)
(Previously Lacerta vivipara)
Other Names:  Viviparous lizard
Madfall (Welsh)
Furze Evvet (New Forest local name)
Nimble lizard (19th C)
Swift (Cheshire archaic)
Harriman (Shropshire archaic)

Introduction

The common lizard has excellent camouflage and can be difficult to spot if it remains motionless.

The common lizard is generally dark brown in colour with a complex pattern of stripes and lines running the length of the body, although this is variable. They grow to a maximum of 20cm (8 in) in length with a long tapering tail which makes up from half to a maximum of two thirds of the overall length.

Common lizards occur in a variety of habitats, especially open woodland, abandoned and derelict land, larger gardens and downland, however their preferred habitat is damp heathland.

The common lizard occurs throughout Europe including all of the United Kingdom. Although widely distributed, it is not common and can be described as local.

The common lizard is found throughout the UK and is the only lizard native to Ireland. It can be found in larger gardens with good vegetative cover, especially if backing onto suitable habitat.

The Common lizard is an adept - although methodical climber.
The Common lizard is an adept - although methodical climber.
 Common lizards will readily climb heather to catch early morning or evening sunlight.
Common lizards will readily climb heather to catch early morning or evening sunlight.

Identification

An adult male Common lizard.

Most lizards seen in Surrey will be common lizards. Adults usually have an overall dark brown colour, with complex patterns of lighter or darker brown lines running the length of the body.

Juveniles are a uniform dark bronze-brown, the very young are nearly black. The scales of common lizards give them a slightly 'beaded' texture and appearance. The legs are relatively short and stocky, with five tapering toes on each foot, and a long tapering tail that makes up about two-thirds of the total length.

Common lizards are quite variable in size and colouration. Adults usually grow to 13-15cm in total length however males can grow up to 20cm. The upper body colour is variable and can be grey, reddish or dark green as well as the usual dark brown colour.

An adult male common lizard held to demonstrate scale
An adult male common lizard held to demonstrate scale
Common lizards are often seen basking on bits of wood that lie in grass.
Common lizards are often seen basking on bits of wood that lie in grass.

Morphology

Common lizards can show great variety in colour and markings. Some of the extremes are shown here. Melanistic (black) adults are uncommon (although all new-born Common lizards are almost black). Even more unusual are specimens that demonstrate almost no markings. Common lizards can also appear to be very green (especially in certain light conditions). This often leads to an incorrect identification as a Sand lizard.

A melanistic Common lizard © Robbie Labanowski
A melanistic Common lizard © Robbie Labanowski
 A rare
A rare 'plain morph' common lizard. © John Newton
A green-morph Common lizard © Rob Pilley
A green-morph Common lizard © Rob Pilley

Sexual Dimorphism

Female common lizards tend to be a little shorter than males and have slightly smaller heads. There are usually differences between the sexes in patterning. Males tend to have a pattern of rows of regular lighter brown spots or dots running the length of the body in broken lines, and to have yellowish or even orange mottled undersides which are particularly prominent in the breeding season. Females tend to have unbroken stripes of lighter or darker brown, particularly along their dorsal line and their flanks, they tend to have no spots, and are plain white underneath.

The male Common lizard tends to be
The male Common lizard tends to be 'spotty'
The female Common lizard tends to be
The female Common lizard tends to be 'stripey'.
The male has a bright orange and spotted belly.
The male has a bright orange and spotted belly.

Could be mistaken for

Newts in terrestrial phase are often mistaken for common lizards.

The common lizard could be mistaken for the rare sand lizard, however this species will only be found in lowland heaths and occasionally coastal sand dunes. The sand lizard tends to be larger and more heavily built than the common lizard with the tail forming a smaller proportion of the total length. The sand lizard usually has distinctive ocellated spots of brown or black with white centres extending the length of the body. In the breeding season the male sand lizard has a green colouration on its flanks.

The common lizard could also be mistaken for a non-native wall lizard species which have become established in small parts of Surrey. However, common lizards rarely climb vertical walls, so any lizard seen doing this is more likely to be the introduced wall lizard. Wall lizards tend to be larger and more brightly coloured than the common lizard.

The most common mistake occurs when people find a newt in their garden and assume, because it is not in water, that it must be a common lizard. Newts spend most of their time on land and only use the water for breeding. Newts have a velvet skin, compared to the scaly skin of a lizard. Newts have only four front toes, where lizards have five. The rule of thumb is: if you can reach down and pick it up, then it's a newt!

The rare Sand lizard.
The rare Sand lizard.
 The Wall lizard has a localised distribution.
The Wall lizard has a localised distribution.

Distribution

Global distribution for common lizard © http://seh-herpetology.org

The common lizard has one of the widest distributions of any vertebrate in the world extending from France through north and central Europe, across Asia to the Pacific coast. Its southern boundary extends just north of the Mediterranean. It lives further north than any other reptile occurring throughout Scandinavia and even on the coast of the Barents Sea in Arctic Russia.

Common lizards occur in England, Wales and Scotland from Lands End to the vicinity of Cape Wrath. There are records from some of the Inner Hebrides and the Isle of Man. It is also widespread in Ireland. In the mountainous regions of Scotland and Wales it ascends to at least 1,000 metres above sea level.

Favoured areas for common lizards within the county tend to be in a broad east-west strip across the non-urbanised parts of Surrey taking in the south-facing slopes of the Downs and much of the heathland and woodland to the west.

UK distribution for common lizard © NBN
UK distribution for common lizard © NBN
Surrey distribution for common lizard © SARG
Surrey distribution for common lizard © SARG

Habitat

Common lizards are very adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats. Their preferred habitat is damp heathland, but they are also found in open woodland, abandoned and derelict land, larger gardens and downland.

Some south-facing slopes of railway embankments have become colonised by good numbers of common lizards, and similar man-made mounds and ridges can also be useful habitat, especially in reasonably undisturbed areas.

They prefer a mosaic of different levels of undergrowth and a variety of basking sites, to allow temperature control by moving in and out of sunnier or shadier spots.

Sunny forest rides offer ideal habitat.
Sunny forest rides offer ideal habitat.
Heathland banks provide good basking opportunities.
Heathland banks provide good basking opportunities.

Activity

Common lizards frequently choose wood for basking, due to its thermal insulation. © Alex White

Common lizards are diurnal. In midsummer the earliest animals appear by 6 a.m. and a few may still be out and about after 7 p.m. The lizards will hide in burrows or crevices at night.

The best time to survey common lizards is between mid March and the end of September. It is best to avoid the hotter summer months as the lizards will not need to bask for prolonged periods of time making them harder to spot.

April and May sees the peak in mating activity, but this will vary according to the weather and when they emerged from hibernation.


Food

Adult female Common lizard eating a cricket.

Common lizards eat small insects particularly flies, grasshoppers and spiders. They will also eat other invertebrates that come their way including centipedes, small snails and earthworms.

In good habitats it is thought that common lizards are not seriously limited by the food resource. It is estimated that common lizards only feed heavily on 100-130 days per year and at lower rates, when temperatures are cooler, on a further 40-75 days so that for more than half the year there is no feeding at all.

Common lizards are very agile, fast-moving animals which allows them to catch their insect prey. Once the lizards have reached their optimum operating temperature they move along regular routes in search of prey. Food is detected by sight, sound and perhaps smell. Prey is seized in the jaws, shaken to stun it if necessary, chewed from end to end and swallowed whole (usually head first).

Individual animals demonstrate a marked preference for food items. Some will dig for earthworms, whilst others would ignore a worm wriggling in front of them. Some will eat woodlice, whilst others will not. Most animals tend to avoid eating black invertebrates, such as beetles or even black crickets.

Cricket
Cricket
Spider
Spider
Earthworm
Earthworm

Predators

Snakes will readily predate common lizards. The adder and smooth snake are significant predators

Common lizards are vulnerable to a range of predators including domestic cats, foxes, crows, jays and hawks as well as other reptiles.

The natural agility of common lizards helps them avoid predators. In extreme circumstances they will also shed their tails, leaving a wriggling tail to distract the predator while the lizard escapes. This behaviour is known as autotomy.

Common lizards are competent swimmers and will use this as a means of escape if necessary. They swim by tucking their limbs against the sides of their body and wriggling fast through the water at the surface.

One one occasion a common lizard was observed to swim to the bottom of a pond and waited on the bed until the disturbance had passed.

Domestic cats impact lizard populations close to urban areas.© Sibylle Mattern
Domestic cats impact lizard populations close to urban areas.© Sibylle Mattern
Shrikes and hawks are major predators of small lizards © Poppy
Shrikes and hawks are major predators of small lizards © Poppy
Pheasants prey on small snakes and lizards; and have the advantage of being fast moving across the ground.
Pheasants prey on small snakes and lizards; and have the advantage of being fast moving across the ground.

Shelter

Little is known about common lizard hibernacula. They are thought to be frost-free refugia below ground or beneath large rocks or woodpiles, although hibernating lizards are often found at or above ground-level.

Hibernating Common lizards are often found in communal groups.

At night, common lizards hide beneath large stones, logs or boulders, in cracks in the ground or in small burrows abandoned by other animals. They will return to these burrows during the day during cold or extremely hot weather or to avoid danger.

Common lizards often hibernate in groups. Here are 4 adults and 15 sub-adults under a felt.
Common lizards often hibernate in groups. Here are 4 adults and 15 sub-adults under a felt.
 This 2cm diameter burrow on a heather bank is home to a sub-adult Common lizard.
This 2cm diameter burrow on a heather bank is home to a sub-adult Common lizard.

Reproduction

Mating common lizards © Bob Dark

Courtship and mating begin within a few weeks of emergence from hibernation when male body colours are at their most vivid (after sloughing).

There is some threat posturing and fighting between the males. Females usually seek out the males which then follow the females and begin courtship.

Males seize the female in their jaws. If she doesn’t struggle, he manoeuvres his body so that their vents are juxtaposed. Mating usually last a few minutes, 30 at the most. Females usually mate more than once either with the same male or with several.

Development of the eggs takes 3 months during which the females bask extensively to maintain high growth rates. Females normally give birth in July to between 3 and 11 offspring, the average clutch size being 7-8. Young are born in transparent membranes which split open immediately.


Juveniles

In some light conditions, juvenile Common lizards appear to have a metallic sheen.

New born common lizards are very dark or black for the first few weeks of life.

After this they become dark bronze-brown above, often speckled with gold together with initial signs of the adult colour patterns and grey below.

Juvenile common lizards are prey items for many bird and reptile species, particularly juvenile adders.

A very young juvenile Common lizard demonstrating autotomy.
A very young juvenile Common lizard demonstrating autotomy.
Newly born Common lizards are almost completely black.
Newly born Common lizards are almost completely black.
Young Common lizard starting to demonstrate adult patternation.
Young Common lizard starting to demonstrate adult patternation.

Conservation

The common lizard is protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 from intentional killing, injury or sale.

The common lizard has recently been added as a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority species, however the biodiversity action plan itself is yet to be produced. Several counties have produced local species action plans for this species.

Whilst the common lizard is widespread, recent studies suggest a decline in population density in recent years due to both natural and man-made threats. For this reason the species has been made a UK BAP priority species which should help to halt this decline.


Links


Information

Principal Author(s):Main Illustrator:Edited by:Updated:
Claire Gibbs (SWT)Steve LanghamSteve Langham19 Sep 2018