If you hear a rustling in the underbrush this summer — particularly on a warm day — it could be the northern alligator lizard, which is one of Western Washington’s few reptile species and the only lizard native to the region.
“They hibernate all winter,” says Vikki Jackson, a wetlands biologist and program manager at the Whatcom County Amphibian Monitoring Program. “If it’s cold and wet, they don’t like it. It’s not easy to be a reptile here, so it’s special to see them when you can.”
Adult lizards grow to 11 inches. They’re mottled brown on top with a gray belly, perfect camouflage for skittering around in leaves and dirt, hunting for bugs and other small invertebrates — their favorite activity unless they’re sunning themselves on a rock, Jackson says.
“The northern alligator lizard, you’ll find throughout the lowlands of Whatcom County, particularly where it has some southern exposure and rock,” she says. “They’re kind of cryptic; they like to blend in. They kind of skitter around in the underbrush. You’ll hear them.”
Unlike most reptiles, which lay eggs, the northern alligator lizard bears its young alive.
Jackson advises against catching one of the swift little guys — you might end up with just a wriggling tail, or maybe a sore hand.
“They’ll drop their tail or they’ll bite you,” Jackson says. “They’ll bite and latch on like a pit bull. But don’t tear them off, you’ll pull out their teeth. Just put them on the ground and they’ll walk away.”
But one native colony on Lummi Island seems to have lost its sense of fear to evolution. “They’ll crawl all over you,” she says.