chuckwalla: see iguana.
Chuckwallas (less commonly chuckawallas) are large lizards found primarily in arid regions of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Some are found on coastal islands. There are five species of chuckwalla, all within the genus Sauromalus; they are part of the iguanid family, Iguanidae.

Taxonomy and etymology

The generic name, Sauromalus, is a combination of two Ancient Greek words:σαῦρος (sauros) meaning "lizard". and ομαλυς (omalus) meaning "flat". The common name chuckwalla derives from the Shoshone word "tcaxxwal" or Cahuilla "caxwal", transcribed by Spaniards as "chacahuala".

Physical description

Chuckwallas are a stocky wide-bodied lizard with a flattened midsection and prominent paunch. Their tails are thick, tapering to a blunt tip. Loose folds of skin characterize the neck and sides of the body, which is covered in small, coarsely granular scales. The common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) measures 40cm in length whereas insular species such as the giant chuckwalla of San Esteban Island (Sauromalus varius) can measure as much as 76cm in total length.

They are sexually dimorphic with males having reddish-pink to orange, yellow or light gray bodies and black heads, shoulders and limbs; females and the immature have bodies with scattered spots or contrasting bands of light and dark in shades of gray or yellow. Males are generally larger than females. Males also posess well-developed femoral pores located on the inner sides of their thighs; these pores produce secretions believed to play a role in marking territory.

Range, habitat and diet

The genus Sauromalus has a wide distribution in desert biomes. This is especially true of the common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater), found from southern California east to southern Nevada and Utah, western Arizona and south to Baja California and northwestern Mexico.

The other species are island-dwelling and therefore have much more restricted distributions: Two rare and endangered species are the Montserrat chuckwalla (Sauromalus slevini) found on Islas Carmen, Coronados and Montserrat in the southern Gulf of California and the San Esteban chuckwalla or Painted chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius) found on San Esteban Island, Lobos and Pelicanos.

The Angel Island chuckwalla (Sauromalus hispidus) and peninsular chuckwalla (Sauromalus australis) are found on Isla Ángel de la Guarda and surrounding islands off the coast of the Baja California peninsula.

Chuckwallas prefer lava flows and rocky areas, and many more such as those found in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. These areas are typically vegetated by creosote bush and other such drought-tolerant scrub. The lizards may be found at elevations of up to 4,500 feet (1,370 metres).

Primarily herbivorous, chuckwallas feed on leaves, fruit and flowers of annuals and perennial plants; insects represent a supplementary prey. The lizards are said to prefer yellow flowers, such as those of the brittlebush (Encelia farinosa).

Behavior and reproduction

Harmless to humans, these lizards are known to run from potential threats. When disturbed, the chuckwalla will gulp air, distend its body and wedge itself into a tight rock crevice. The chuckwalla will inflate its body with air in order to entrench itself.

Males are seasonally and conditionally territorial; an abundance of resources tends to create a hierarchy based on size, with one large male dominating the area's smaller males. Chuckwallas use a combination of colour and physical displays, namely "push ups", head-hobbing, and gaping of the mouth to communicate and defend their territory (see animal communication).

Chuckwallas are diurnal animals and as they are exothermic, spend much of their mornings and winter days basking. These lizards are well adapted to desert conditions; they are active at temperatures of up to 102°F (39°C). Chuckwallas hibernate during cooler months and emerge in February.

Mating occurs from April to July, with 5-16 eggs laid between June and August. The eggs hatch in late September. Chuckwallas may live for 25 years or more.

Human use

The Comca’ac considered the Angel Island species of chuckwalla an important food item. It is believed the Seri translocated the lizards to most of the islands in Bahia de los Angeles for use as a food source in times of need.


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