San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide
Cope's Leopard Lizard, photographed in the Sierra Vizcaino, BCS, by Bradford Hollingsworth

Gambelia copei
Cope's Leopard Lizard


Gambelia, to honor William Gambel, a naturalist of western North America, and copei, to honor Edward Drinker Cope, a famous American herpetologist and paleontologist. In Spanish, the Cope's Leopard Lizard is called cachorón, a general name for most lizards.


A relatively large lizard with a large head, long snout, and long, round tail. This species is sexually dimorphic with large females measuring 5 inches (126 mm) snout-vent length, and small males, about 4.8 inches (120 mm) snout-vent length.

This species has a brown ground with dark brown spots running down either side of the body. The spots are separated by dorsal transverse bars. Spots are absent from the head, though flecks occur along the sides of the body. The tail has dark transverse bars that look like bands.

Range and Habitat

The Cope's Leopard Lizard ranges from San Diego County south to the northern portion of the Cape region in Baja California, including Islas de Cedros, Magdalena, and Santa Margarita. It's absent from the Lower Colorado Desert north of El Huerfanito. In San Diego County, sightings have been reported from Cameron Corners, Campo, and Potrero Grade.

This species lives in a wide array of habitats including chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, creosote scrub, and sandy flats. These include both densely vegetated and open expanses.

Natural History

Behavior: Little is known of the natural history of this species, although it is presumably similar to that of the Longnose Leopard Lizard based on their close relationship. It often basks on small rocks along the roadside. When threatened, the Cope's Leopard Lizard exhibits "freeze" behavior, and is capable of caudal autonomy (tail separation).

Prey and Predators: Like all members of the family, the Cope's Leopard Lizard preys on small lizards (termed saurophagous). Its long snout presumably makes the jaw action quicker and better for catching vertebrate prey. It is unknown whether this species is an ambush predator. Predators presumably include lizard-eating birds, snakes, and mammals.

Breeding: The females are larger than the males and no coloration differences exist between the sexes except for the bright red or orange gravid coloration seen in the female after breeding occurs. This species presumably lacks territoriality though no ecological data are available.

Conservation Status

There has been no proposed conservation plans.

Suggested Reading

McGuire, J. A. 1996. Phylogenetic systematics of Crotaphytid Lizards (Reptilia: Iguania: Crotaphytidae). Bulletin of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History 32:1-142.

Text and photo contributed by Bradford Hollingsworth.

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