Pygmy Short-horned Lizard
Phrynosoma douglasii douglasii
Pygmy Short-horned Lizard
Phyrnosoma douglasii douglasii
Other names: Pigmy Short-horned Lizard, Phrynosoma douglasii
The Pygmy Short-horned Lizard is a stout lizard with a flattened body, short legs, and a short tail. It is smaller than the other species of lizard found in British Columbia, with a maximum size of 12 cm from tip to tail. It is easily identified among the lizards in B.C. by plentiful spines on its back and sides, a row of spines between each front and hind leg, and short horns. They are brownish beige in colour with a variety of dark markings and a pale belly. They are perfectly designed for desert camouflage, and they will typically burrow into the substrate making their camouflage that much more effective.
Listen to the Indigenous words for “lizard” here!
Pygmy Short-horned Lizards are the most wide-ranging lizard in North America; however, their range hardly extends into Canada. In fact, there are only three reliable records of Pygmy Short-horned Lizards in B.C., and they are considered extirpated in Canada today. Biologists are still investigating Pygmy Short-horned Lizard habitat in Canada to see if any of these lizards remain in B.C. If you see a Short-horned Lizard, you can help broaden the understanding of these animals by reporting your sighting to the Ministry of Environment.
Pygmy Short-horned Lizards are found in Bunchgrass, Sagebrush, and dry forest ecosystems. They prefer open habitats where the soil is loose and sandy. If there is too much vegetation, burrowing becomes difficult for them. These lizards are very cold-tolerant and, unlike most reptiles in B.C., they do not appear to rely on rocky overwintering dens, but rather dig burrows in deep, sandy soils. In some areas, they may be found at high elevations right up to the treeline. In subalpine environments like this, scientist believe they spend over two-thirds of their lives in hibernation.
Mating occurs in the spring very shortly after they emerge from hibernation. Short-horned Lizards give birth to live young, and the young are fully developed when born between July and September. Generally, they give birth to 5-10 young, although there is a record of a Short-horned Lizard giving birth to 31 young.
Pygmy Short-horned Lizards are diurnal predators and use a sit-and-wait style of hunting. They will partially burrow themselves into the sand and wait for prey to pass by before lunging to grab it. Their major food source is ants, but they will feed on most insects and invertebrates that cross their path.feed almost exclusively on ants (around 90% of their diet), while adults feed on fewer ants (around 60% of their diet) and more other insects such as Coleopterans.
In Canada, the Pygmy Short-horned Lizard was likely already extirpated before the 1900’s. Some biologists believe that the local populations in British Columbia were never very large to begin with, and may have been representative of relict populations from a time long ago when these lizards ranged much farther north. As the climate cooled over the last 1000 years, these lizards were left in “pockets” of barely suitable habitat. Still, no one is really sure why the populations disappeared. It may have been due to a natural disaster or climate event. Or, another theory is that intense cattle driving and grazing in the 1800’s caused major declines leading to extirpation. During the Cariboo Gold Rush, thousands of cattle were brought into Canada from the USA through the dry valley bottoms that these lizards inhabited. Their natural defensive strategy of hiding in the sand would have been a certain death sentence as thousands of hooves stampeded over the ground. In any case, if Pygmy Short-horned Lizards do still exist in British Columbia, they would be extremely rare and fill a unique ecological role. However, even in the United States they are still considered rare, and they may be declining throughout their distribution.
Did You Know?
When threatened, Pygmy Short-horned Lizards will inflate their bodies to look bigger and open their mouth in an aggressive stance.
Pygmy Short-horned Lizards are considered extirpated from British Columbia, but with such masterful camouflage, they may still be out there. Spotting a Pygmy Short-horned Lizard in British Columbia would certainly earn the observer 15 minutes of fame!