Added 3 September 2006.

Lizards of Europe: Zootoca, the Common Lizard


Zootoca vivipara, the Common Lizard, is one of the most successful reptile species on Earth. Small and retiring, it is nevertheless found across a huge part of the planet's surface, from Ireland in the west to Siberia in the west. Its range extends as far north as just inside the Arctic Circle. The flip side of the coin becomes apparent if we look at the southernmost limits of its range: Zootoca vivipara, being adapted to the cool and damp of northern Europe and Eurasia, is absent from its hotter parts such as Greece and Turkey and much of Iberia, Italy, Russia and the Ukraine, being almost entirely absent from the coastlines of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

For a long time Zootoca vivipara was considered a species belonging to the genus Lacerta, but was reclassified into its own genus. This is unsurprising in some ways as its biology and behaviour are not typical for Lacerta species (see notes). The change of scientific name has not been fully accepted, and many books continue to refer to the species as Lacerta vivipara.

Partly as a result of its cool-climate range, and partly because of its own behaviour and preferred habitat, the Common Lizard is, despite its huge area of distribution, not as commonly seen by the casual observer as its relatives in the Lacerta or Podarcis genera that like to sun themselves. Nevertheless the Common Lizard is not a rare species.

In 2006 the DGHT made the Common Lizard their "Reptile of the Year".

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
Z. vivipara Common/ Viviparous Lizard Europe as far as 70 deg. N, inc British Isles, Ireland and Scandinavia, and as far east as Sakhalin in Siberia 6-7" Hardy and in some ways atypical lacertid, widely distributed across Europe and the most northerly lizard of any family. The Viviparous Lizard is unusual in preferring damp habitats such as peat-bogs, forest clearings, meadows and moors. It will also voluntarily enter water and is a good swimmer. Viviparous lizards are found higher at more southerly latitudes, with an altitude of 3,500 m. having been recorded. Another adaptation to its harsh lifestyle is ovoviviparity: about 12 young (4 cm long) are born in a transparent membrane which they rapidly emerge from. Hibernation varies tremendously according to latitude: in the south it is only three months, but at its northern extreme (above the Arctic Circle) it lasts up to nine months. Sexual differentiation is not as marked as in other lacertids: both sexes are a brown-grey colour with darker longituduinal stripes, but the males are generally larger and have a bright orange, dark-spotted belly. Apart from the usual invertebrates Viviparous Lizards also feed on worms which are common in their damp habitats, and the young also take aphids. Sexual maturity likewise varies according to latitude: three years in S. and C. Europe, but longer further north. B
Z. v. vivipara    
Z. v. carniolica    
Z. v. pannonica E. Slovakia Possibly descended from individuals washed down from higher altitudes by floods.
Z. v. sachalinensis Sakhalin Islands? ?.


Collins Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Britain & Europe, E N Arnold, J A Burton and D W Ovenden, HarperCollins, London 1978. For years this has been an invaluable guide to the English speaker, although a few of the taxonomic details were in need of revision. This was finally accomplished with the revised edition of 2002/4.

Lurche und Kriechtiere Europas [Amphibians and Reptiles of Europe], Dr Wolf-Eberhard Engelmann, Jürgen Fritzsche, Dr sc. Rainer Günther and Dipl.Biol. Fritz Jürgen Obst, Ferdinand Enke Verlag, Stuttgart 1986. A German-language equivalent but with a rather wider definition of Europe which includes the Transcaucasus, and useful details on the distribution of subspecies. Now apparently out of print.

Reptiles and Amphibians of Europe, Walter Hellmich, Blandford Press, London 1962. Taxonomy is rather outdated but useful on details of appearance, habitat and subspecies.

Guia de campo de los anfibios y reptiles de la peninsula iberica, islas baleares y canarias [Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Iberian Peninsula, Balearic and Canary Islands], Alfredo Salvador, Madrid. ISBN: 84-86238-07-2. Excellent book covering all reptiles and amphibians in the aforementioned areas. The one drawback for English speakers is that the text is Spanish. This book is unfortunately now out of print, but well worth purchasing if you can get a second hand copy.

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