Added 9 May 2008. Last updated 25 May 2008: added details for D. d. lucasensis and updated Bibliography.

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Genus Dipsosaurus - Desert Iguanas


Genus Dipsosaurus - Desert Iguanas

A genus of 1-2 medium-sized species that inhabit the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of the American Southwest and northern Mexico. They are quite handsome creatures that perhaps more than any other iguanid have become impervious to the heat and aridity of their environment, so much so that as with Uromastyx agamids, humidity can cause them problems.

Although these interesting lizards have reportedly been neglected by the North American herpetological community, they are by no means for every keeper. Since they need an absolutely dry hot terrarium and suffer adversely from humidity, keepers in humid or damp areas should probably think long and hard about whether they can give them the necessary environment. The consensus appears to be that standing water (eg in bowls) should not be left in the cage. In the UK Dipsosaurus is now being kept by some keepers. Those accustomed to keeping Uromastyx species may have a better understanding and experience of what is required.

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
D. catalinensis Isla Santa Catalina Desert Iguana

Mexico (Isla Santa Catalina in Gulf of Mexico) Max SVL 12½-13cm Considered a full species by Grismer but not by other authorities, eg TIGR Reptile Database. Scalation details (where different from D. dorsalis as per Grismer): 8-10 supralabials; postmentals usually separated by small granular scales; 8-10 infralabials. Other: 35-41 femoral pores; 30-35 subdigital lamellae on 4th toe. Coloration: sames as for D. dorsalis except for dark dorsal ground pattern, body otherwise light-coloured; gular region solid dark brown in adults, faded or only darkly streaked in adults; tail orange-yellow; hatchlings with large amounts of orange on head. Reproduction: Grismer suggests that hatching occurs from midsummer to early autumn.
D. dorsalis Desert Iguana  USA, Mexico SVL 10-14½cm/4-5¾ In the US at least the range of this species corresponds with that of the creosote bush, the leaves and flowers of which form the main component of its diet, although it will also take other plant matter plus occasionally insects, carrion and its own fecal pellets [Stebbins]. Grismer notes that some Baja Californian populations consume a high percentage of arthropod prey, usually at certain times of the year, eg late summer rainy season. The mean temperature of normal daytime activity is 107 deg F and the maximum 115 deg F. It climbs among branches of the creosote bush and other plants to obtain food but otherwise may bask on rocks or sand hammocks near a burrow. Most individuals do not appear to move far from their home range. General habitat is usually sandy but it can also be found in rocky streambeds, silty floodplains and on clay soils, as well as among bajadas (alluvial debris left on lower mountain slopes by streams). They are generally wary and ready to flee at human approach. The burrows are those of small mammals [Smith]. Scalation details: head scales very small, nearly all uniform; 1-2 rows of scales separating rostral from nasals; parietal scale not conspicuously enlarged, contains eye-spot; 7-11 supralabials; 7-12 infralabials; 2 postmentals, usually not separated by small granular scale; dorsal body scales very small, keeled, with vertebral row of somewhat enlarged and raised scales running from nape of neck to far down the tail, this being the chief recognition characteristic of this species in the US; caudal scales somewhat larger, arranged in whorls, keeled but not sharply spined; ventral scales small, smooth. Other: head relatively small and blunt, more triangular in adult males than in females and juveniles; 31-48 femoral pores, more developed in adult males; 28-38 subdigital lamellae on 4th toe. Coloration: overall ground colour varies from light beige to whitish grey [Hunziker], with varanid-like pattern of light-coloured ocelli on the sides and back and regulary spaced narrow bands on the tail with wider interspaces between them. The belly is cream coloured but in breeding season both sexes may develop a pinkish ventral flush. Reproduction: breeding season in US is April-July, with a clutch of 3-8 eggs being laid June-Aug. Sexual maturity is reached in 3 years. [SOURCES: Grismer, Hunziker, Stebbins]
D. d. dorsalis Northern Desert Igana USA (S California to W Arizona), NW Mexico    
D. d. carmenensis Carmen Island Desert Iguana Gulf of California (Carmen and Coronado Islands)   Juveniles from Isla Carmen have distinctive orange markings on the sides of the head and around their eyes [Grismer]. 
D. d. catalinensis   Mexico (Isla Santa Catalina in Gulf of Mexico)   See description under D. catalinensis.
D. d. lucasensis   Mexico (S Baja California)   Similar to D. d. dorsalis except that the rostral is separated from the nasals usually by a single scale [SOURCE: van Denburgh].
D. d. sonoriensis   Mexico (SW Sonora)     


Green Iguanas and other Iguanids, Dr Hubert Bosch and Heiko Werning, TFH 1996 (originally published in German, 1991, as Leguane). See Iguanid page for recommendation of this book.

Handbook of Lizards: Lizards of the United States and Canada, Hobart M Smith, Cornell University, 1946 (1995 reprint).

A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, R Stebbins, Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, Boston/New York 2003.

Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California, Lee Grismer, University of California Press, 2002. Impressive guide to the herpetofauna of the region.

"Description of a New Lizard (Dipsosaurus dorsalis lucasensis) from Lower California", John van Denburgh, Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, Fourth Series, Vol X No 4, August 6 1920.

"A Desert Classic: The Life History & Captive Care of the Desert Iguana" , Ray Hunziker, Reptile Hobbyist 3:4. Useful husbandry information and also gives range of subspecies.

Links has some fine pictures of D. d. dorsalis. likewise has some fine pictures, taken in situ.

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