Evolution of North American Lizards


Lizards are a diverse reptile group with an ancient and global evolutionary history. Fossil lizards first appeared in North America during the Mesozoic. Many lizard lineages have inhabited North America throughout geologic time, including several lineages that are extinct, others that no longer occur on the continent, and many groups that are still there today. Lizards are currently found in a diverse range of habitats and in regions across the continent, including islands and human‐modified habitats. The modern lizard biota of North America contains diverse biogeographic and phylogenetic components along with the evolution of many distinctive behaviours, morphologies, and ecologies, including the evolution of venom, repeated limb loss, and ecological specialisations. Some lizards have been introduced to North America from elsewhere in the world or the continent, posing a potential problem for native biodiversity.

Key Concepts

  • North America contains an astounding diversity of lizards both in the modern biota and through geologic time.
  • Although many fossil lizards are documented, there is still a lot to learn from the fossil record.
  • Historic extirpations and extinctions of lizards are known and conservation efforts are needed to preserve lizard biodiversity.
  • Biogeographic scenarios of lizards in North America are often disputed but are informed by fossil and molecular evidence.
  • North American lizards have a diverse set of behavioural, morphological and ecological characteristics.

Keywords: Lizards; North America; evolution; biogeography; fossils; ecology; phylogeny

Figure 1. Timetree of Squamata derived from Burbrink et al. , showing most major clades. Phyllodactylidae, Alopoglossidae, Rhineuridae, Blanidae and Cadeidae were not included in the analysis of Burbrink et al. and were not attached to the tree post hoc. For convenience and consistency, most lineages are shown at the level of monophyletic families; for anguids, subfamilies are shown instead. Lizard lineages that are found in North America in the modern biota are denoted with red branches, and those that do not currently inhabit North America and snakes have grey branches. Numbered circles represent, to our knowledge, the first reported fossil of a given clade in North America. A fossil is not assigned to every lineage. Note that fossils are not necessarily part of the crown clade of the lineage to which they are assigned, the referrals of some fossils to a given clade are explicitly tentative, and no fossils besides Paleoxantusia were used to calibrate the tree from Burbrink et al. . The tree was produced using the package ‘strap’ (Bell and Lloyd, ) in RStudio (RStudio Team, ). The yellow box to the right of ‘Neogene’ indicates the Quaternary, the box to the right of ‘Miocene’ indicates the Pliocene, and the box to the right of the Pliocene indicates the Pleistocene. 1. Sphaerodactylus (Wang and Xing, ). 2. Putative skinks (Estes, ). 3. Putative xantusiid (Catactegenys solaster, see Nydam, ) 4. Paleoxantusia (see Estes, ) 5. Putative teiids (Estes, ). 6. Tinosaurus (Smith and Gauthier, ). 7. Indeterminate phrynosomatids (Chovanec, ). 8. Queironius praelapsus (Smith, ). 9. Paranolis delicatus (Smith, ). 10. Fossil crotaphytids (Hollenshead and Mead, ). 11. Suzaniwanna patriciana (Smith, ). 12. Sauropithecoides charisticus (Smith, ). 13. Potential varanid (Palaeosaniwa canadensis, see Nydam, ). 14. Saniwa (Smith and Gauthier, ). 15. Potential helodermatid (Primaderma nessovi, see Nydam, ). 16. New xenosaurid (see Nydam, ). 17. Indeterminate diploglossine fossils (Smith, ). 18. Apodosauriscus thermophilus (Smith, ) 19. Indeterminate gerrhonotine fossils (Smith, ). Burbrink FT, Grazziotin FG, Pyron RA, et al. Interrogating genomic‐scale data for Squamata (lizards, snakes, and amphisbaenians) shows no support for key traditional morphological relationships. Systematic Biology 69: 502–520. https://doi.org/10.1093/sysbio/syz062; Burbrink FT, Grazziotin FG, Pyron RA, et al. Data from: Interrogating genomic‐scale data for Squamata (lizards, snakes, and amphisbaenians) shows no support for key traditional morphological relationships. Dryad Digital Repository. https://doi.org/10.5061/DRYAD.SM6JB0P; Bell and Lloyd, ; RStudio Team, .
Figure 2. Extant diversity of pleurodantan lizards in North America. (a) Enyalioides heterolepis, a wood‐lizard found in Panama and one of the few hoplocercids currently found in North America. Image by B. White. (b) Phrynosoma cornutum, a phrynosomatid lizard known for its head horns. Image by S. Scarpetta. (c) Cophosaurus texanus, a phrynosomatid lizard found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, displaying breeding colours on the side of its body. Image by B. White. (d) Anolis desiradei, an anole restricted to the island of Desirade in the Lesser Antilles. Image by S. Scarpetta. (e) Crotaphytus reticulatus, a particularly large crotaphytid lizard found in southern Texas and northwestern Mexico that is notable for being the only species of Crotaphytus that is not associated with rocky habitats, and that is displaying its gular fold. Image by Drew R. Davis.
Figure 3. Extant lizard diversity in North America. (a) Heloderma suspectum, a venomous lizard found in the southern United States and northern Mexico. Image by B. White. (b) Plestiodon obsoletus, a large‐bodied skink found in the Great Plains region and in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Image by Drew R. Davis. (c) Coleonyx elegans, a eublepharid gecko, a group known for lacking toepads and for possessing movable eyelids. (d) Sphaerodactylus glaucus, a gecko that is one of the smallest lizards in the world. (e) Holcosus gaigeae, a teiid lizard from northeastern Yucatán Peninsula. (f) Lepidophyma flavimaculatum, a tropical night lizard found throughout central America. (c–f) Image by B. White.
Figure 4. Extant geographic distributions of lizards in North America. (a) Gerrhonotinae, Anguinae, Aniellinae, and Diploglossinae. (b) Helodermatidae and Xenosauridae. (c) Phrynosomatidae and Iguanidae. (d) Crotaphytidae, Corytophanidae, Leiocephalidae, and Hoplocercidae. (e) Scincidae and Xantusiidae. (f) Teiidae, Gymnophthalmidae, and Alopoglossdiae. (g) Dactyloidae and Ploychrotidae. (h). Eublepharidae, Phyllodactylidae, and Sphaerodactylidae. (i) Amphisbaenidae, Bipedidae, Dibamidae, and Cadeidae. GBIF.org GBIF Occurrence Download https://doi.org/10.15468/dl.m7tmxs. Accessed 20 May, 2020.
Figure 5. Ecological microhabitat modes of North American lizards. The phylogeny contains only taxa currently found in North America. Terrestrial and/or fossorial is in brown, arboreal is in green, saxicolous is in grey, and semi‐aquatic is in blue. Adapted from Blankers T, Townsend TM, Pepe K, et al. (2013) Contrasting global‐scale evolutionary radiations: Phylogeny, diversification, and morphological evolution in the major clades of iguanian lizards. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 108: 127–143. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1095‐8312.2012.01988.x.


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Further Reading

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Hollingsworth BD, Mahrdt CR, Grimser LL, et al. (2015) Herpetofauna of Baja California. In: Lemos‐Espinal J (ed.) Amphibians and Reptiles of The US‐Mexico Border States/Anfibios y Reptiles de Los Estados de La Frontera Mexico‐Estados Unidos, chap. 3, pp 15–33. Texas A&M University Press: College Station, Texas.

Jones LLC and Lovich RE (eds) (2009) Lizards of the American Southwest: A Photographic Field Guide. Rio Nuevo Publishers: Tucson, Arizona.

Pianka ER and Vitt LJ (2006) Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity, p xiii + 333. University of California Press: Berkeley, California.

de Queiroz K (1987) Phylogenetic systematics of iguanine lizards: a comparative osteological study. University of California Publications in Zoology 118: 1–228.

Sherbrooke WC (2003) Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America, p xiii + 178. University of California Press: Berkeley, California.

Smith HM (1995) Handbook of Lizards: Lizards of the United States and of Canada, p xxxii + 557. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, New York.

Streicher JW, Schulte JA and Wiens JJ (2016) How should genes and taxa be sampled for phylogenomic analyses with missing data? An empirical study in iguanian lizards. Systematic Biology 65: 128–145. DOI: 10.1093/sysbio/syv058.

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Scarpetta, Simon G, Ledesma, David T, Llauger, Francisco O, and White, Brittney A(Dec 2020) Evolution of North American Lizards. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0029078]