Skip to main content

Night Lizards (Xantusiidae)

Night lizards


Class Reptilia

Order Squamata

Suborder Scincomorpha

Family Xantusiidae

Thumbnail description
Small to medium-sized lizards lacking eyelids and having enlarged plates on the dorsal surface of the head and transverse rows of enlarged scales on the belly

1.5–5 in (3.7–12.7 cm) snout-vent length

Number of genera, species
3 genera, 23 species

Deserts to rainforests

Conservation status
Vulnerable: 1 species

North America, Central America, Cuba

Evolution and systematics

Xantusiidae represents an ancient reptile lineage of uncertain relationships. The question what group of lizards constitutes the nearest relatives of Xantusiidae has long puzzled herpetologists. Night lizards resemble geckos in some features, but in other characteristics they appear more allied with teiids, lacertids, and skinks. Although the question continues to be debated by systematists, current evidence seems to indicate that xantusiids are probably most closely related to one of the latter three families, but which one remains a mystery. The fossil record extends back to the Paleocene, but it has shed little light on the origins of the family.

Also controversial is the question of relationships among the three living genera: Cricosaura (1 species), Lepidophyma (17 species), and Xantusia (5 species). Evidence from DNA sequences and from chromosomes indicates that the Cuban night lizard (Cricosaura typica) is the oldest separate lineage in the family, whereas characteristics based on internal and external morphology have been interpreted as evidence that Xantusia is the earliest branch. Subfamilies have been recognized within Xantusiidae but are not used in this account because of the small number of genera and the ambiguity of the evidence of relationships among them.

Physical characteristics

The most distinctive external feature of Xantusiidae is the lack of eyelids. The eyes are covered by a large, transparent scale ("spectacle" or brille) similar to that in snakes and many geckos. The family often is erroneously said to be characterized by having vertically elliptical pupils, but this condition is present only in Xantusia. Cricosaura and Lepidophyma have round pupils. The belly is covered by a series of transverse rows of large, rectangular scales, and there are enlarged plates on the dorsal surface of the head. Body size differs tremendously among the species, from a maximum snout-vent length of only 1.5 in (3.7 cm) for the desert night lizard (Xantusia vigilis) to 5 in (12.7 cm) for the yellow-spotted night lizard (Lepidophyma flavimaculatum).


Xantusiidae is a strictly New World family. Members of Xantusia are found in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. The Cuban night lizard occurs only in a small area on Cuba. The species of Lepidophyma are found from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, south to Panama. Xantusiids live from sea level to an elevation of more than 9,000 ft (2,700 m).


Night lizards are habitat specialists. Many of the species are restricted to particular microhabitats. Some species are found primarily in decaying yuccas and agaves. Others live only in rock crevices, caves, or rainforest litter.


Because of their secretive and reclusive nature, night lizards are seldom found active outside cover, and little is known about their behavior. Despite the name, night lizards are not strictly nocturnal and may be active day or night, depending on temperature and other conditions. The English name appears to be based on the presence of elliptical pupils in members of the genus Xantusia. Night lizards have a low preferred body temperature and low metabolic rate.

Feeding ecology and diet

Some species of Xantusiidae are strictly insectivorous. Others have a diet that includes plant material. Whether any are exclusively herbivorous is unclear. These lizards search for food primarily within the confines of their cover, such as decaying logs.

Reproductive biology

All species for which reproductive information is available are live-bearing, with one notable exception. Recent observations indicate that the Cuban night lizard is egg-laying.

Conservation status

Only one species, the island night lizard (Xantusia river-siana), is officially listed as Vulnerable. The listing of this species is based on its limited distribution (three California islands) and threats to the populations posed by introduced animals, particularly pigs and goats. Most of the species in the genus Lepidophyma have restricted distribution and have been severely affected by the decimation of forests in tropical America.

Significance to humans

Because of their secretive habits, night lizards are seldom seen or appreciated by humans. In some regions they are feared because of the mistaken notion that they are venomous.

Species accounts

List of Species

Desert night lizard
Yellow-spotted night lizard
Cuban night lizard

Desert night lizard

Xantusia vigilis


Xantusia vigilis Baird, 1858, Fort Tejon, California, United States.

other common names

English: Yucca night lizard; French: Xantusie du désert; German: Yucca-Nachtechse; Spanish: Lagartija nocturna del desierto.

physical characteristics

The desert night lizard is small (maximum snout-vent length, 1.5 in [3.7 cm]) and has vertically elliptical pupils lacking eyelids. The lizard is covered with small, granular dorsal scales and 12 longitudinal rows of ventral scales. The body usually is brown with small dark spots.


North America, spotty in southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.


The desert night lizard inhabits desert and chaparral. It is common in decaying yucca logs or dead agaves. The species was considered rare until the discovery of its close association with these plants.


The desert night lizard is rarely found outside cover.

feeding ecology and diet

The desert night lizard is insectivorous, feeding primarily on ants and beetles within the confines of yucca logs and agaves.

reproductive biology

In the Mohave Desert, copulation takes place in May and early June. Gestation is approximately 90 days. One to three young (average, 1.9) are born in September and early October. During dry years there may be no reproduction.

conservation status

Not threatened. Despite the low reproductive rate, populations are quite dense (approximately 12,000 per square mile [4,000 per square kilometer]) in favorable habitat in the Mohave Desert, but extensive areas in the western part of the range have been cleared for housing.

significance to humans

None known.

Yellow-spotted night lizard

Lepidophyma flavimaculatum


Lepidophyma flavimaculatum Duméril, 1851.

other common names

Spanish: Escorpión nocturno puntos amarillos, lepidofima.

physical characteristics

The yellow-spotted night lizard is medium-sized (maximum snout-vent length, 5 in [13 cm]) with round pupils lacking eyelids. The sides of the body are covered with large, tubercular scales. Ten longitudinal rows of scales cover the ventral surface. The lizard is dark brown to black with yellow spots.


Southern Mexico to Panama.


The yellow-spotted night lizard inhabits wet tropical forests (rainforests, cloud forests) in decaying logs, tree stumps, leaf litter, rock crevices, caves, and ruins.


The yellow-spotted night lizard seldom is found outside cover.

feeding ecology and diet

The yellow-spotted night lizard eats insects, spiders, scorpions, and other arthropods found in decaying logs.

reproductive biology

The yellow-spotted night lizard bears five to eight live young. All-female populations occur in Costa Rica and Panama.

conservation status

The yellow-spotted night lizard is not officially listed as threatened but is severely affected by the clearing of forests.

significance to humans

None known.

Cuban night lizard

Cricosaura typica


Cricosaura typica Gundlach and Peters, 1863, Cabo Cruz, Cuba.

other common names

None known.

physical characteristics

The Cuban night lizard is small (maximum snout-vent length, 1.6 in [3.9 cm]). It has round pupils and lacks eyelids. The lizard is covered with small, flattened dorsal scales and eight longitudinal rows of rectangular ventral scales. It is dark brown with a vague dorsal-lateral stripe.


Cabo Cruz and Sierra Maestra, Cuba.


The Cuban night lizard lives under rocks in dry, subtropical forest.


In captivity the Cuban night lizard is active in the evening and remains under cover or buried in soil during the day.

feeding ecology and diet

The Cuban night lizard eats insects, primarily ants, and spiders.

reproductive biology

The Cuban night lizard is the only known egg-laying xantusiid. The lizard lays a single egg in a 2.5–5 in (1–2 cm) hole. The egg hatches two months after being laid.

conservation status

Although not threatened, the Cuban night lizard has a limited distribution and is affected by forest degradation.

significance to humans

None known.



Alvarez del Toro, M. Los reptiles de Chiapas. 3rd edition. Chiapas: Instituto de Historia Natural, Tuxtla Gutierrez, 1982.

Campbell, J. A. Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatan, and Belize. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Estes, R. Sauria terrestria, Amphisbaenia. Vol. 10A, Handbuch der Palaeoherpetologie. Stuttgart: Gustav Fisher Verlag, 1983.

Mautz, W. J. "Ecology and Energetics of the Island Night Lizard, Xantusia riversiana, on San Clemente Island." In Third California Islands Symposium: Recent Advances in Research on the California Islands, edited by F. G. Hochberg. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 1993.


Ansel, Fong G., M. Rolando Viña, and B. Angel Arias. "Aspectos de la Historia Natural de Cricosaura typica (Sauria: Xantusiidae) de Cuba." Caribbean Journal of Science 35 (1999): 148–150.

Bezy, R. L. "Xantusia vigilis." Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles 302 (1982): 1–4.

——. "The Natural History of the Night Lizards, Family Xantusiidae." In Proceedings of the Conference on California Herpetology: Southwestern Herpetologists Society Special Publication no. 4 (1988): 1–12.

——. "Night Lizards: The Evolution of Habitat Specialists." Terra 28 (1989): 29–34.

Bezy, R. L., and J. L. Camarillo R. "Systematics of Xantusiid Lizards of the Genus Lepidophyma." Contributions in Science 493 (2002): 1–41.

Brattstrom, B. H. "The Number of Young of Xantusia." Herpetologica 7 (1951): 143–144.

——. "The Food of the Night Lizards, Genus Xantusia." Copeia (1952): 168–172.

Crother, B. I. "Cricosaura, C. typica." Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles 443 (1988): 1–3.

Crother, B. I., M. M. Miyamoto, and W. F. Presch. "Phylogeny and Biogeography of the Lizard Family Xantusiidae." Systematic Zoology 35 (1986): 37–45.

de Armas, L. F., A. Rams, and A. Torres. "Primeras observaciones sobre la alimentacion de Cricosaura typica (Sauria: Xantusiidae) en condiciones naturales." Miscellaneous Zoology 32 (1987): 1–2.

Estrada, A. R., and L. F. de Armas. "Apuntos ecologicos sobre Cricosaura typica (Sauria: Xantusiidae) de Cuba." Caribbean Journal of Science 34 (1998): 160–162.

Fellers, G. M., and C. A. Drost. "Xantusia riversiana." Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles 518 (1991): 1–4.

——. "Ecology of the Island Night Lizard, Xantusia riversiana, on Santa Barbara Island, California." Herpetological Monographs 5 (1991): 28–78.

Hass, C. A., and S. B. Hedges. "Karyotype of the Cuban Lizard Cricosaura typica and Its Implication for Xantusiid Phylogeny." Copeia (1992): 563–565.

Hedges, S. B., R. L. Bezy, and L. R. Maxson. "Phylogenetic Relationships and Biogeography of Xantusiid Lizards, Inferred from Mitochondrial DNA Sequences." Molecular Biology and Evolution 8 (1991): 767–780.

Lee, J. C. "The Diel Activity Cycle of the Lizard, Xantusia henshawi." Copeia (1974): 934–940.

——. "The Autecology of Xantusia henshawi (Sauria: Xantusiidae)." Transactions of the San Diego Society of Natural History 17 (1975): 259–278.

——. "Xantusia henshawi." Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles 189 (1976): 1–2.

Mautz, W. J. "The Metabolism of Reclusive Lizards, the Xantusiidae." Copeia (1979): 577–584.

——. "Thermal Biology and Microhabitats of Xantusiid Lizards: Herpetology of the North American Deserts, Proceedings of a Symposium. Southwest Herpetologists Society Special Publication 5 (1994): 227–238.

Mautz, W. J., and T. J. Case. "A Diurnal Activity Cycle in the Granite Night Lizard, Xantusia henshawi." Copeia (1974): 243–251.

Petzold, H.-G. "Cricosaura typica Gundlach & Peters, eine herpetologische Kostbarkeit aus Kuba." Die Aquarien und Terrarien Zeitschrift 22 (1969): 82–85.

Telford, S. R., and H. W. Campbell. "Ecological Observations on an All Female Population of the Lizard Lepidophyma flavimaculatum (Xantusiidae) in Panama." Copeia (1970): 379–381.

Zweifel, R. G., and C. H. Lowe. "The Ecology of a Population of Xantusia vigilis, the Desert Night Lizard." American Museum Novitates 2247 (1966): 1–57.

Robert L. Bezy, PhD

L. Lee Grismer, PhD

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Night Lizards (Xantusiidae)." Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. . 24 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Night Lizards (Xantusiidae)." Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. . (April 24, 2019).

"Night Lizards (Xantusiidae)." Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 24, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.