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Arizona striped whiptail  Aspidoscelis arizonae
ESA status: petitioned for listing

Arizona striped whiptail credit Erki EndersonAgainst the dun-colored soil of a sandy flat in arid Arizona, there is a sudden flash of sky-blue and a blur of racing stripes – the Arizona striped whiptail. Digging around in the loose soil and debris under the bases of bushes, clumps of saltgrass, and alkali sacaton, this swift little lizard is the bane of insects, spiders, centipedes, and even smaller lizards. In the spring and summer, you can find it hunting or basking on warm rocks, especially in the early morning, but in the colder months of winter and late fall it disappears into hibernation. The whiptail digs burrows where it shelters from the elements and lays its eggs in late spring or early summer – usually one or two clutches of one to three eggs each.

They are found only in Graham and Cochise counties in southeastern Arizona, in dry semi-desert grassland areas interspersed with shrubs, prickly-pear cactus, and yucca. But their grassland habitat is threatened by urban and agricultural development and overgrazing by livestock, and their population is declining. Historically, they have been recorded in three locations, near the cities of Willcox, Fairbank, and in Whitlock Valley. But they have apparently been pushed off one location outside of Willcox by a housing development.  In Whitlock Valley, they have not been seen since 1983, when a single specimen was collected near the Hackberry Ranch. And none have been seen near Fairbank since the collecting expedition that originally documented them in 1894.  The Fairbank specimen could have been collected in a variety of locations; information on the historic extent of this species is sadly lacking.

The decline of the Arizona striped whiptail is likely related to the decline of Chihuahuan desert grasslands – grasslands that have been under siege by continuous livestock grazing for over a century. Formerly widespread areas of grassland in the Chihuahuan Desert region have been converted to shrub-dominated ecosystems and there are few large patches of intact semi-desert grassland remaining. Shrubs and forbs invade grazed grasslands, pushing out species such as the Arizona striped whiptail that depend on grassland habitat for survival.

In order to counteract these continuing threats to grasslands and their dependents, WildEarth Guardians is pushing for Endangered Species Act safeguards for this rare lizard. We want to preserve these lizards and their grassland home so that visitors to their dry habitat can still see that unexpected flash of blue.

Watch these videos of Arizona striped whiptails hunting insects and moving through their natural habitat in the Wilcox Playa.

photo credit: Erik Enderson
video credit: Gary Nafis, Californiaherps.com