Desert Iguana: Habitat and Characteristics

The desert iguana's ability to withstand high temperatures is believed to be an adaptation against predation, as many animals cannot withstand them.
Desert Iguana: Habitat and Characteristics

Last update: 28 July, 2021

The desert iguana is a reptile that has adapted well to heat, as it’s able to withstand incredibly high desert temperatures. It is a medium-sized species that can move quickly on the ground, although it’s also an excellent hunter. Because it’s a territorial animal, it’s capable of leaving unusual signals to deter competition.

The scientific name of this species is Dipsosaurus dorsalis and it’s part of the Iguanidae family, which groups together several types of iguanas. These animals are recognized for being ectothermic, which is why they are often seen in hot environments. Keep reading and learn more about this iguana: it will surely surprise you.

Desert iguana habitat

This species is found in desert areas in northern Mexico and the southern United States. Therefore, it inhabits large areas of the Sonora and Mojave deserts, as well as areas of the Baja California peninsula and several islands in the Gulf of California. In addition, it’s known to be closely associated with the shrub called “the governor” (Larrea tridentata).

This reptile is able to withstand very high temperatures, so it can go out during the hottest moments of the day. This implies that its habitat consists of flat and sandy terrain, in which it creates its hiding places using the area’s vegetation. Moreover, when the temperature drops, it can hide in the nests of certain mammals to withstand the cold.

Physical characteristics

This iguana can reach 36 centimeters (14 inches) in length and its tail accounts for most of its size. This animal’s body is robust and oval, with a smooth appearance, in addition to a small head. Its posture is typical of a reptile, with limbs at the sides, forcing it to move almost by crawling.

The coloration of this species fits in with its surroundings, showing pale grays with some brown patterns all over its body. These tones are present in both females and males, with a pink color on their bellies, but only during the mating season.

In addition, these reptiles also have several lines of scales that run along their bodies, forming stable patterns on their back.

A desert iguana on a white background.

The behavior of the desert iguana

Desert iguanas are diurnal ectothermic animals, so they are very active in the middle of the day. What’s more, the temperature at which they are most active can reach up to 40 degrees Celsius. However, their limit is 55 degrees, above which can prove fatal for them. For this reason, they maintain their temperature by moving to cooler areas when they become overheated.

They’re great climbers, and use this ability to look for food or shelter. What’s more, they can be fast runners, so much so that they sometimes seem to run on two legs. This is because they keep the part of their head raised, in a similar way to other lizards.


These reptiles are also territorial, and they use aggressive behavior to deter their competitors. They can become inflated, making their bodies appear larger and wider, and even perform push-ups! In addition to this, they’re capable of secreting fluorescent fluids, which serve to mark their territory.

A study conducted by the department of biology at the University of California found that these fluids are actually pheromones with ultraviolet fluorescence. In fact, it was also observed that this iguana could visually detect this secretion, which implies that its sight is adapted to seeing the light reflected by these markings.

Reptiles that hibernate

Because this animal isn’t used to cold weather, it has to go through a period of hibernation to survive the winter. This process begins at the end of October and ends in March. To be safe, they dig into the ground to a depth greater than 50 centimeters (20 inches), where they take advantage of the heat of the ground.

Desert iguana feeding

The diet of this iguana is based on eating shoots, leaves, and some fruits, making it a herbivorous animal. Despite this, it can sometimes eat insects, but leaves represent at least 90% of its food. Some of the plants it consumes are dandelions, alfalfa leaves and, especially, governor.

Reproduction of the desert iguana

These reptiles are polygamous and dominate a territory to be able to mate with females. To do this, the male specimens attract the females by means of their well-known push-ups. In addition, they fight against other males for the territories. The best place to carry out copulation is in the bushes, where the temperature is a little cooler, and these are the most contested places.

The male of the species plans his strategy to attract mates. He uses his femoral pores, which help him to leave pheromones as a guide for his partners. He circles the sand, trying to leave as many traces as possible. In fact, females are selective, as the male’s color and shape are key factors in deciding whether or not to accept courtship.

The breeding season begins in the spring, continuing until mid-summer. The months in which the majority of matings occur are between May and June. This process ends at the end of the summer with the laying of eggs, in which each female will lay only one litter of 2 to 8 young.

This iguana doesn’t show any type of parental care, so, once the female digs her nest, the young will have to fend for themselves. To do this, the new mothers only make a hole in the ground, where they deposit all the eggs and end up covering them to leave them on their own.

State of conservation

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this reptile is classified as a species of least concern. This is probably due to the little information available on its population, since there are no censuses to indicate whether it’s at risk or not. However, the destruction of its habitat and its use as a pet can be serious risk factors.

A species that deserves to be preserved

Perhaps these reptiles aren’t usually among the most charismatic, but they still have impressive characteristics. The ability of this animal to leave fluorescent trails, for example, is one of the most impressive in the animal kingdom.

In fact, there are still things that we don’t know about these iguanas and perhaps they have more secrets to tell. To learn more about their biology, we must first learn to care for and respect them.

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