Published October 4, 2021. Updated November 28, 2023. Open access. Peer-reviewed.

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Cloudy Sticklizard (Pholidobolus vertebralis)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Sauria | Gymnophthalmidae | Pholidobolus vertebralis

English common name: Cloudy Sticklizard.

Spanish common names: Cuilanpalo nebuloso, lagartija arcoiris.

Recognition: ♂♂ 17.6 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=6.3 cm. ♀♀ 17.1 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=6.8 cm..1,2 Sticklizards differ from other lizards by having short but well-developed limbs, overlapping striated sub-hexagonal dorsal scales, and a brownish dorsal pattern with longitudinal stripes.3,4 The presence of six-sided finely wrinkled dorsal scales distinguishes Pholidobolus from other co-occurring small brownish lizards such as those in the genera Alopoglossus, Anadia, Andinosaura, Macropholidus, and Riama.5,6 Pholidobolus vertebralis is unique in having a vertebral ribbon with a gradient coloration. The ribbon transitions from green on the head and tan on the back to cyan on the tail.1,2,7 Males differ from females by having a broader head, a brighter coloration along the flanks, and more conspicuous ocelli. In the cloud forests of northwestern Ecuador, only Alopoglossus viridiceps may look alike, but this lizard has strongly keeled and overlapping scales on the flanks, whereas in P. vertebralis these scales are rounded and finely wrinkled.2,8

Figure showing variation among individuals of Pholidobolus vertebralis

Figure 1: Individuals of Pholidobolus vertebralis from 5.5 km W Morán, Carchi province, Ecuador. j=juvenile.

Natural history: Pholidobolus vertebralis is a locally abundant lizard in semi-open areas within evergreen montane forest and cloud forest, especially in clearings where the sunlight reaches the ground.2,9 The species is also found in disturbed areas such as along roads.10 Cloudy Sticklizards are terrestrial, diurnal, and are usually seen foraging on soil, leaf-litter, and among grass, or basking on rocks.2 When not active, they hide under rocks, logs, leaf-litter, surface objects such as tin, inside tunnels in earth walls, or among the axils of leaves.2,10,11 These lizards are active at air temperatures ranging from 15.2°C to 21.9°C, especially during sunny days.2,9,11 If the weather is not suitable, individuals may be completely absent from the surface for days.9 The diet in this species is composed primarily of insects,2 but the specific prey items consumed are not known. When threatened, Cloudy Sticklizards hide quickly under vegetation; if handled, they may shed the tail or bite.10,11 The clutch size consists of two eggs.2

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Conservation: Near Threatened Not currently at risk of extinction, but requires some level of management to maintain healthy populations.. Pholidobolus vertebralis is proposed to be included in this category, instead of Least Concern,12 because the species is considerably less widely-distributed that previously thought. Instead of being distributed from Panama and Venezuela, through Colombia, to northern Peru,7 in this work, the “true” P. vertebralis is considered to be restricted to an area smaller than 5,000 km2 in northwestern Ecuador. Fortunately, the species has been recorded in 15 protected areas (Appendix 1) and occurs in an area of the country that retains most (~71%) of its forest cover. Therefore, P. vertebralis is considered to be facing no major immediate extinction threats. However, some populations are likely to be declining due to deforestation by logging and large-scale mining, especially in the provinces Carchi and Imbabura.

Distribution: Pholidobolus vertebralis is endemic to an area of approximately 4,783 km2 along the Pacific slopes of the Andes in northwestern Ecuador (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Pholidobolus vertebralis in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Pholidobolus vertebralis in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the type locality: Intag, Imbabura province. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The generic name Pholidobolus comes from the Greek words pholidos (=scale) and bolos (=lump),13 and probably refers to the imbricated or mounted scales. The specific epithet vertebralis comes from the Latin words vertebra (=backbone) and the suffix -alis (=pertaining to),13 and refers to the vertebral stripe.

See it in the wild: Cloudy Sticklizards can be observed reliably by walking along cloud forest clearings during sunny mornings in reserves such as Las Gralarias, Santa Lucía, and Séptimo Paraíso. Individuals can also be found by searching under rocks and logs at the border between pastures and native forest.

Notes: Some studies7,14 show that populations of Pholidobolus vertebralis from Ecuador differ markedly from those traditionally assigned to this species in other countries. Although the limits between these populations have not been formally recognized as species, the name P. vertebralis is here conservatively applied only to those in Ecuador.

Special thanks to Roy Averill-Murray for symbolically adopting the Cloudy Sticklizard and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

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Authors: Amanda QuezadaaAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,bAffiliation: Laboratorio de Herpetología, Universidad del Azuay, Cuenca, Ecuador. and Alejandro ArteagacAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Academic reviewer: Jeffrey D CamperdAffiliation: Department of Biology, Francis Marion University, Florence, USA.

Photographer: Jose VieiraaAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,eAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Quezada A, Arteaga A (2023) Cloudy Sticklizard (Pholidobolus vertebralis). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/CMNZ4590

Literature cited:

  1. Uzzell T (1973) A revision of the genus Prionodactylus with a new genus for P. leucostictus and notes on the genus Euspondylus (Sauria, Teiidae). Postilla 159: 1–67.
  2. Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Guayasamin JM (2013) The amphibians and reptiles of Mindo. Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Quito, 257 pp.
  3. Montanucci RR (1973) Systematics and evolution of the Andean Lizard genus Pholidobolus (Sauria: Teiidae). Miscellaneous Publications of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas 59: 1–52.
  4. Torres-Carvajal O, Venegas P, Lobos SE, Mafla-Endara P, Sales Nunes PM (2014) A new species of Pholidobolus (Squamata: Gymnophthalmidae) from the Andes of southern Ecuador. Amphibian & Reptile Conservation 8: 76–88.
  5. Peters JA, Donoso-Barros R (1970) Catalogue of the Neotropical Squamata: part II, lizards and amphisbaenians. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, Washington, D.C., 293 pp.
  6. Doan TM (2003) A new phylogenetic classification for the gymnophthalmid genera Cercosaura, Pantodactylus, and Prionodactylus (Reptilia: Squamata). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 137: 101–115. DOI: 10.1046/j.1096-3642.2003.00043.x
  7. Doan TM, Cusi JC (2014) Geographic distribution of Cercosaura vertebralis O’Shaughnessy, 1879 (Reptilia:Squamata: Gymnophthalmidae) and the status of Cercosaura ampuedai. Check List 10: 1195–1200. DOI: 10.15560/10.5.1195
  8. Torres-Carvajal O, Lobos SE (2014) A new species of Alopoglossus lizard (Squamata, Gymnophthalmidae) from the tropical Andes, with a molecular phylogeny of the genus. ZooKeys 410: 105–120. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.410.7401
  9. Savit AZ (2006) Reptiles of the Santa Lucía Cloud Forest, Ecuador. Iguana 13: 94–103.
  10. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  11. Averill-Murray RC, Averill-Murray A (2017) Notes on activity and habitat use of Pholidobolus vertebralis (Squamata: Gymnophthalmidae) at a cloud forest reserve in Ecuador. Herpetological Review 48: 728–730.
  12. Ibáñez R, Jaramillo C, Daza J, Caicedo J, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Perez P, Schargel W, Rivas G (2017) Pholidobolus vertebralis. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T203052A2759538.en
  13. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  14. Hurtado-Gómez JP, Arredondo JC, Sales Nunes PM, Daza JM (2018) A new species of Pholidobolus (Squamata: Gymnophthalmidae) from the Paramo ecosystem in the northern Andes of Colombia. South American Journal of Herpetology 13: 271–286. DOI: 10.2994/SAJH-D-15-00014.1

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Pholidobolus vertebralis in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used. Asterisk (*) indicates type locality.

ColombiaNariñoBarbacoas, AltaquerHernández and Bernal 2011
EcuadorCarchiBosque Protector GolondrinasPhoto by Santiago Hernández
EcuadorCarchiCañón del MoránThis work; Fig. 1
EcuadorCarchiChicaliNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorCarchiChilma BajoTorres-Carvajal et al. 2015
EcuadorCarchiMaldonadoCM 94617; VertNet
EcuadorCotopaxiSigchos, below, Río Toachi ValleyUzzell 1973
EcuadorImbaburaCafé Finca La CascadaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorImbaburaIntag*O’Shaughnessy 1879
EcuadorImbaburaManduriacu ReserveLynch et al. 2014
EcuadorPichinchaBellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and LodgeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaBirdwatcher’s HouseReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPichinchaBosque Protector CambugánYánez-Muñoz & Ortiz 2007
EcuadorPichinchaBosque Protector El CedralVenegas et al. 2016
EcuadorPichinchaHacienda San VicenteArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPichinchaLas Gralarias ReserveAverill-Murray & Averill-Murray 2017
EcuadorPichinchaLas TolasYánez-Muñoz et al. 2009
EcuadorPichinchaLlambo, camino de GualeaUSNM 524164; VertNet
EcuadorPichinchaMaquipucuna Cloud Forest ReservePhoto by Arthur Morris
EcuadorPichinchaMindo Biological StationArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPichinchaMindo Lindo LodgePhoto by Heike Brieschke
EcuadorPichinchaMindo, terreno USFQiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaNanegal GrandeUSNM 196216; VertNet
EcuadorPichinchaNanegalito, 10 km E of Uzzell 1973
EcuadorPichinchaNanegalito, 3 km E ofUSNM 193946; VertNet
EcuadorPichinchaPacha QuindiPhoto by Tony Nunnery
EcuadorPichinchaPacto, 5 km E ofUzzell 1973
EcuadorPichinchaPahuma Orchid ReserveYánez-Muñoz 2007
EcuadorPichinchaRío Blanco, near mouth of Río YambiUzzell 1973
EcuadorPichinchaSachatamia LodgeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPichinchaSanta Lucía Cloud Forest ReserveTolhurst et al. 2016
EcuadorPichinchaSanta RosaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPichinchaSéptimo Paraíso Cloud Forest ReserveArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPichinchaTandayapa LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPichinchaZaragoza, Lloa–Mindo trailYánez-Muñoz & Ramírez 2008
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasSanto Domingo de los Colorados, provinceUSNM 196269; VertNet