Legless Lizards Discovered In California: How Do They Differ From Snakes?

By Josh Lieberman on September 19, 2013 6:40 PM EDT

legless
Four new species of legless lizards have been discovered in California. One species was discovered near the runways of Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have discovered four new species of legless lizard, creatures that look like snakes but differ slightly. One of the newly discovered legless lizards, Anniella stebbinsi, was discovered in the dunes of the Los Angeles International Airport. The other three legless lizard species were all found in California, in San Joaquin Valley, on the edge of the Mojave Desert and in Bakersfield.

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"These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown," said James Parham of California State University, Fullerton, who helped discover the lizards.

The legless lizards were hard to find because they burrow in soil and spend their entire lives within a few square feet of soil, eating insects and larvae. Legless lizards are the width of a pencil and no more than eight inches long.

The legless lizards were discovered as part of a 15-year project led by Parham and Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert at UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. The scientists placed thousands of pieces of cardboard and plywood around California in places where they thought unknown legless lizard species were hiding. Legless lizards like the cool, moist areas that are created by the boards, and come the spring they plan to check 1,000 of the boards for new lizards. 

So what's the difference between snakes and legless lizards, two creatures that look almost very much like one another?

"[Legless lizards] can blink at you, but snakes can't because they don't have eyelids," said Parham. "Snakes can coil up a lot more, and they are more slithery," Parham said, while legless lizards are more rigid. Legless lizards also don't shed their skin in one big piece.

But while the scientists can tell legless lizards from snakes, there is still plenty about legless lizards that they don't know. 

"They are one of the most poorly studied reptiles in California," Parham said. "Because they live under the sand, you can't see what they are doing, and you can't even do a mark-and-recapture because you can't reliably capture these things."

Parham and Papenfuss are helping the California Department of Fish and Wildlife determine whether legless lizards should get protected status. California currently lists legless lizards as a species of special concern

The scientists detailed their research in the journal Breviora.  

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