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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: Legless Lizards!

This week’s Wildlife Wednesday is all about a group of animals we haven’t spent much time discussing on this blog so far. . . reptiles! Lizards to be specific. Legless lizards to be more specific. If you are unfamiliar with this particular group of animals, you may be scratching your head and asking, “Isn’t a legless lizard just a snake?” The answer is no. In fact, although legless lizards look a whole lot like snakes, they are actually their own family of lizards, Anniellidae.
So what makes legless lizards different from snakes? There are a few major distinctions. Next time you see a non-venomous snake, get a little closer to it and look at its eyes. Snakes do not have moveable eyelids. In contrast, a legless lizard has moveable eyelids. If you look closely at the photo below, you will see the eyelid structure. 

If you look closely enough, you can see the eyelids.

 Other distinctions between legless lizards and snakes must be made by comparing their skeletons. If you were to look closely at a legless lizard skeleton, you would notice that it has a pair of tiny, paddle-shaped legs, indicating its evolutionary history as an animal that walked, rather than slithered. A skeletal comparison would also illustrate that the legless lizard, like most other lizards has a very long tail. The snake, on the other hand, has a really small tail. Although these distinctions may seem cryptic or difficult to make, they are very important.
Until last year, the scientific and herpetological establishment recognized only two species of legless lizards in California, the California legless lizard (Anniella pulchra) and the Baja California legless lizard (Anniella geronimensis). All of that changed last year when Drs. Theodore Papenfuss and James Parham published a paper proposing four new species of legless lizard in California. In fact, their study showed that what people have been calling California legless lizard is actually five species:
 California (Anniella pulchra), which has the largest range of the complex, 

- southern California legless lizard (Anniella stebbinsi)- first found in sand dunes near LAX, 

 - Bakersfield legless lizard (Anniella grinnelli)- known from just a few sites in the Bakersfield area,  including the city itself,

 southern Sierra legless lizard (Anniella campi)- found in Kern county near Highway 14, 

 - Temblor legless lizard (Anniella alexanderae), which inhabits the Temblor Mountains west of I-5

Image taken from Papenfuss and Parham, 2013
 It appears that all of these species co-occur in the area around Tejon Ranch. In fact, Dr. Papenfuss has set up several arrays of cover boards on the ranch to see if he can find where one species changes to the other! As with many reptiles, legless lizards are most easily spotted under cover boards when there is a little bit of moisture around. If we’re going to find any of them on Tejon Ranch this year, it’s going to have to rain a little! Fortunately, we came across one of these little guys in Tejon Canyon earlier this week. Unfortunately, these species are so similar to one another, we can’t tell which kind this is from just a photo. Let’s hope Dr. Papenfuss makes some more great discoveries on Tejon Ranch this spring!
A legless lizard found in Tejon Canyon earlier this week. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak
Now that you’re intrigued by legless lizards, have a look at these resources so you can try to find them in your own backyard:

California Herps account of these animals:
Here’s the paper that describes the new species:

 Theodore J. Papenfuss and James F. Parham. 2013. Four New Species of California Legless Lizards (Anniella). Breviora 536: 1-17; doi: 10.3099/MCZ10.1