SciSun: For Lizard Eyes Only   Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, when we wrote about Sierra Nevada frogs in ‘A story with Legs’ (frog legs. Get it?), who would have thought that now we have a story without legs – literally. Because in the deserts (and not-so-deserts) of Southern California, scientists have recently discovered four new species of animals not many of us think about, or even know exist: The legless lizard.

Sure, you say, a ‘legless lizard’ is just a snake. Maybe a really creepy name for a snake, but nevertheless, a snake. (And without legs, they do, actually, creep). But while all snakes could be considered a legless-type-of-lizard; not all legless lizards are snakes. Confused? So are the lizards.

It seems that as the different types of lizards changed throughout time, some of them lost their limbs. Because in evolution, only the species that adapt to their environment – everything from living space to climate to food – continue to survive as species. If at one time a species of lizard found themselves, let’s say, with no place to live other than small, tight crevices in rocks, then the lizards that naturally had smaller, shorter legs were more successful finding the best cramped spaces to live, and the lizards that had longer legs lost out. In time any legs at all were more of a nuisance than a benefit to these crevice-living lizards, so over thousands of years legs slowly became less and less useful until they disappeared. Remember, evolution happens over hundreds of generations, and not just one day a lizard woke up and had no legs. It’s a gradual, slow process where some individuals have slight advantages over others, within specific environments, and those animals are generally more successful so pass on their slight advantages to their offspring, who then are better suited for life . Of course for lizards living in the open desert, tens-of-thousands of years ago, longer, stronger legs would be of more use so any lizards with the short legs would have been at a loss. Unless they got fed up with always being left behind and relocated to the rocks.

Evolution is why over time, Earth has had so many species. Pretty neat, isn’t it? But back to our friends the legless lizards. Throughout the world, there are more than 200 different types of lizards-without-limbs; five species are exclusive to California, and of those, four have only recently been discovered. All are members of the Group Anniella, a classification that includes many different species. Anniella are all rather small, only about the diameter of a pencil and less than a foot long, and don’t coil up like snakes. They spend most of their lives burrowing through loose, dry sand, looking for insects to eat, and usually don’t go beyond a few square feet feet of territory. Which is ironic for one species which was found living only within some vacant land at the edge of the Los Angeles International Airport, where they could catch a flight anywhere they want.

“For the last time, I'm not a worm, that's a whole other thing altogether.  I bet snakes never have this problem.”

“For the last time, I’m not a worm, that’s a whole other thing altogether. I bet snakes never have this problem.”


Legless lizards are very difficult to study, or even locate, as they rarely come to the surface and even to those who study the animals, within a species one lizard looks more-or-less like any other, so they can’t be tracked or monitored. Scientists have found the best way to follow and count these animals is to leave sections of cardboard and wooden panels flat on the ground, where the lizards will seek them out for the shade and moisture which collect underneath. We do know that the lizards are an important part of the environment, eating bugs and larvae that are harmful to other species, and help keep the soil aerated and clean. So if you ever come across a small, unusual legless-animal that might be a snake, you might have found a legless lizard. Don’t get too close (you should never bother a wild animal), but because legless lizards have eyelids – and snakes don’t – look closely and whoever blinks first, is the legless lizard.


Michonne Says: This sounds like one of those things men make up. There are snakes or lizards. They can’t be both. If they don’t have legs they can’t walk or run. Anybody knows that. Phooey.

Posted February 16, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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