4 species of legless lizards discovered in California

Four previously unknown species of snake-like creatures have been discovered in California – but don’t call them snakes; they are legless lizards. Prior to the discovery of the new species, there was only one known species of legless lizard in the state: the California legless lizard.

Surprisingly, the new legless lizards were discovered at a series of sites that weren’t exactly pristine: they include a dune lining a runway at Los Angeles International Airport; a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, California; a field littered with oil derricks; and the margins of the Mojave Desert.

“This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity in California,” Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a school statement.

The lizards live their entire lives underground or near the surface, and often do not leave an area the size of a small table, the statement noted. When they are on the surface, it is usually in damp areas under dead wood or logs – or cardboard.

A map showing where the new species of legless lizards are found. (Image credit: Courtesy of Breviora)

To find the lizards, Papenfuss and James Parham, a researcher at California State University, Fullerton, placed thousands of scraps of cardboard at various sites in central and southern California. They then checked and rechecked the sites before finally finding the four new species.

Three of the animals were found in the southern San Joaquin Valley. “These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separated from all other species, for millions of years, completely unknown,” Parham said in the statement.

The species found near oilfields has a silver belly and is named Anniella alexanderae. The yellow belly Anniella Campi lives in three isolated dry canyons on the edge of the Mojave Desert, east of Walker Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The purple belly anniella grinelli was found in three vacant lots in Bakersfield, although only one of those lots remains. The fourth species, found outside the valley near the airport, is named Anniella stebbinsi.

Legless lizards live in loose soil on five continents, eating insects and larvae, and this limbless trait has evolved independently multiple times, the release noted. It is difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish these creatures from snakes. However, unlike snakes, many legless lizards have external ear openings and movable eyelids. They also generally spend their entire lives underground, unlike snakes.

The species was named after four UC Berkeley scientists: Museum of Vertebrate Zoology founder Joseph Grinnell, paleontologist Charles Camp, philanthropist and amateur scientist Annie Alexander, and herpetologist Robert Stebbins.

There are also several species of legless lizards in the southeastern United States, known as glass lizards.

The animals are described in a study published Sept. 17 in the journal Breviora.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note that there are other species of legless lizards in the southeastern United States, known as glass lizards, which belong to a different taxonomic family.

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