4 Weird Legless Lizard Species Found

Four new species of legless lizard have been hiding in plain sight in gritty parts of southern California, including a railroad track, vacant city lots, oilfields, and even an airport runway, a new study says.

Researchers don’t know much about the unusual reptiles—which can grow up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) long—mostly because they live underground and eat insects and larvae in the soil. (Also see “Blind, Legless Lizard Discovered—New Species.”)

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A. grinnelli is distinguished by its purple belly. Photograph courtesy James Parham

Scientists James Parham and Theodore Papenfuss were searching industrial areas of southern California’s San Joaquin Valley for individuals of a known species, the California legless lizard (Anniella pulchra) when they stumbled across the four new species.

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The newfound legless lizards are named after four legendary University of California, Berkeley, scientists. From left to right: Annie Montague Alexander, Charles Lewis Camp, Joseph Grinnell, and Robert Cyril Stebbins, who at 98 is the only one of the group still alive. Photographs courtesy Ted Papenfuss and Jim Parnham

Unlike the banana yellow hue of the California legless lizard, three of the new species come in a rainbow of colors: The purple-bellied A. grinnelli; the silver-bellied A. alexanderae, and A. campi, which has two dark stripes with a broad yellow stripe on its side. Another yellow-bellied species, A. stebbinsi, looks identical to A. pulchra and was found under leaf litter in protected dunes near Los Angeles International Airport. The four species were named after well-known University of California, Berkeley, scientists.

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A. grinnelli is only found in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Carrizo Plain. Photograph courtesy James Parham

“You come through this area and see heavy development and you don’t think, ‘there are new species here.’ You think that about the Amazon rain forest,” said Parham, of California State University in Fullerton.

“But here you can show there is a purple bellied lizard that had been separated from other lizards by millions of years in the city limits of Bakersfield,” he said.

“It sounds ridiculous, but it’s real.”

Mysterious Creature

The find didn’t happen overnight. The researchers had spent years creating mini-habitats to attract the already known, snake-like species.

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A. campi has two stripes on its sides. Photograph courtesy James Parham

That meant getting permission to set up an experiment, lugging pieces of plywood or cardboard out to patches of sandy or loamy soil, laying them down, and hoping that some legless lizards would find the damp, dark spaces underneath appealing.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey I want to study lizards, put some in a sack, and you’re outta there in a couple hours,” said Parham, whose study was published in September in the journal Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

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A. alexanderae has a strangely silver belly. Photograph courtesy James Parham

After a few months with their “habitats” deployed, the team would return, lift the covers, rake the soil gently, and sometimes catch lizards unawares. (Watch a video of a lizard that squirts blood from its eyes.)

The next step, Parham said, is to figure out how widespread the new species are in California. The California legless lizard is a species of special concern in the state, and the scientists want to know if the newfound species are also at risk.

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The remnants of the once-vast El Segundo Dunes abut Los Angeles International Airport. Photograph courtesy Los Angeles World Airports

Overall, the legless lizard “is a very mysterious creature,” he said, “and this research has really brought it into the public eye.”

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Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.