Legless lizards slither around in the sand

Photo credit: Chris Brown, USGS

In honor of the New Year and trying new things, Wild Things is stepping out of the ocean wildlife comfort zone to examine a fascinating land-dwelling, sand-loving critter called the California legless lizard. A major challenge facing legless lizards is being mistaken for a snake, a case of misnaken identity. So it’s time to set the record straight and raise the public profile of legless lizards with some positive PR.

California legless lizards or Anniella pulchra have a shovel-shaped snout, are very slender and grow to be four to seven inches long. They come in a variety of earthy colors, some legless lizards are gray-silver, others wear beige or brown and some stick to basic black.

Let’s just be honest though, when it comes down to it legless lizards look like, well, like snakes. But there are some key differences that cause legless lizards to fall in the non-snake category. For starters, legless lizards have moveable eyelids and snakes do not. Let me tell you, having moveable eyelids makes all the difference, legless lizards look downright friendly.

In a close-up photo of a legless lizard’s face on CaliforniaHerps.com, the eyelids really stand out and it’s easy to imagine a legless lizard with mascara blinking away for the cameras, out-shining those unstable-looking glaring snakes every time. (By the way, herps in CaliforniaHerps.com is short for herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.)

Another difference that sets legless lizards apart from snakes is their scales. According to legless lizard expert and marine biologist Linda Kuhnz who works at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, legless lizards have scales that are much smaller and uniformly-sized compared to snakes that can have very large scales in different sizes. Also, legless lizards still have boney links to a bygone era when they used legs for walking: skeletal remnants of a hipbone and hind legs.

(A twist of fate led Kuhnz to study legless lizards after an earthquake toppled the building she worked and studied in at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Legless lizards lived in the area where the new building was to be constructed and the rest, as they say, is history. She has since moved on to researching animals living on or under deep-sea sediment, but still studies legless lizards.)

But the coolest and most impressive difference between legless lizards and snakes is that a legless lizard can break off its tail! This capability is called caudal autotomy and is a common trait in lizards. For people familiar with lizards, this may be old news to you, but to me this was fascinating.

In order to trick predators, the legless lizard will sever its tail between the vertebrae and leave it as a wiggling decoy while the head and body escapes in one piece to safety. Meanwhile, the predator is left with a lousy tail for dinner.

Legless lizard chasers and tail eaters include deer mice, feral cats, birds, weasels and ironically…snakes. Legless lizards on the other hand perform a community service by eating what we consider to be undesirable: termites, beetles and larval insects of varying types.

Even with all these details, I still couldn’t get a real sense of the day to day life of the legless lizard. Kuhnz kindly described in an email what this entails by channeling the perspective of the legless lizard. “In the winter, I stay up to a foot under the sand near my ‘home bush or shrub’ until the sand warms up near the surface. If I head to the side of the bush where the sun is shining, it will be warmer there,” wrote Kuhnz.

“Feeding on insects, as I make a temporary burrow toward the surface. Remaining under the sand or under the leaf litter, I am rarely visible on the surface. I am active day and night. In the spring it is mating time and I become much more active because it is warmer and there is more food now,” explained Kuhnz. “If I am male, I may travel a long distance to mate, then return to my home area (I normally hang out within an area about the size of a living room).”

Which brings us to mating and sex. Legless lizards have sex the old-fashioned way. “They carry two to three babies, and give live birth. The babies are so large that you can see them squirming in the female’s belly,” said Kuhnz.

By performing their day to day business, both personal and practical, legless lizards play an important role in local ecosystems by burrowing in sand or loose soil, keeping it churned up and usable by other animals. Legless lizards can be found from Contra Coast County to the Mexican border, hanging out in sand dunes, chaparral, pine-oak woodlands and streamside growth, according to Peterson Field Guides Western Reptiles and Amphibians by Robert C. Stebbins.

Unfortunately for California legless lizards, sand dunes are also prized real estate for humans, and thanks to development, ice plant (an invasive coastal plant) and off-road vehicles, the number of legless lizards has dwindled severely.

They are considered to be a California Species of Special Concern, which means legless lizards and the areas where they live are protected. Near the South Bay, legless lizards can still be spotted at the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve located between Playa del Rey and Venice.

Ballona Wetlands used to be 2,000 acres of critical coastal habitat, but development has reduced it to 600 acres surrounded by dense urban areas. Legless lizards have been recorded in the dune areas of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve as part of ongoing monitoring conducted to gather information for the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project.

The restoration project is a long-term, science-based plan to transform the Ballona Wetlands into a thriving ecological reserve to help ensure the future of the California legless lizard and many other critters that call the wetlands home. Restoring the wetlands is also crucial to ensuring that coastal wetlands continue to be a part of California’s coast, since 95 percent of the state’s coastal wetlands have been lost to development.

Spotting legless lizards in the wetlands requires a good eye and a bit of luck. “Legless lizards can occasionally be found by turning over old pieces of wood or other objects lying around outside,” said Kuhnz. “It is very hard to find them in the sandy habitats that they are most common in; they move away from disturbance fairly quickly.”

Since legless lizards are Species of Special Concern, they should not be handled. Plus, picking up a legless lizard is a bad idea because “they could drop their tail, this costs the animal precious energy; it stores extra fat in the tail for when food is not as available,” explained Kuhnz.

For more information on visiting the Ballona Wetlands and guided tours go to www.ballonarestoration.org. If you do see a legless lizard, remember it’s not a snake, it’s a prized bug eater and a protected species. Every animal has their role to play, no matter how large, small or snake-like.


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