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.”)
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.
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.
“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.”
The find didn’t happen overnight. The researchers had spent years creating mini-habitats to attract the already known, snake-like species.
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.
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.
Overall, the legless lizard “is a very mysterious creature,” he said, “and this research has really brought it into the public eye.”