Legless Lizards Found Living on the Edge

The Science Teacher, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Legless Lizards Found Living on the Edge


California biologists have discovered four new species of reclusive legless lizards living in some of the most marginal habitats in the state: a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley, on the margins of the Mojave Desert, and at the end of one of the runways at Los Angeles International Airport.

"This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California," says Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who discovered and identified the new species with James Parham of California State University, Fullerton. The discoveries raise the number of California legless lizard species from one to five.

"These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown," says Parham. "If you want to preserve biodiversity, it is the really distinct species like these that you want to preserve."

Papenfuss and Parham reported their discovery in the journal Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

Legless lizards, represented by more than 200 species worldwide, are well-adapted to life in loose soil, Papenfuss says. Millions of years ago, lizards on five continents independently lost their limbs to burrow more quickly into sand or soil, wriggling like snakes. Some still have vestigial legs. Though up to eight inches in length, the creatures are seldom seen because they live mostly underground, eating insects and larvae, and may spend their lives within an area the size of a dining table. …

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