LAX Home to New Legless Lizard Discovery

For all those political secessionists, here is another reason to split California in half.

Four previously unknown species of legless lizards have been unearthed in California, the only state in the U.S. that’s been home to a single legless lizard species, the California legless lizard. Now, centuries of years in the making, this critter has genetically evolved resulting in a marked division of Northern, Central and Southern California legless lizards.

That’s what herpetologists have discovered in a study that started back in 1998 with the goal of seeing how this one species has evolved. It’s the first time these shy sliders have been formally studied.

“When we started the study, we suspected that we’d find one new species, but we weren’t expecting to discover these results,” says Jim Parham, researcher at California State University in Fullerton who worked with Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist at University of California Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, on this study.

(The species specifics are described in the latest issue of Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.)

Three of the newly named species were located in the Southern San Joaquin Valley and one was found in the El Segundo Sand Dunes near LAX. Some of the new species have physical differences – the Bakersfield ones have purple bellies, the ones near Mojave have yellow bellies – but others, like the LAX lizard, can only be separated from its Northern cousin through genetic testing.  “We knew there was a population there at El Segundo,” says Parham about why the team chose a spot not very far from a LAX runway to find the lizards.

This kind of dispersal is impressive says Parham who wonders how many other species (reptiles none withstanding) have also changed their DNA in such an adaptive mode. “If you want to preserve biodiversity, it is the really distinct species like these that you want to preserve,” he says.

As Parham’s partner Papenfuss said in a statement, “This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California.”

Living most of their lives underground under loose soil, these homebody lizards hang in a very small area, only coming to the surface to hide under dead wood, garbage, leaf litter,  to catch small insects and larvae for food. It’s difficult to tell it apart from snakes, but many legless lizards have external ear openings and movable eyelids.

At most study sites, Papenfuss and Parham created simple cardboard and plywood structures to lure the lizards to the surface. They didn’t have to do that at LAX because the sand dunes made it easier to find the usually shy lizards, says Parham.

The big question: are these new species endangered? Parham and Papenfuss are working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to determine their status. The California legless lizard is a species of special concern, but Parham says the in any event, more surveys — break out the plywood and cardboard, men! — are needed in California to better get an idea on how the species stack up.

News Discovery reports that:

Papenfuss noted that two of the species are within the range of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which is listed as an endangered species by both the federal and state governments.

“On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection,” he said. “On the other hand, there may be ways to protect their habitat without establishing legal status. They didn’t need a lot of habitat, so as long as they have some protected sites, they are probably OK.”

Brenda Rees, editor, featured photo of California legless lizard near Los Osos by Marlin Harms via Flickr; image below from Alex Krohn.


Bakersfield legless lizard species
Bakersfield legless lizard species