New Species of Legless Lizard Found at LAX

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A bustling airport would hardly seem the place to find a new species of reclusive animal, but a team of California biologists recently found a shy new species of legless lizard living at the end of a runway at Los Angeles International Airport.

What’s more, the same team discovered three additional new species of these distinctive, snake-like lizards that are also living in some inhospitable-sounding places for wildlife: at a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley and on the margins of the Mojave desert.

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All are described in the latest issue of Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

“This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California,” Theodore Papenfuss, one of the scientists, was quoted as saying in a press release.

Papenfuss, an amphibian and reptile expert at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, made the discoveries with James Parham of California State University, Fullerton.

“These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown,” Parham said.

Legless lizards look a lot like snakes, but they’re different reptiles. The lizards are distinguishable from their slithery relatives based on one or more of the following: eyelids, external ear openings, lack of broad belly scales and/or a very long tail. Snakes, conversely, have a long body and a short tail.

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Legless lizards, represented by more than 200 species worldwide, are well adapted to life in loose soil, Papenfuss said. Millions of years ago, lizards on five continents independently lost their limbs in order to burrow more quickly into sand or soil, wriggling like snakes. Some still have vestigial legs.

Though up to 8 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. Most are discovered in moist areas when people overturn logs or rocks. It’s interesting to consider the LAX-based lizard’s life, considering all of that airplane rumbling overhead!

The researchers are now working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to determine whether the lizards need protected status. Currently, the common legless lizard is listed by the state as a species of special concern.

“These species definitely warrant attention, but we need to do a lot more surveys in California before we can know whether they need higher listing,” Parham said.

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.”

Image: Theodore Papenfuss and James Parham/UC Berkeley