Just when we think we know everything about this world, and everything on it, Earth throws in some surprise. Such a surprise was what the Scientists have experienced when they found out 4 entirely new lizard species of Legless lizards in California. What makes it interesting is that the lizards were not found in deep forests but in a well populated semi-industrial are in the city, at the border of the Los Angeles Airport.
“This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California,” said Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert, or herpetologist, with UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 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.
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 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. Most are discovered in moist areas when people overturn logs or rocks.
Discovered at the airport!
For the past 15 years, Papenfuss and Parham have scoured the state for new species, suspecting that the fairly common California legless lizard (Anniella pulchra), the only legless lizard in the U.S. West, had at least some relatives. They discovered one new species – yellow-bellied like its common cousin – under leaf litter in protected dunes west of Los Angeles International Airport. They named that species A. stebbinsi.
Cardboard shelters lured new species
Because many sandy, loamy areas, including dunes and desert areas, offer little cover for lizards if they emerge, Papenfuss distributed thousands of pieces of cardboard throughout the state in areas likely to host the lizard. He returned year after year to see if lizards were using the moist, cool areas under the cardboard as resting or hunting grounds.
This technique turned up three other new species in the Central Valley (see sidebar): A. alexanderae, named after Annie Alexander, who endowed the UC Berkeley museum in 1908 and added 20,000 specimens to its collections; A. campi after Charles Camp, because of his early-career discovery of the Mt. Lyell salamander in the Sierra; and A. grinnelli after Joseph Grinnell, who in 1912 first noted habitat destruction around Bakersfield from agriculture and oil drilling.
Species had previously been collected but not recognised
Interestingly, all these species had been collected before and were in collections around California, but when preserved in alcohol, the lizards lose their distinctive colour and look identical. Papenfuss and Parham identified the species through genetic profiling, but they subsequently found ways to distinguish them from one another via belly colour, number and arrangement of scales, and number of vertebrae. However, two species – the previously known common legless lizard of Northern California and the newly named southern species found at LAX and apparently broadly distributed south of the Tehachapi Mountains – remain indistinguishable except by genetic tests or, now, the location where they are found.
Species of special concern
Papenfuss and Parham are 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 don’t need a lot of habitat, so as long as we have some protected sites, they are probably OK.”
Papenfuss says they are not yet in danger of going extinct, since he has found some of the lizards in protected reserves operated by the CDFW, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and a private water reserve outside Bakersfield, in addition to the El Segundo Dunes near LAX.
Papenfuss and Parham reported their discovery on Sept. 17 in the journal Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.