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'Legless Lizards' Story Has Legs

The discovery of four species of legless lizards announced by UC Berkeley on Tuesday has leapt around the world. The creatures' habitats included vacant lots in downtown Bakersfield and dunes near Los Angeles International Airport.

No snake this. It's the newly identified Bakersfield legless lizard (Anniella grinnelli), one of four new species of legless lizards whose discovery was announced by UC Berkeley on Sept. 17, 2013. Photo credit: Alex Krohn
No snake this. It's the newly identified Bakersfield legless lizard (Anniella grinnelli), one of four new species of legless lizards whose discovery was announced by UC Berkeley on Sept. 17, 2013. Photo credit: Alex Krohn
Here's one lizard discovery that doesn't have headline writers resorting to "Leapin' Lizards!"

UC Berkeley announced this week that California biologists have discovered four species of legless lizards, whose leaping ability may not be Olympics-grade but whose news value apparently is world-class.


The campus news release came out Tuesday, and by this afternoon, Thursday, the news had pretty much gone global, if not viral.

(And, yes, there is a difference between legless lizards and snakes – see the bottom of this article.)

Among the many places readers could find it Wednesday was the front of the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area section, and the wide range of outlets carrying it today included CNNTopNews Arab Emirates and the French Tribune, among numerous others.

It even showed up on Paw Nation, whose coverage apparently embraces creatures without paws.

We're not sure why this discovery has excited wide attention. More than 200 other species of legless lizards have been discovered before, including at least one in the American West. 

Maybe it's four being found in California or maybe it was the unusual habitats where they were discovered, including in dunes near Los Angeles International Airport and empty lots in downtown Bakersfield.

Actually, according the the UC Berkeley news release, the four species had been found before but weren't recognized as separate species until they were properly identified by Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist (a reptile and amphibian expert) at UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and James Parham of Cal State Fullerton, who received his Ph.D. at Berkeley.

"Interestingly, all these species had been collected before and were in collections around California, but when preserved in alcohol, the lizards lose their distinctive color and look identical," according to the UC Berkeley release by campus science writer Robert Sanders.

"Papenfuss and Parham identified the species through genetic profiling, but they subsequently found ways to distinguish them from one another via belly color, 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."

And the differences between legless lizards and snakes? 

Legless lizards "can blink at you, but snakes can't because they don't have eyelids," Parham told the Los Angeles Times. Legless lizards also don't shed their skin in one piece (as snakes do), move differently and are not particularly fond of coiling up, he said.

And, legless lizards tend to be much smaller, seldom exceeding eight inches in length.

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