What is the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? Although at first glance they may look like a snake, legless lizards have anatomically di
What is the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? Although at first glance they may look like a snake, legless lizards have anatomically distinct features that set them apart. The most common, and probably most notable, of these are eyelids and externally opened ears. Snakes don’t have them. Broad belly scales are a snake characteristic that most legless lizards lack. There are of course more definitive internal differences, the lizards generally have more pronounced evidence of vestigial limbs, roughly equal-sized lungs, and relatively short bodies in relation to their tails.
In reality, the term “legless lizard” isn’t that useful zoologically. There are seven families of lizards that include at least some legless species. It is a parallel evolutionary adaptation that doesn’t imply zoological kinship. For example, one of the larger subgroups, pygopodids (44 species), are classified in the same clade as geckos.
Not surprisingly, legless lizards are found on every continent that legged lizards can be found. Of the thousands of identified lizard species, only a few hundred are regarded as “legless” with many of those actually sporting physical, but non-functional, external limbs to varying degrees.
We’ll examine a few of the more common legless lizards from different families, but won’t include the worm lizards (Amphisbaenia) which are another suborder of lizards. Although rarely kept as pets as most breeds are threatened, prefer to burrow, or are too fragile, we’ll include feeding and environmental information where appropriate.
Because it gets asked so often about snakes, it is worth noting that none of the identified legless lizards are venomous. However, even non-venomous bites can be infectious and painful. Furthermore, the common lizard anti-predator adaptation of easily removed tails is not without cost to these creatures, so care should be taken when handling them.
The Eastern Glass Lizard
Ophisaurus includes the Eastern glass lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis) and six other closely related species all endemic to the south eastern (mainly Florida) region of the United States. Each of the seven species are called “glass lizards” because of their easily detachable tails that tend to “shatter” when the animal is attacked. The Eastern glass lizard can reach lengths of slightly more than 40 inches, but more than 67 percent of that is tail. The body itself is less than a foot long even in the largest specimens.
Once separated during an attack, the tail remains active and the main body becomes still, waiting for an opportunity to exit as the predator is distracted. Losing as much as half of its bulk, the lizard will be severely hindered. Although the tail will regenerate, it is a very slow process and the lizard is defenseless during this time. Additionally, much of its energy is required for the process and the regrown tail is almost always considerably smaller.
The Eastern glass lizard is an egg layer and typically burrows underground. As with most lizards, it does not have jaws that unhinge, so it is limited in the size of prey it can consume. Their diet mostly consists of insects, spiders, and the eggs of other reptiles and birds. Larger lizards have been observed consuming small mice.
The California Legless Lizard
Anniella pulchra, the California Legless Lizard is the small, thin “leader” of the six-species subgroup Anniella. All endemic to California and into Baja California, Mexico, these lizards can grow to approximately 7-inches with an additional 5-6 inches of tail length. Offspring are live birthed and the lizards burrow in sand, or loose soil with coastal dunes being the predominant habitat. The Sierra variant typically burrows in forest detritus.
All six of the Anniella varieties are considered rare and possibly endangered with very selective habitat requirements. These lizards hunt and predominantly live burrowed in loose soil or sand, making it even less likely to spot them in the wild. The lizards are also susceptible to drought as they require moisture in order to shed their skins which, if unshed for too long can cause vision and feeding problems that can be fatal.
The tail, as with most lizards, is detachable and are often missing or regenerating on adults. They feed on small insects and spiders. A previous sub-species with darker markings than the tan scales of the “norm” was recently reclassified as simply a color variant. In 2013 five closely related and rare species were reclassified as subspecies.
Anguis fragilis of Europe
The most common legless lizard in Europe is the Anguis fragilis, or, as some language-challenged Brits call it, the slowworm. They also sometimes call it the blindworm, despite its capability to see just fine through its admittedly small, lidded eyes and it not being a worm. The lizard can be found all over most of temperate Europe and as far east as Turkey.
Much like the legless lizards of California, Anguis fragilis are semi-fossorial, meaning they like to burrow or remain under covered objects. They also are live bearers with only minor size differential between the sexes. A moderate sized lizard at about 18-inches maximum (50 cm), they are often encouraged to prey on slugs and other insect pests by English gardeners who place heat-generating black plastic ground covering to attract the lizards.
The Anguis fragilis can lose its tail as a defense mechanism, and can regrow it. It is now protected in the UK partially because they are mostly defenseless against household and feral cats. If they can avoid the tabbies, they may be one of the longest-lived lizards, with examples in the wild living 30 or more years and one example in captivity exceeding 50 years.
Australia’s Eastern-hooded Scaly-Foot Lizard
Australia has a variety of legless lizards, the most distinct group might be the Pygopodidae, a large group encompassing at least 35 species. All but two live exclusively in Australia, with only one being exclusive to New Guinea and the other native to both. Pygopodidae are very closely related to geckos and share numerous traits, including the lack of eyelids (leopard geckos and several other gecko species as the exceptions). Like geckos, they lay eggs in linen-like clutches of two, often within a social nesting area.
The scaly-footed variations, including the Eastern-hooded scaly-foot, are relatively widespread and are commonly kept as pets. The Eastern-hooded scaly-foot looks very snake-like with its lack of eyelids and absence of front appendages, but does sport somewhat noticeable hind leg protrusions that while certainly vestigial regarding locomotion, have been seen to move with purpose, mostly as the creatures navigate grassy terrain.
Scaly-foot lizards can grow to be nearly 19 inches (475mm) with as much as 75 percent of that length being tail. The tail can be lost, and will grow back, but very slowly. The Eastern-hooded scaly-foot mostly subsists on spikers, scorpions, and other small insects it can hunt. A low-energy lizard, it needs to feed infrequently and prefers to burrow or hide under overcroppings during the day and is most active in the evening.
The scales giving the lizard the hood may be a cooling adaptation, but also makes it closely resemble the venomous brown snake, leading many people to mistakenly kill it. Eastern hooded scaly-foots have been observed mimicking the coil and prestrike posture of the brown snake in response to predators. Scaly-foots can also vocalize, primarily with a high-pitched screech and can hear tones well above the highest notes humans typically can hear.
In captivity, eastern-hooded scaly-foots can live for approximately seven years. In Australia, a license is required to keep one, and they, like their less-common scaly-footed lizard cousins are either on watch lists or listed as endangered.
Southern Africa’s Cape Legless Skink
Southern Africa includes numerous limbless skinks (Acontias) with 25 varieties currently acknowledged. Although most are on the smaller side, some varieties, such as Acontias plumbeus (also known as the giant lance skink) can reach lengths of 16 inches, or twice the typical length for this family.
All these skinks are live birthers and burrowers that prefer to “swim” in sandy of loose soils as they hunt small insects. With fused eyelids and non-overlapping scales, the adult female (larger than the male) gives birth in the summer to two-four young. Although most of the skinks in this family are known by common names including the word “blind,” most in fact do have functioning eyes.
The Sheltopusik (Pseudopus apodus) also known as the European glass lizard, is a large glass lizard with a range from southern Europe into western Asia. Pseudopus apodus is not completely legless. It has tiny, rudimentary rear limbs, measuring about 2 millimeters, which can sometimes be seen near the cloaca.
Capable of reaching lengths of nearly 4-1/2 feet (135 cm) the sheltopusik, unlike most other glass lizards, tends to hiss, emit noxious musk, or use its formidable jaws to defend itself. It can drop its tail, and is capable of slowly regrowing it to near or even beyond original length.
There are two subspecies, which may be differentiated by the shape of the head. The eastern subspecies, P. a. apodus, has a narrower head than the western, P. a. thracius. If you are to keep sheltopusik, you should try to identify what type your prospective pet may be, so you can set up an appropriate enclosure that mimics its natural habitat: dryer for the western, a bit moist for the eastern.
Long-lived (up to 50 years in captivity), the sheltopusik is a popular exotic pet, but doesn’t tolerate handling well and doesn’t breed dependably in captivity. It feeds on mice, insects, and eggs, but seems to prefer snails and slugs. Females lay clutches of eggs (typically about 8) that she has gestated for 10 weeks with the young hatching about 6 weeks later. They prefer warm dry conditions, but will tolerate wet periods and have been observed as being very active during these times as they hunt snails and slugs.
Jeff Bolkan is a writer based in a small town near the University of Oregon. A lifelong Ducks fan, Bolkan enjoys drinking coffee and looking for Oregon spotted treefrogs.