Scientists have discovered four new species of legless lizards in California, including one species that lives beneath the sand dunes near Los Angeles International Airport.
But before we go on, let's get one thing straight: Yes, a snake is a legless lizard, but not all legless lizards are snakes.
Throughout the history of lizard evolution, several lizard lineages have lost their legs, James Parham of Cal State Fullerton said. Snakes are the best-known and most diverse of these lineages, but more than 200 other types of limbless lizards exist throughout the world.
In California, five legless lizard species have been identified, all of them part of a group called Anniella. Four of these legless lizards are new to science and were recently described in Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.
And how do they differ from snakes?
"Anniella can blink at you, but snakes can't because they don't have eyelids," said Parham, one of the authors of the paper.
They also don't shed their skin in one piece like snakes do, and they move differently.
"Snakes can coil up a lot more, and they are more slithery," Parham said. "Anniella tend to be more rigid."
Anniella are pretty small animals, about as thick as a pencil and rarely more than 8 inches long. They spend their lives wiggling beneath loose, sandy soil, snacking on bugs and larvae.
They don't move fast or far, and the researchers say they may spend their whole lives in an area about the size of your dining room table.
Aside from that, scientists still don't know much about them.
"They are one of the most poorly studied reptiles in California," Parham said. "Because they live under the sand, you can't see what they are doing, and you can't even do a mark-and-recapture because you can't reliably capture these things."
Parham and his coauthor, Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist with the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, have been scouring the state for legless lizards for 15 years. When they began their research, only one type of legless lizard was known to live in California.
One of the four newly identified species of Anniella, the Southern California legless lizard, was found under some dead leaves in dunes at the west end of LAX.
The Bakersfield legless lizard was found in three vacant lots in that city's downtown.
The southern Sierra legless lizard was spotted in three dry canyons on the edge of the Mojave Desert, and the Temblor legless lizard was found in the oil fields around Taft, a city on the southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley.
To find these lizards, the scientists scattered 2,000 pieces of cardboard and plywood throughout the state to create moist, cool areas, which appeal to the lizards. Then they returned months later to see if any of the lizards had shown up.
Parham says he and Papenfuss still have 1,000 boards around the state that they plan to check come spring, when the legless lizards are most likely to surface. And who knows — they may uncover even more species.
"This is very much an evolving study," he said.