The Silvery Legless Lizard
The Silvery Legless Lizard Anniella pulchra Gray, 1852
Robert George Sprackland, Ph.D.
Family: Anniellidae, completely restricted to the California coast, from Monterey County south to central Baja California, Mexico. Some authors consider these lizards part of the larger family Anguidae.
Comment: California law protects silvery legless lizards. Only one specimen may be collected and kept per collector. "Anniella" means "little worm," and "pulchra" means "pretty." You can find additional information in the web of life section of http://www.curator.org/ on the Internet.
Appearance: A pencil-long lizard that completely lacks legs. Body slim, about one-third the diameter of a pencil. The head is depressed, with a sharp snout and under slung lower jaw. Legless lizards have short, broad dark tongues, with a very feeble nick at the tip. The tongue is frequently flicked as lizards explore their surroundings. The eyes are tiny, and have movable eyelids. There is no ear opening. The body is covered in small glossy scales, and there is no lateral fold. Belly scales are about equal in size to the lateral and dorsal scales.
The tail is longer than 50% of the total length and extremely fragile. Most specimens display regrown tails. The tail tip, whether original or regrown, is blunt.
Legless lizards range in size from 2.25 inches at birth to 8.5 inches for a large adult. A large adult will be thinner than a standard number 2 pencil of similar length.
Coloration: The head upper body and sides are silvery gray. There is a black stripe along the vertebral column, from the back of the head to near the tail tip. Two thinner stripes are found along each side of the body. The throat and belly are yellow, often bright lemon. In young specimens, the belly may be pale pink. In all specimens, the belly is slightly translucent.
Distribution: Historically, silvery legless lizards ranged from San Francisco and Vallejo in the north to the northern third of Baja California, Mexico, and inland as far as California's central valley and Barstow. Today, the northern limit seems to be some 70 miles south of San Francisco, along the Pajaro River, northern Monterey County. Many local populations have become extinct in the past thirty years, mainly because lizards prefer habitats that are in high-dollar real estate areas.
Subspecies: Two subspecies are currently recognized. The widespread silvery form (Anniella pulchra pulchra) is the subject of this article. A dark brown to black morph (Anniella pulchra nigra) is found in two disjunct localities, one in Monterey County, between the Elkhorn Slough and Carmel Rivers, the other around Morro Bay to the south. Black legless lizards ("nigra" means "black") have yellow bellies, but no distinct dorsal stripes. Young of both color phases all resemble the silvery lizards. Black legless lizards are completely protected by law and may not be collected without a special permit.
Habitat and Habits: Legless lizards are burrowers, and their small size necessitates their living in loose sandy or loamy soils. They prefer soils that collect moisture and stay cool. Unlike most lizards, legless lizards are active at fairly low temperatures (64-70º F) at which other lizards are dormant. Peak activity is between February and May. They can move forwards and backward in the sand with equal facility. They spend most of the time burrowing, but may expose part of the body in the mid-morning or late afternoon.
Suitable habitats range from coastal sand dunes to grassy open inland areas to near desert areas. Lizards are typically found a few inches under the sand under broad, low-growing shrubs and other plants. Though found under non-native ice plants, they are more common under sagebrush and mock lupine bushes where a variety of small soft-bodied insects also live. The lizards are generally absent from otherwise suitable habitat that is home to scorpions, a predator on the lizards.
When handled, legless lizards will probe your hand with the sharp snout, looking for a place to burrow. They are very active and must be handled carefully, lest they loose part of the long and fragile tail. The lizards almost never try to bite, but even a large Anniella lacks the gape to bite even the smallest of human fingers.
Breeding: Anniella is a live-bearing species. Mating generally occurs in April and May, and one to six (generally 1-2) live young are produced by late summer. Neonates are about 60 mm (2.3 inches) long, barely the length of a quarter's circumference, and often have pink, instead of yellow, bellies. They feed on very small insects such as some beetle larvae (young mealworms), silverfish, and small worms.
Availability: I have not seen this species on a dealer's list since 1973, and commercial collecting or sale is now forbidden by law. People are allowed to collect and keep one specimen per collector with a valid permit (a California fishing license) but these may not be legally sold in California. Availability is, therefore, highly restricted.
Care: Care of legless lizards is so simple it seems rather trite to describe: take one terrarium (a plastic shoe box will suitably house a pair), add at least four inches of fine beach sand, spray sand with water so lowest level is moist, add lizards, and feed every two weeks. Surface cover, such as a small plant or board, is optional. Lizards take their water from the soil, so provide a light misting at least once a week (twice or more in summer). Keep temperature in the range of 65-75º F. Lighting is optional, but as lizards will stay underground when the cage is lit I never illuminate Anniella terrariums. Be prepared to tell visitors that, yes, you have a cage full of pet sand!
Legless lizards feed on small soft-bodied arthropods in nature, taking springtails, small worms and centipedes, spiders and soft-shelled insects. Terrarium specimens do well on a diet of mealworms and bloodworms. Each adult lizard needs about three mealworms (or equivalent) per week. Lizards take less food in mid winter and mid summer.
Pet Potential: These lizards are extremely hardy in captivity, but do not make good pets. Their physical delicacy, very limited availability, and tendency to stay buried constantly all mitigate against keeping them as pets.
Dr. Sprackland is a herpetologist and Director of The Virtual Museum of Natural History at http://www.curator.org/. His new book, Giant Lizards: second edition, is scheduled to be released in October 2008.