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My legless friend Anguis Fragilis

Updated on June 18, 2013

This is a what a slug eater looks like.

The first time you see Anguis Fragilis you might think it is a snake but isn't. It is a lizard without legs! If you stay and watch instead of running away you soon notice the tell-tale signs that this is a perfectly harmless creature.

This is slow-moving and beautiful reptile with a metallic skin color that can go from grey to bronze and warm copper tone that shines brightly in direct sunlight.

The Dutch call it Hazelworm, Swedes often call it Koppar-orm, and it is generally known as Slow-worm in English. The legless lizard is sometimes called blind-worm although where and why that is used I don't know, since it has eyes and can see just fine (but there is probably some cave species somewhere).

What everyone should know though is that these are very benign and calm creatures with fantastic, metallic skin, that do not pose any threat and actually do a lot of good in a garden!

Photos by me

Anguis Fragilis lizards are good for your garden - Guardian on Patrol

male anguis fragilis slowworm
male anguis fragilis slowworm

I have a bunch of these slow worms living in my garden and see them about once a week which I take as a good omen! This guy is one of the braver ones and not scared of inching along in the open (where birds of prey easily take them).

Slow worms find
these slugs appetizing.
The fragile lizard has many names but is also commonly referred to as "the gardener's best friend" because slugs and snails are on the menu! I welcome these guys because they effectively guard my veggie patch against getting eaten by slugs.

If you have a veggie orchard you really want these guys around because they particularly like to feast on the slugs that destroy your vegetables.

They can live up to a quarter of a century and get to be just under 2 feet long in optimal conditions. These guys can move quickly in a short burst but mostly they just inch forward, even the big ones, even when you touch them.

Being so tame works against them because they are easy to step on (no danger to you), and they get jumped on all the time by cats and birds of prey. That's nature in the works, but if you know you have them do poke around to shoo them off before collecting heaps of leaves or mowing high grass so as not to kill them in the process.

If you have cats and dogs and know you also have these helpers, train your pets to leave them alone.

Remember: legless lizards are NOT snakes, they have no venom, nor fangs and they eat the ugly slugs.

They are in effect, patrolling guardians of the garden :)

How to tell a legless lizard from a snake - The head says a lot

Anguis Fragilis male lizard
Anguis Fragilis male lizard

This is one of the males (probably, since it has no stripes) that visits my garden. There are a couple of identifiers which distinguishes a slow worm from a snake and are easy to spot. As you can see, the head is smaller than the body and rounded.

The mouth is not hinged like a snake and can therefore not dislocate like snakes can to engorge bugger prey than themselves. This is easy to see since the slow worm's mount goes in a straight line from side to side, ending just behind the eyes.

From the front, the round head looks a lot like most lizards (whereas most snakes have a pointed jaw and flatter head).

The eyes are round and have lids that blink. No snake on earth can blink, so that is a 100% tell tale sign!

Snakes have split tongues where each part can be quite long and thin. Anguis fragilis has a broad tongue which extends just a bit and only has a very small split at the end.

The body form is cylindrical, whereas snakes have a more flexible build that lets them flatten their "belly" a bit to get better traction against the ground.

If a legless lizards starts to move, you will also see that the name is spot on. Even when distressed, these guys are are slow and not as agile as snakes. A slow-worm has lizard skin which is pretty smooth and lacks the type of overlapping scales that give snakes awesome traction, so these guys spin their wheels a lot instead of gaining speed.

The other problem is that their body is originally built for walking on legs and not optimized for slithering. If they need to move at speed (not often) it is easy to see how jerky and poor their slither sync is.

More info about these guys at Wikipedia and BBC.

The easy way to photograph close to ground... - is with a tilting screen...

A camera with a tilting screen will get you the best results when taking photos of things near ground level (or other odd angles). If you are taking macro shots of animals, this type of screen also makes it easier to only bring the camera close to what your are photographing. This seems to make them more at ease, rather than having all of you in their face, so to speak :)

Here are the cameras I suggest you do close encounter photography with. All of these have flip-screens.

Cute, Harmless, Fragile and Endangered

Slow worms live in many parts of northern Eurasia and are a protected species in many countries including UK. If you live in US you have the glass lizard.

NEVER pick one up or try to keep it as a pet as you may cause self-mutilation which is seriously traumatic and shortens their life.

Video of European slow worm

Here is a good video with closeups of the north European legless lizard. This is the same type I have in my garden. it might look huge in closeup but they seldom get to over a foot and a half. They live to over 25 years though.

Want to see how cool in temperament they are? Check out the video, the lizard stops for a wile to check out the camera then just ambles on. There is no aggression whatsoever in these guys and they are only interested in eating slugs and worms, and sleeping!

Got garden friends?

Have you ever seen a legless lizard?

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Handling a legless lizard may harm it. - Let the magic be

female anguis fragilis burrowing
female anguis fragilis burrowing

This is probably (because of the stripe) a female Anguis Fragilis. I found her dozing under bit of wood. Once she woke up, she slowly nudged under the moss until she couldn't be seen any more. They do travel and hunt under the moss, so tread softly - you never know where their highway is :) You can tell by the perfect shape that this is her real tail, not a re-grown one (which is shorter, thinner and lacks dexterity).

Never pick one up!

The Latin name for the slow worm is Anguis fragilis - as in fragile. This is a somewhat clumsy reptile that lacks speed and which has only one predator defense: to drop its tail (that keeps on wiggling) and hope the distraction will give it time to escape. It sounds like a easy thing but we are talking about self-mutilation through breaking off of vertebrae, closing blood-flow, rupturing skin and leaving behind a functional part of the body.

A new tail will grow out, but it will be smaller and not much use since it is just gristle and contains no bones. It is less agile and slows the animal down. Growing a new tail demands a lot of energy. Contrary to popular belief, not all manage to grow a new one and some die from complications.

Growing a new tail is a once-in-a-lifetime effort and can not be repeated. A legless lizard that has dropped its tail once is therefore handicapped and has lost its only defense against predators.

This is the reason you should NEVER pick one up! Even though they are beautiful and obviously harmless, handling one may cause them to shed their tail and that will mean they have a lower chance of survival.

Connect the words fragile, slow, harmless and cute with these guys and you are on the right path. Just enjoy the sight of them and let them live peacefully in your garden.

This image shows how small they actually are - just compare to the size of the 3 - 4 inch lawn grass.

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What do you think about my garden keepers?

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Unfortunately, I occasionally dead ones brought into the house by one or other of my cats :(

    • kindoak profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @JimHofman: thanks!

    • JimHofman profile image


      5 years ago

      Very interesting lens with great photos. What a cool creature!

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 

      5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I am glad I never tried to pick one up. I would hate for it to loose its tail. But isn't that amazing that it can grow a tail back? Thanks for your interesting information!

    • Johanna Eisler profile image

      Johanna Eisler 

      5 years ago

      What a beautiful creature! I have never seen them here in northern California. Mostly we have "blue-bellied" lizards (4-5" long) and alligator lizards (8-12" long). They both have legs and run so fast they practically fly! Thank you for the education! :)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very cool! I'd like to have one for our garden!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very interesting look at the European legless Lizard. Learned some things I didn't know. Thanks. We have some similar species on our side of the pond, but I've only seen them a couple of times in my life. Would be really interesting to have such creatures as regular visitors.


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