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Lizard Legwork

December 9, 2013
by Shelby Pope ’13
image of a snake

New species lurk in unexpected places.

Some of California’s most inhospitable-seeming areas—the Mojave Desert, the runway of LAX, and an empty lot in Bakersfield—are host to four new species of legless lizards, much to the researcher’s own surprise. “Based on this study, there is more biodiversity than we understand now,” said Berkeley herpetologist Theodore Papenfuss. He and his colleague James Parham ’03, a researcher at Cal State Fullerton, described the new species in a paper published this September.

Before the finding, all of California’s legless lizards were considered to be one species, Anniella pulchra. For the past 15 years, the researchers searched for new species, setting up more than 2,000 pieces of flattened cardboard and plywood throughout California to attract the shade-dwelling critters. “They don’t like heat and dryness like most lizards, and they feed on small insects—beetle larvae, termites,” Papenfuss said. “Those small insects accumulate under the cardboard so it’s a sort of artificial place for them to hide out. Then we go back, turn it over, and if we’re lucky, there’s a legless lizard under it. And usually there isn’t.”

The work was slow going. Papenfuss estimates that for every hundred pieces of cardboard and plywood he set up, he would only find four or five lizards over a span of years. In 2009, the researchers discovered that there were chromosomal differences in the lizards, and their recent paper further identified the reptiles as separate species.

Legless lizards aren’t snakes, although they’re closely related and look similar. Both lost their legs to evolution millions of years ago to move more quickly through the sand and dirt, but unlike snakes the lizards can blink, they don’t shed their skin the same way, and they have a smaller range of motion.

When naming the new species, Papenfuss said he and Parham “thought it would be nice to honor four [Museum of Vertebrate Zoology] Berkeley scientists in a single paper because all four contributed to the study of Natural History in California.” The lizards are named for Annie Alexander (A. alexanderae), a hobby naturalist who founded the MVZ and the University of California Museum of Paleontology; paleontologist Charles Camp (A. campi); Joseph Grinnell (A. grinnelli), the first director of the MVZ; and the late herpetologist Robert Stebbins (A. stebbinsi), who worked at Berkeley for more than 50 years while producing his famous illustrated field guides.

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