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4 new species of legless lizards discovered in California

Four previously unknown species of legless lizard have been described in California, report researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and Cal State-Fullerton.

The species, all members of the Anniella genus, were hiding in plain site, living in marginal habitats that included “a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley, on the margins of the Mojave desert, and at the end of one of the runways at LAX”, according to a statement from UC Berkeley.

“This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California,” Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, said in a statement. Papenfuss described the new species with James Parham of California State University, Fullerton.

“These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown,” said Parham. “If you want to preserve biodiversity, it is the really distinct species like these that you want to preserve.”

Legless lizard from California.

The Bakersfield Legless Lizard (Anniella grinnelli). Photo Credit: Alex Krohn

The discoveries raise the known number of legless lizard species in California from one to five. Previously only a single legless lizard — the California legless lizard (Anniella pulchra) — was described for the entire American West.

The new species are named after four UC Berkeley scientists: Anniella grinnelli for Museum of Vertebrate Zoology founder Joseph Grinnell, A. campi for paleontologist Charles Camp, A. alexanderae for philanthropist and amateur scientist Annie Alexander and A. stebbinsi for herpetologist Robert C. Stebbins.

Surprisingly all four of the species had been collected before but specimen preserved in alcohol lose their distinctive color, leaving them virtually indistinguishable. Papenfuss and Parham were able to collect live individuals by scouring natural habitats and setting up artificial habitats in areas where legless lizards were thought to reside.

It isn’t clear whether the new species are endangered or not. The researchers are now working with the the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine their conservation status. The common legless lizard is classified in California as a species of special concern.

“These species definitely warrant attention, but we need to do a lot more surveys in California before we can know whether they need higher listing,” Parham said.

CITATION: Theodore J. Papenfuss and James F. Parham (2013). Four New Species of California Legless Lizards (Anniella). Breviora Number 536 :1-17. 10.3099/MCZ10.1

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