Many of us consider airports only slightly less unpleasant places to find ourselves in than in the tight confines of an airplane. So imagine how we’d feel to spend the majority of our lives at the end of a runway.
That is exactly where scientists recently discovered a new species of legless lizard. The newly discovered animal lives just off the runway of the Los Angeles International Airport.
Actually, Theodore Papenfuss, an amphibian and reptile expert at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and James Parham of California State University, Fullerton, found a total of four new species of snake-like lizards. As they report in Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, all the legless lizards live in parts of California that we would consider quite unattractive to set up a household in: a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, the oil derricks of the lower San Joaquin Valley and the very edge of the Mojave desert.
The legless lizards have, Parham explains, “existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown.” Only about 8 inches in length, they eat insects and larvae and rarely venture from underground. In fact, for the most part, they spend most of their lives “within an area the size of a dining table.”
There are about 200 species of legless lizards around the world. They once had limbs but lost these millions of years ago as wriggling in sand and loose soil likes snakes proved more efficient; a few do have vestigial legs. The lizards have eyelids and external ear openings and can be distinguished from snakes because they lack broad belly scales and/or a very long tail. Snakes instead have a long body and a short tail.
Two of the newly found legless lizards live in the same range as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which the federal and state governments both list as an endangered species as a result of human development and habitat destruction in the San Joaquin Valley and the foothills of southern California.
Papenfuss and Parham are currently working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to see whether the newly-found lizards need protected status. California already lists common legless lizard as a species of special concern. As Papenfuss points out, the legless lizards have not needed “a lot of habitat” to survive all this time “so as long as they have some protected sites, they are probably OK.”
Animals can survive in ecosystems we are inclined to overlook. Alexander Weigand of the Goethe-University Frankfurt, Germany, recently discovered a a new species of cave-dwelling snail 3,215 feet down under the earth in the Lukina Jama–Trojama cave system, the deepest in Croatia. Zospeum tholussum has a translucent brown and white shell (it could be said to look like “a fancy jelly bean”); it lives near water and moves really, really, really slowly. Only one specimen has so far been discovered, as Weigand writes in Subterranean Biology.
As Papenfuss says of the discovery of the four legless lizards, “this shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California.” His and Parham’s research more than suggests why we must continue to push to protect land from development and industry. Who knows what new types of animals might be lurking in a field, cave or strip of land that we consider “devoid of life”?
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