Who needs snakes? LAX has 'legless lizards' (Photos)

The legless lizard has eyelids, so unlike a snake, it can blink.
The legless lizard has eyelids, so unlike a snake, it can blink.
James Parham

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Imagine a reptile with no arms, no legs, a long body and the ability to squirm through the dirt.

No, it's not a snake. It's the elusive California Legless Lizard.

They may look similar to the untrained eye, says California State University-Fullerton reptile researcher James Parham, but biologically there are some key differences.

For starters, snakes have one lung while legless lizards have two. Also — unlike snakes, legless lizards have eyelids.

"They can blink at you," Parham explains. "And I think they have faces that have a little bit more personality. I think they are rather beautiful and cute."

These pencil-sized creatures were once thought to be a single species living up and down the coast, but a new study found five different species spread throughout the region, including one variety living in 300 acres of protected land right next to LAX.

The area, called the LAX Dune Preserves, is an important habitat for the El Segundo Blue Butterfly and, now, the Southern California Legless Lizard.

James Parham and a fellow researcher were the first to identify these lizards as a genetically distinct species, and they got the honor of giving it a name. They called it Anniella stebbensi.

It's a tribute to Robert C. Stebbins, the renowned herpetologist and author of the "A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians." Stebbins died a few days after learning of the honor; he was 98.

The LAX lizards are silver with yellow bellies. Another species was identified in Bakersfield that sports a purple belly, and a silver-bellied variety was found in oil fields near the Temblor Mountains.

Parham says the reptiles most likely lost their limbs more than 50 million years ago through natural selection. Without legs getting in the way, he suggests, they could burrow in the dirt easily to escape predators or find fresh bugs to eat.

Still, little is known about the lives of these dirt-dwelling creatures.

"The reason they are so mysterious is you never see them," said UC Berkeley researcher and co-author of the study, Theodore Papenfuss.

He explained that they are often hiding in plain sight. One species was found under an abandoned shirt in a vacant lot; others were living beneath sheets of cardboard.

He said it's a good reminder that biologists don't have to trek around the world to find new species.

"There is a lot of, you know, life even right here in California that is more diverse than we think."