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4 New Legless Lizard Species Discovered In California; Have Lurked Under Soil For Millions Of Years Undetected

By Rebekah Marcarelli r.marcarelli@hngn.com | Sep 18, 2013 04:08 PM EDT

Researchers found four new species of legless lizard lurking around California.
Researchers found four new species of legless lizard lurking around California. (Photo : UC Berkeley )

Researchers have discovered four new species of legless lizards (no not snakes) in California, some were even relaxing at the end of the runway at LAX.

"This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California," Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert, or herpetologist, with UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, said, a UC Berkeley press release reported.

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The limbless critters were named after four "legendary" UC Berkeley scientists: Joseph Grinnell, Charles Camp, Annie Alexander, and Robert C. Stebbins.

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

Researchers believe this type of lizard (which includes 200 species globally) lost its legs so that it could easily burrow into the ground. The lizards are rarely spotted because they spend the majority of their time under the loose soul they call home. They are usually only seen when a person turns over a rock or moves a log.

Papenfuss and Parham have been on a 15-year-long mission to discover new species. The duo was convinced the California legless lizard had buddies lurking around the state, and they were right.

 A. Stebbins, the first legless lizard species the pair discovered was found hiding under leaf litter in protected dunes at the Los Angeles International Airport.

After this finding Papenfuss set up moist cardboard havens for the lizards around the state, this technique led to the discovery of three more species: A. alexanderae, A. campi, and A. grinnelli.

These lizards had been collected in the past, but were stored in alcohol which caused them to lose their distinctive color. The team also used genetic profiling to identify the species.

"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.

One of the species falls into the blunt-nosed leopard lizard catagory, which is considered by the federal government and the state.

"On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection," Parham said. "On the other hand, there may be ways to protect their habitat without establishing legal status. They don't need a lot of habitat, so as long as we have some protected sites, they are probably OK."

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