Washington: Scientists have discovered four new species of legless lizards living in unlikely habitats in California.
The new snake-like lizards were discovered at a dune bordering a runway at Los Angeles International Airport; a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield; a field littered with oil derricks; and the margins of the Mojave Desert.
"This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California," said
Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert, with University of California Berkeley`s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.
Papenfuss discovered and identified 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.
Legless lizards, represented by more than 200 species worldwide, are well-adapted to life in loose soil, Papenfuss said.
Millions of years ago, lizards on five continents independently lost their limbs in order to burrow more quickly into sand or soil, wriggling like snakes. Some still have vestigial legs.
Though up to eight inches in length, the creatures are seldom seen because they live mostly underground, eating insects and larvae, and may spend their lives within an area the size of a dining table.
Papenfuss and Parham have scoured the state for new species, suspecting that the fairly common California legless lizard (Anniella pulchra), the only legless lizard in the US West, had at least some relatives.
They discovered one new species named Anniella stebbinsi - yellow-bellied like its common cousin - under leaf litter in protected dunes west of Los Angeles International Airport.
Researchers distributed thousands of pieces of cardboard throughout the state in areas likely to host the lizard. They kept checking whether the lizards were using the moist, cool areas under the cardboard as resting or hunting grounds.
This led to the discovery of a silver-bellied species named Anniella alexanderae near Fellows in the oil fields around Taft.
They found another species in three isolated, arid canyons on the edge of the Mojave Desert just below and east of Walker Pass in the Sierra Nevada and named it Anniella campi.
The purple-bellied fourth, Anniella grinnelli, was found in three vacant lots in downtown Bakersfield.
The species were named after four UC Berkeley scientists: Museum of Vertebrate Zoology founder Joseph Grinnell, paleontologist Charles Camp, philanthropist and amateur scientist Annie Alexander and herpetologist Robert Stebbins.
The lizards are described in a study in the journal Breviora.