September 18, 2013
Four New Legless Lizards Found In Urban California
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
While some biologists may travel to the distant corners of the globe to discover new species, a team of University of California, Berkeley scientists has shown that you only need to travel to one of the Golden State’s vacant lots.
"This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California," said study author Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert with UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.
The herpetology duo also found new species among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley, on the edges of the Mojave desert and at the end of one of the runways at LAX. Along with James Parham of California State University, Fullerton, Papenfuss named the new snake-like lizards after four UC Berkeley scientists: museum founder Joseph Grinnell, paleontologist Charles Camp, philanthropist Annie Alexander and biologist 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," Parham said. "If you want to preserve biodiversity, it is the really distinct species like these that you want to preserve."
At some point in their evolution millions of years ago, lizards on five continents all lost their limbs in favor of an ability to burrow more quickly into sand or soil. Some species still have vestigial legs. These seldom-seen creatures live mostly underground, subsisting on a diet of insects and larvae. These animals are most frequently seen in moist areas when people flip over logs or rocks.
The discoveries are the culmination of 15 years spent combing the state for undiscovered legless lizards. To find the lizards, Papenfuss littered thousands of pieces of cardboard around the state in areas he suspected were hosting undiscovered lizards. Year after year, Papenfuss would check the sites to see if lizards were using the areas under the cardboard to rest or hunt.
The team said they are currently working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to see if the lizards require protected status. The common legless lizard is currently listed as a species of special concern by California.
"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.
Papenfuss said that two of the species live near the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which is classified as an endangered species by both the federal and state governments.
"On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection," he 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."
The research duo said their new-found species aren't in danger of going extinct anytime soon, as some were found living in protected reserves operated by the CDFW, the US Bureau of Land Management and in a private water reserve outside Bakersfield.