What is a Snake Lizard?

Heather Phillips
Heather Phillips

Snake lizards are not actually snakes at all. They are a legless lizard, also known as a glass lizard or glass snake, even though they are not a snake. They belong to the genus Ophisaurus, which literally translated, means snake lizard. Since they do not have legs, which is a trait they share with snakes, they are often mistaken for snakes. The snake lizard inhabits every continent except Antarctica and can survive in nearly any climate.

A careful observer, however, may be able to tell the difference between a snake lizard and a snake by their many distinguishing characteristics. Some of the traits that set snake lizards apart include the presence of both tympani, or reptilian ears, and movable eyelids. Snakes have neither. Limbless lizards also have a more wedge-shaped snout than a snake. They look similar to an alligator lizard in this regard.

Snakes and snake lizards also differ in the way they move. A snake lizard must move against an object to push themselves forward because they can only use the muscles in their sides to propel themselves. Snakes, by contrast, use their belly scales and muscles in addition to their side muscles to move themselves. Practically, this means that a legless lizard is helpless on a flat surface, such as a road. It cannot move forward and will likely die if it finds itself on a flat road surface.

Another major difference between snake lizards and snakes is the way their bodies feel. A legless lizard feels stiff, as opposed to the suppleness of a snake. This is because of the bony plates on the lizard’s tail and because its tail makes up a comparatively larger portion of its length as compared to a snake. The limbless lizard’s tail can be more than 2.5 times the length of its head and body.

An understanding of the tail differences between the snake and the legless lizard might help with an understanding of how the snake lizard gets its glass lizard nickname. Like some other lizards, the glass lizard can detach its tail when it is threatened or frightened. Unlike other types of lizards, however, when the glass lizard’s tail detaches, it can shatter into pieces like broken glass, hence the nickname. A glass lizard can regenerate its tail once during its lifetime. It can lose it twice, so legless lizards with permanently missing tails exist.

Habitats of legless lizards vary, as does their appearance. Their color varies from bronze, browns, and tans, to yellows, grays, reds and whites. Some of them are striped. As far as size is concerned, they can measure anywhere from 10 inches (25 centimeters) to 50 inches (127 centimeters). All legless lizards, however, are oviparous, which means they lay eggs. They also are all carnivorous, feeding primarily on mice, bird eggs, and various insects and spiders. Unlike snakes, glass lizards cannot unhinge their jaws, so they cannot eat prey as large as many snakes can manage.

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