Scientists in California have made an interesting discovery near a runway at the Los Angeles International Airport. Within the El Segundo Dunes end of one of the runways, the researchers found legless lizards. The species was previously unknown.
The two scientists had been searching for new species in California for about 15 years, suspecting there were more species of legless lizards.
And turns out they were right.
In addition, three other legless lizard species were found in California, in other unexpected places. Habitats the formerly unidentified lizards choose to live include oilfields and empty lots.
Prior to this discovery, there was only one legless lizard species known to live in California, the Anniella pulchra. However, now there are five. The lizards are believed to have quietly lived in the region for millions of years.
"If you want to preserve biodiversity, it is the really distinct species like these that you want to preserve," Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert, with UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, said in a press release issued by the University of California-Berkeley.
"The main thing this is showing is that right here in California ... there is actual natural animal diversity that we don't know about yet," said Papenfuss, according to Reuters.
Papenfuss, along with geologist James Parham from the California State University Fullerton, conducted the research near the airport and in the San Joaquin Valley and co-authored the paper.
Not to be mistaken as snakes, these critters are classified as lizards. The reason why they have no legs dates back millions of years. In prehistoric eras, lizards needed to be able to quickly burrow themselves into sand and soil.
Worldwide, there are more than 200 species of legless lizards. But most of them probably do not live among oil derricks or near very busy airports. Typically, they live in areas about the size of a dining table.
Currently, the two researchers are working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to establish whether or not the newly found lizards need protected status.
"On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection," Papenfuss said, in the press release. "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."
Ironically, the new species weren't exactly new either. Turns out many samples of these lizards had been collected, but when preserved in alcohol, they lost their individual unique colors and looked the same as the known species of legless lizards.
The scientists named the four new species after legendary University of California-Berkeley scientist/museum founder Joseph Grinnell (A. grinnelli), paleontologist Charles Camp (A. campi), philanthropist and amateur scientist Annie Alexander (A. alexanderae) and herpetologist Robert C. Stebbins (A. stebbins).
So how do you tell the difference between a lizard and a snake? CNN reported the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County said lizards have eyelids and can blink, whereas snakes do not.
The scientists shared the full scope of their findings on Sept. 17 in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University's journal, Breviora [PDF].