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Rare Legless Lizard Discovered Again After 30 Years

June 23, 2006

A rare species of legless lizard was recently captured in the Conecuh National Forest in Covington County by biologists from Auburn University (AU) and Conservation Southeast (CS). The biologists began working in the area in 2005 through funding from the State Wildlife Grants program of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the U.S. Forest Service.

The mimic glass lizard (Ophisaurus mimicus) was first described in 1987 when careful scientific study revealed it to be distinct from the slender glass lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus), a much more common species with which the mimic glass lizard is easily confused. In fact, the mimic glass lizard earned its common name from the fact that specimens of it had resided for decades in museum collections where they had been misidentified as slender glass lizards.

Attaining a maximum length of about two feet, the mimic glass lizard is the smallest of the three legless lizard species occurring in Alabama, all of which are commonly known as “glass snakes” and “joint snakes.” Although legless lizards are often mistaken for snakes, they can easily be distinguished from snakes by the presence of movable eyelids and external ear openings. The fragile and somewhat brittle tail, which constitutes an astonishing two-thirds of the body length, may break into multiple segments if struck or seized. Popular (but erroneous) folklore has it that the segments will rejoin after sunset.

The geographic range of the mimic glass lizard extends across a very thin band of the lower Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from southeastern North Carolina to the Pearl River in Mississippi. Its habitat includes pine flatwoods, savannas, and hillside seepage bogs where it prefers grass-covered areas maintained by frequent fire. Within Alabama, the species is suspected to occur only in the southernmost tier of counties and is known by only four verified records from Baldwin (1 record), Covington (2), and Mobile (1) counties. Before its recent capture by biologists Jimmy and Sierra Stiles, the species had not been confirmed in the state for 30 years. Although the mimic glass lizard may never have been abundant, loss of key components of its habitat, like pitcher plant bogs, is thought to have increased its rarity.

AU and CS initiated the study to acquire baseline data for long-term monitoring of the response of amphibian and reptile populations to the ambitious 30-year longleaf pine ecosystem restoration program being implemented at the Conecuh National Forest. Restoration of native ecosystem composition, structure and function involves re-establishing a natural fire regime (i.e., burning often, with emphasis on growing season fires), thinning stands to allow the development of a woodland/savanna structure with well-developed herbaceous layers, and replacing off-site tree species by clearcutting and planting longleaf pine.

This study is intended to contribute to the overall understanding of the value of longleaf pine ecosystem restoration to amphibians and reptiles by measuring herpetofaunal response to various restoration stages and corresponding control sites. This study should result in the development of well-informed management recommendations for the Conecuh National Forest as well as other pine-dominated, fire-maintained ecosystems throughout the Southeast.

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