by Whit Gibbons

May 24, 2015

I enjoyed answering a question I received recently because I was able to say, "Great find. Actually, you still have not seen a snake in your yard," and added an emoticon smiley face.

The email query and attached photo I received said, "Can you tell me what kind of snake I saw in my back yard today? I have never seen a snake in my yard in the 15 years I have lived here. I don't know what it is, and I can't find a picture of it online. I live in middle Georgia."

After looking at the photo, I was able to give my reply, with some additional information. "What you found was not a snake but one of the legless lizards or glass lizards." Unlike snakes, they have eyelids that can blink and ear openings, but unlike most lizards they have no legs. They are sometimes called glass snakes because of their obvious resemblance to a snake.

As a boy in Alabama I remember them being called jointed snakes because a shattered tail looked like it had come apart at connecting joints, which in a sense was accurate because the tail separates between vertebrae.

Calling them glass lizards or glass snakes is also a reasonable description because they look like a shiny piece of porcelain. The eastern glass lizard can be a stunningly beautiful greenish black creature with a glasslike sheen above and an unmarked yellow belly. Also, legless lizards have a tail that can be more than two-thirds of their body length. Like many other lizards the tail will break off if a predator attacks it or if a person picks one up too roughly. Sometimes a glass lizard's tail can break into three or four pieces.

Four species of glass lizards are known from the Southeast, with at least one being native to every state, and one of them, the slender glass lizard, ranging as far west as Kansas. In my experience the most likely places to find glass lizards are in coastal areas. My grandson in Charleston averages finding more than one a week from spring through fall. Of course he knows where to look for them, how not to get bitten and even more importantly how to catch them without breaking their tail.

Catching a glass lizard and breaking its tail is a major faux pas in herpetological circles. Imagine the shame of holding up a glass lizard you have just caught - with its tail broken. All right, I realize most readers will not be able to empathize with the embarrassment, but take my word for it, it would be like offering someone a book with half its pages missing. The tail will grow back, very slowly, but will never reach its original length.

Once, in a coastal dune grass habitat on Little St. Simons Island, Georgia, we caught a truly rare species - the island glass lizard. This magnificent creature has a pale yellow body and an eye-catching black stripe down each side. This one's body measured only 7 inches, but its tail was almost 2 feet long! Island glass lizards do not bite and their tails seldom break like those of the others. So we could handle and photograph this particular individual with no problem.

To underscore the rarity of the species, John Jensen of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who was with us noted that the specimen was the first island glass lizard found in Georgia in more than a decade and the largest one he had ever seen. When we released it, I watched in awe as this extraordinary lizard disappeared into the dunes. The photos, taken by J.D. Willson, ended up in a book.

All glass lizards are impressive, and in some areas they are more common than people realize. They deserve to be greatly appreciated whenever they are encountered, even when people think they are snakes.

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