At first glance, you’re certain you’re looking at a snake. What snake? Maybe a garter? What else could it be?
Actually, something completely different — a legless lizard, specifically an Eastern glass lizard, Ophisaurus ventralis. Like snakes, these guys totally lack even vestigial legs, but they are physically different from snakes, making them a separate the type of reptile.
The most obvious difference: eastern glass lizards, and all legless lizards, have eyelids while snakes don’t. Look closely at the eye in the photo above, then compare with a photo of a snake and the difference becomes apparent. Glass lizards have openings for external ears that snakes lack. Glass lizards also have fixed jaws, while snakes can dislocate theirs to enable them to swallow larger prey.
For the record, there are four species of legless lizards found in Florida and the eastern United States. It’s the eastern that is the most common legless lizard found in Florida. The website NatureServe considers it “modestly vulnerable” to extinction.
Eastern glass lizards are found throughout Florida and along the Gulf and Atlantic coastalplains between Mississippi and roughly the Chesapeake Bay area. Apparently they were once introduced into the Cayman Islands. They can be found in a wide arrange of habitats — including our backyard garden — but primarily take to flatwoods and sandy soils around wetlands.
Eastern glass lizards can vary in color from brown to yellow to green, like the one we photographed. Again, it looks superficially like a snake, about 14 to 40 inches long.
Eastern glass will sever its tail when grabbed by a predator, something called autotomy, meaning self-sever or self-amputate. The tail, which can be half its body length, will continue to wriggle, distracting the attacker, as the vital parts of the lizard get away to safely. In time, the tail will regenerate.
The tail appears to shatter as it detaches, inspiring the “glass” lizard name and no doubt confusing the heck out attacker.
They forage during the day, hunting for insects, spiders, reptiles, small rodents and birds’ eggs — remember, their diet is limited by the size of the jaws. They’ll hide under boards and debris.
Females deposit roughly five to seven eggs in early summer. Unlike most other lizards, mom will tend to her offspring until they hatch later in the season.
Eastern glass lizards are members of Anguidae, a large family of lizards.