What to Know About Legless Lizards

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 21, 2022

If you have ophidiophobia — a fear of snakes — then you may be relieved to know that many species of legless, slithering creatures aren’t actually snakes. Instead, they’re creatures called legless lizards. Although snakes and legless lizards resemble one another, they have entirely different evolutionary histories. 

Some species of legless lizards are great pets. Just make sure to do your research before bringing one home.

There are a handful of distinct groups of legless lizards. Varieties of these creatures are found throughout the world, including most of: 

  • Northern Africa
  • North America
  • Southern Asia
  • Southeastern Europe
  • Indonesia

In Europe and America, legless lizards are found in three distinct biological families: 

  • Anguidae — some are also called lateral fold lizards because of how their skin is folded on their sides
  • Xenosauridae
  • Anniellidae

Within Australian and Asian regions, legless lizards come from only one family, the Pygopodidae. This article predominantly focuses on members of the Anguidae and Anniellidae families.  

Within the Anguidae, there’s a group of legless lizards also known as glass lizards or glass snakes. Most of these are members of the genus Ophiosaurus, which is made up of 15 species. Examples of legless lizards in this genus include: 

  • O. attenatus. Also known as the slender glass lizard. These are found in southern and central regions of the U.S. 
  • O. koellikeri.Or Koelliker’s glass lizard. These are native to northwest Africa.  
  • O. ventrallis. Or the Eastern glass lizard. These live in the southeastern U.S. 

The Anniellidae family contains legless lizards that diversified into many different species as they spread throughout the southern U.S. and Mexico. They’re all in the genus Annabella. Examples include: 

  • A. pulchra. Known as the California legless lizard, they’re found throughout California and Mexico. 
  • A. alexanderae. This is also known as the temblor legless lizard. They’re found in California.
  • A. campi. This is the Southern Sierra legless lizard. They’re also found in California but at higher elevations than other species. 
  • A. geronimensis.These are known as the Baja California legless lizard. They're mostly found in Mexico. 
  • A. grinnelli. This is the Bakersfield legless lizard. It’s unique to certain areas of California.
  • A. stebbinsi. The Southern California legless lizard is another legless lizard found throughout California and Mexico.

Each type of legless lizard has its own unique coloration and specific characteristics. But some physical features apply to all legless lizards. 

For example, when you hold a legless lizard in your hand, its body feels firm and substantial — not like a soft, supple snake’s body. Lizards also have ears, normally in the form of holes in their heads, and blinking eyes. Snakes don’t have ears or eyelids. 

Plus, almost all California legless lizards and glass snakes can shed their tails to escape predators. This tail fragility is what gives glass snakes their name. The tails do grow back, but they’re never as large as the original. For example, it takes A. pulchra about a year to regenerate its tail, and the new one is shorter, blunter, and darker than the original. 

These tails make up substantial portions of their bodies. For example, the slender glass snake can be over 3 feet long, but its body only takes up an average of 11 inches of its total length. Other species of glass snake tend to range anywhere from 16 inches total to over 3 feet. 

California legless lizards are usually smaller than glass snakes. Members of the A. pulchra species grow to be about 8 inches long. The males are about 10% smaller than the females. But these creatures are difficult to sex without actually cutting them open. Other species have slight differences between the sexes too, but not all of them do.  

In general, California legless lizards and glass snakes come in shades of brown and green. They may have white mixed in on their bellies or as part of a pattern on their backs.

Legless lizards don’t all live in the same type of environment. Glass snakes prefer damp forests with plenty of stones for hiding. They like to burrow under fallen leaf litter and can even dig down into the ground for shelter. 

California legless lizards tend to live near coastal regions. Many species — like A. pulchra — particularly enjoy sand dunes. They hang out anywhere from 2 to 3 inches below the surface to several feet down in the sand.

There are too many species of legless lizards to generalize about their biting abilities. Always be cautious when you’re handling a species that you’re not familiar with.  

Unlike other types of lizards, the bites of glass lizards and California legless lizards aren’t dangerous enough for herpetologists to mention them in care guides.

Legless lizards eat the food that’s available in their natural environments. They’re insectivores for the most part, which means that they eat insects

A. pulchra, for example, eats: 

In captivity, you should feed both your glass snakes and California legless lizards a diet of insects in the arthropod group — like spiders. The largest of the glass snakes also eat snails and small mammals, like pink mice. 

Most of these species will also benefit from a standing water bowl that they can easily climb in and out of.

These lizards all have distinct characteristics, behaviors, and habitats. If you’re going to bring one home, be sure to mimic your specific lizard's native environment as precisely as possible. 

California legless lizards need a substrate that’s a combination of sand, loam, and humus. It should be a soil-like substance with leaf litter and clay deposits mixed in. It should be thick enough that they can burrow down into it. You should also provide plant cover, warmth, and moisture. Find out species-specific information from the place where you acquire your pet. 

Glass lizards need a substrate that consists of sterile potting soil mixed with sand, orchid bark, or a cactus mix. You also need to include rocks, branches, and slabs of bark to mimic a forest floor. 

In general, you should keep the tank's temperature between 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Reduce the temperature by 5 to 10 degrees at night. 

All pets can develop several different health problems. These could be related to problems with your pet’s diet or environment. Lizards can also develop infections and be colonized by parasites. Take your legless lizard to a veterinarian if you have any concerns. Make sure to find one who's familiar with your particular type of pet

Show Sources

Animal Diversity Web: “Anniella pulchra California Legless Lizard.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Ophidiophobia (Fear of Snakes).”
Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection: “Glass Lizard - Glass Snake - Legless Lizard.”
The North American Veterinary Conference: “Working With Uromastyx Lizards.” 
The Reptile Database: “Anniella alexanderae PAPENFUSS & PARHAM, 2013,” “Anniella campi PAPENFUSS & PARHAM, 2013,” “Anniella geronimensis SHAW, 1940,” “Anniella grinnelli PAPENFUSS & PARHAM, 2013,” “Anniella pulchra GRAY, 1852,” “Anniella stebbinsi PAPENFUSS & PARHAM, 2013.

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