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Four new species of legless lizards discovered in California

The slithering reptiles were spotted in far-from-pristine environments, including an LAX runway, an oilfield, and an empty downtown lot. 

By Douglas MainLivescience.com Staff Writer / September 19, 2013

The Bakersfield legless lizard (Anniella grinnelli), which today ranges from downtown Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley to the Carrizo Plain National Monument 30 miles to the west.

Alex Krohn

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Four previously unknown species of snakelike creatures have been found in California — but don't call them snakes; they're legless lizards. Prior to the discovery of the new species, there was only one known legless lizard species in the state: the California legless lizard.

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Surprisingly, the newfound legless lizards were discovered at a series of sites that weren't exactly pristine: They include a dune bordering a runway at Los Angeles International Airport; an empty lot in downtown Bakersfield, Calif.; a field littered with oil derricks; and the margins of the Mojave Desert.

"This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California," Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist at the University of California Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, said in a statement from the school.

The lizards live their entire lives underground or near the surface, and often don't leave an area the size of a small table, the statement noted. When they are found at the surface, it's usually in moist areas under dead wood or logs — or cardboard.

To find the lizards, Papenfuss and James Parham, a researcher at California State University, Fullerton, placed thousands of slips of cardboard at various sites around central and Southern California. They then checked and rechecked the sites before finally finding the four new species. 

Three of the animals were found in the southern San Joaquin Valley. "These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown," Parham said in the statement.

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