Despite the fact that they represent distinct evolutionary lineages, several lizard species, including representatives from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and North America, superficially resemble snakes. However, these limbless lizards are easy to distinguish from snakes, by observing the animal’s eyes and ears. Three primary types of legless lizard are common in the pet trade: slow worms (Anguis fragilis), glass lizards (Ophisaurus spp.) and scheltopusiks (Pseudopus apodus), although a few other species are occasionally available.
Some legless lizards receive legal protection; always comply with all international, federal, state and local laws.
Slow worms are legless lizards that hail from Europe, Asia and North Africa. Reaching a maximum length of about 16 inches, slow worms have very long tails that make up about half of their body length. In the United States, slow worms do not appear in the pet trade as often as several other, larger, legless lizard species; they are slightly more common in European markets.
According to the Reptile Database, herpetologists currently recognize six different glass lizard species, but the taxonomy of the group remains unresolved. The eastern glass lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis) is likely the most commonly seen member of the group in the pet trade. Native to the southeastern United States, they readily jettison their tails when frightened, a phenomenon scientist call autotomy.
Scheltopusiks –- whose common name is the Slavic term for “yellow belly”— are legless lizards native to Europe and Central Asia. Reaching a maximum length of about 4 ½ feet, these lizards actually have rudimentary rear legs. However, the legs often go unnoticed, as they are not used for locomotion and are less than one-tenth of an inch long.
Scheltopusiks are carnivorous lizards who consume insects, spiders, mollusks, eggs and small vertebrates in the wild. In captivity, they thrive on a varied diet of crickets, roaches and frozen-thawed rodents. An egg-laying species, females typically produce about eight eggs per year. The 6-inch-long young hatch about two to three months later.
Burton’s legless lizards (Lialis burtonis) are interesting critters that are occasionally imported from New Guinea. Like a few other legless lizards, they are sexually dichromatic, meaning the males and females bear different color patterns. Loveridge’s limbless skinks (Melanoseps loveridgei) also show up on reptile dealer price lists from time to time, but these small burrowing lizards are poorly known and not suitable for novices.
Understanding the Difference
The evolutionary lineage to which an animal belongs determines whether it is a snake or a lizard, not the presence or absence of legs. In fact, snakes arose from within the lizard family tree, making them a type of lizard. However, while all snakes are lizards, not all lizards are snakes.
About a dozen different reptilian lineages – all of which belong to the order Squamata -- have produced legless or nearly legless animals over evolutionary time, according to a “Live Science” interview with former herpetologist Mike Wall (who is now a science writer with Space.com). In fact, scientists continue to discover previously undescribed species, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. While scientists have described dozens of different legless lizard species, snakes comprise the most successful lineage of limbless reptiles, and they are represented by nearly 3,000 living species.
Distinguishing the Difference
Despite the fact that these lizards superficially resemble snakes, you can distinguish between the two by observing a few criteria. The easiest method for distinguishing snakes from legless lizards is by looking for eyelids. All legless lizards save for one species – Burton’s legless lizard -- have mobile eyelids, while snakes lack mobile eyelids; instead, snakes have a clear scale – called the spectacle – that protects their eyes.
A second physical characteristic that you can consider is the presence or absence of ear openings. Most legless lizards have external ears, while snakes lack external ears entirely. Some legless lizards, such as scheltopusiks, feature a deep grove along their sides; no snakes possess such grooves. Legless lizards also possess wider, fleshier tongues than the thin, bifurcated tongues of snakes.