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Limbless Lanky Lizard!

The grand majority of reptiles that I have currently are snakes; they're my favorite group of animals, the most persecuted by far and definitely need a great deal of public educational awareness and protection, so they fit right in with my motive for Carlton Carnivores. However, they're not alone in the house; I've got a few of their cousins hanging around as well. One of those cousins though, is not uncommonly mistaken for a snake, even though he is anything but, and that's Piberius.

From the early days, Piberius shortly after I first got him.

Not a snake at all, not even particularly closely related as far as lizards go (because snakes are in fact, just one particular branch of legless lizards nested within all the other lizards), Piberius is an Eastern Glass Lizard, Ophisaurus ventralis. Members of the Anguidae family, the glass lizards are eastern North American endemics, and their closest relatives include the Alligator Lizards that west-coast or Arizona residents might be familiar with (and their exotic tropical cousins found throughout Latin American cloud forests), and even other legless lizards from the other side of the Atlantic (who lost their legs completely separately, a case of convergent evolution).

The eastern glass lizard is native to roughly the same range that the Longleaf Pine is (a very important savannah species whose habitat also supports some of North America's most diverse, and most threatened ecosystems), from extreme southeastern Virginia westward to eastern Louisiana, south of the "Fall Line" where coastal plain transitions to interior rocky uplands and mountains. They tend to like fairly open, grassy habitats (something best maintained by the same fires that longleaf pines require for survival), especially near wetlands or other moisture-providing features, and are often semi-burrowing animals or favor living near dense vegetation, as unlike the belly scales of snakes that can grip surfaces, these guys don't really have a special adaptation for limbless movement beyond shoving their sides against things. As such, they are very slow, and frantic, animals when caught on smoother surfaces like roadways or tile.

A recent photo showing Piberius' rough size currently. He's still fairly average-small for the species, and could grow quite a bit more.

Most species of Ophisaurus are fairly similar in both size and coloration, though the Eastern is perhaps a bit larger than many of the others. Adults can reach over 40 inches in length, however the vast majority of that length is tail. By contrast, tail length in a snake is at the most extreme maybe a third their length rather than three-quarters of it. The actual body of a glass lizard, rarely gets more than a foot long. The head is roughly triangular in build, with a far pointier nose than most snakes possess, and also sports a couple other traits you'll not see in any snake: lids on their eyes that allow them to actually blink and close their eyes, and external ear holes at the back of the skull on either side of the head. On either side of the body from just behind the head to almost the vent is a gular fold, roughly in line where their legs used to be which allows their rather rigid body to inflate and deflate for breathing; if you hold one of these you'll quickly notice that, while they can bend a fair bit, they have a tough feel to them and are rather inflexible compared, again, to snakes.

Close-up on Piberius' head; eyelids are just barely visible here and you can just make out his ear hole at the back of his jawline, behind that fourth stripe.

That ridiculously long tail is also where these guys get their common name from, and it's also why most adult glass lizards are almost never found at full length, or with their original tail present: when attacked by a predator, these lizards rather readily drop part or all of their tail, which can break into multiple squirming pieces all along its length like someone dropped a glass rod and it shattered. When it begins to grow back, the original bone structure is replaced with cartilage and doesn't break in pieces as easily, and is also usually a more solid, different coloration than what was present before. I would rather see Piberius with his full colors and original appendage present, so I make sure that, on the rare times I do pull him out (he hates being interacted with; they are skittish animals), I avoid holding his tail at all and work to calm him down quickly so he doesn't stress-drop it.

Glass lizards are all marked in some form by a mix of stripes running down their body and barring on their anterior sides or speckling; usually juveniles are more striped, while adults fade to bars and speckles. Easterns in particular start out with distinctive stripes, particularly one or two dark ones that run down their backs, and those white bars on their cheeks and sides. Then as they age many of those stripes begin to fade and the barring becomes more visible, or else all the pattern disappears and they develop these sometimes greenish or bluish hues especially on their sides and light-colored speckles that cover them, sometimes in a brand new stripe-like pattern. If they lose their tail, when it grows back it's often a more uniform beige or brown color.

Piberius from above; his juvenile dorsal stripes are vanishing, while his side stripes are beginning to break into dots.

Another trait that glass lizards have that show their relationship to other more familiar lizards is their feeding habits. Just like anoles, alligator lizards, fence lizards, etc., these are generally insectivores or occasionally taking other very small animals (like pinky mice). They mildly "chew" their food to arrange and then swallow it, and generally can't eat anything much bigger than their own head is (and usually things that are smaller). This diet means they tend to eat a lot more than snakes as well since they can't just take a big meal and be done with it; rather they're almost constantly on the hunt and have higher metabolisms, picking off small prey items all the time. Like many lizards they have semi-forked, but generally rather broad, flat tongues that they do flicker to gather scent particles to find food or mates, though this isn't as refined an action as it is with the distinct forks of a snake's tongue. When they're not on the hunt, they're usually buried under debris, grasses, or in a burrow.

Underside of Piberius; here you can see that the scales are still very small and unspecialized just like their dorsal scales, less useful for movement compared to snake scutes.

Being skittish, flighty animals with a real propensity to drop a large part of their body with ease, it's not too surprising that glass lizards aren't really found in the pet trade; when they do show up on offer, they're usually wild-caught (I was lucky, as in Piberius' case he was captive-hatched, about as close to captive-bred as one can usually get currently). If you want an animal that's mostly for display, no touchy however, and want something that's a little different from your standard fare leopard geckos or bearded dragons, glass lizards are overall fairly easy animals to care for, at least if you can find one hatched if not bred in captivity (wild animals are more likely to carry parasites and other issues). Starting out with a fairly large tank is a wise idea, as it will eventually be necessary and a young glass lizard will still utilize every inch of space (especially if whatever feeder insects you use are just released in the tank for them to hunt). A deep layer of substrate is most important in terms of furnishings, whether that be aspen bedding or something more suitable for starting up a planted vivarium like peat, coco coir (washed, as though these guys are often found in coastal sand dunes and have some salt tolerance most of what one might be able to put in the tank with them won't be) or a potting compost mix. At least a couple of inches, if not 3-5 inches plus, is best, so that the lizard can scoot around on top but also dig burrows all through the layers underneath. Some hides scattered through the enclosure are recommended, and though they're mor burrowing than anything they will occasionally attempt venturing upward if they have the means to do so; a thick real or fake plant can offer this, or broad cork bark slabs or similar structure. If you go the planted route, bunchgrasses or spreading groundcover plants are great for them to root around and hide in. Temperatures should remain in the high 70's Fahrenheit ambient, with a basking spot (with a UVB bulb, do not skip that implement!) in the low to mid-90's, and moderate humidity (high is good if good airflow can also be managed at the same time). They will often disappear for a week, week and a half or so when preparing to shed, and then in true lizard fashion will leave chunks of shed skin all over the place rather than one neat clean piece.

Feeding glass lizards is also quite easy, as they're generally not picky. An occasional dusting or feeder gutloading with vitamin supplements is wise, but can be applied to just about anything a little smaller than their head: dubia or other roaches, small crickets, mealworms, waxworms, or even for adults the occasional pinky mouse or thiaminase-free fish. Some will even take prepared Repashy type foods. Food can be offered in a dish which they will locate and eat from, or live insects can be let loose (when not vitamin-dusted) in the cage, and you can enjoy watching them chase down their food. Though skittish, they are rather inquisitive, attentive creatures, and will watch their prey, or whoever is moving about outside their enclosure, with rapt attention, head tilts, and tongue flicks.

The secret to breeding these guys, unfortunately, I don't have, as Piberius is the only one I own and captive-breeding success I haven't heard much on either. Hopefully there will be advancements in this realm though, as captive-bred animals are frequently more suitable as pets, often calmer and easier to handle. But if you're looking for a little different, glass lizards can certainly provide in two different ways: setting up a proper enclosure for them and then getting to care for a legless reptile that, for once, isn't a snake, or if you happen to live in or are visiting the eastern half of the US, you can keep an eye out for them in the wild! And make sure, in the latter case, to also support conservation initiatives working on preserving and restoring the native grasslands and pine savannahs of the southeast, as along with so many other unique species in the region we certainly don't want to lose this curious creature from our ecosystems.

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