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Q. We found a snake (photograph attached) in our yard in Charleston, South Carolina, but have been unable to identify it from pictures in a field guide or on the web. Is it an exotic species?

A. I get this query every year from several different southeastern states and send the same response: “Great find. Actually, what you found was not a snake but one of the legless lizards or glass lizards.” Unlike snakes, they have eyelids that can blink and ear openings. Unlike most lizards they have no legs. They are sometimes called glass snakes because of their obvious resemblance to a snake. As a boy in Alabama I remember their being called jointed snakes because a shattered tail looked like it had come apart at connecting joints, which in a sense was accurate because the tail separates between vertebrae. A charming but inaccurate superstition of the times was that if you kill a glass snake during a full moon, the pieces will reassemble themselves after dark.

Calling them glass lizards or glass snakes is a reasonable description because they look like a shiny piece of porcelain. The eastern glass lizard can be a stunningly beautiful greenish black creature with a glasslike sheen above and an unmarked yellow belly. Also, legless lizards have a tail that can be more than two-thirds of their body length. Like many other lizards the long tail will break off if a predator attacks it or if a person picks one up too roughly. Sometimes a glass lizard’s tail can break into three or four pieces. The pieces keep moving, often attracting the predator while the lizard escapes.

Four species of glass lizards are found in the Southeast, with at least one being native to every southeastern state. One of them, the slender glass lizard, ranges as far west as Kansas. Although the eastern glass lizard can be found in sandy areas throughout most of the southeastern Coastal Plain, they are most abundant in areas near the coast. My grandson in Charleston finds several every year from spring through fall. He knows where to look for them and how not to get bitten. And he can catch one without breaking its tail. A broken tail is a faux pas in herpetological circles. Imagine your shame as you hold up a glass lizard you have just caught–with its tail broken off. Most readers probably can’t empathize with the embarrassed presenter in this scenario, but take my word for it: knowing how to catch a lizard intact is an important skill for any herp collector. The tail will grow back, very slowly, but will never reach its original length.

Once, in a coastal dune grass habitat on Little St. Simons Island, Georgia, we caught a truly rare species–the island glass lizard. The magnificent creature has a pale yellow body and an eye-catching black stripe down each side. This one’s body measured only 7 inches. Its tail was almost 2 feet long! Island glass lizards do not bite, and their tails seldom break like those of the others. We handled and photographed this particular individual with no problem. To underscore the rarity of the species, John Jensen of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who was with us, noted that it was the first island glass lizard found in Georgia in more than a decade and the largest one he had ever seen. When we released it, I watched in awe as this extraordinary lizard disappeared into the dunes. The photos, taken by J. D. Willson, ended up in a book. 

All glass lizards are impressive in their appearance, behavior and ecology. In some areas they are more common than people realize because of their superb camouflage and tendency to spend much of their time beneath the soil or sand. Like most of our native wildlife, glass lizards deserve to be appreciated whenever they are encountered, even when people think they are snakes.

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The eastern glass lizard, which has no legs, looks like a snake but has ear openings and can blink its eyes. Photo courtesy Parker Gibbons.