Ceci n'est pas un serpent. It's a glass lizard. Image credit: Don Becker via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

 
If a limbless reptile like the one above crosses your path, it’s obviously a snake, right? Maybe not. Over the course of evolution, many different lizards have independently lost their legs. Today, we’re looking at the subtle differences that set these creatures apart from their serpentine brethren.

1. WE’VE YET TO FIND A LEGLESS LIZARD WITH A FORKED TONGUE.

All snakes have such tongues—as do a fair number of lizards, including gila monsters, monitor lizards (such as the Komodo dragon), and South American tegus. When it comes to tracking down food, these pronged organs are incredibly useful. Here’s how they work: Wandering animals leave microscopic taste particles floating behind them in the air. Snakes and some lizards gather these up by flicking their forked tongues. After the tongue is drawn back into the mouth, the chemicals are delivered to a sensory apparatus called the vomeronasal organs. These help the reptiles figure out what sort of creature produced the taste particles in question. Although legless lizards are a diverse bunch, none that we know of feature this kind of tongue.

2. SNAKES DON’T HAVE EYELIDS, BUT SOME LEGLESS LIZARDS DO.

Snakes can’t blink (or wink, for that matter). Unlike us, the slithering reptiles don’t possess eyelids. Evolution’s given them a different way to protect their invaluable pupils. In the vast majority of species, a thin, transparent scale covers each eye. These are known as “spectacles” or “brilles” and, like most scales, they’re regularly replaced when the snake sheds its skin.

Numerous lizards—including most geckos—also have brilles instead of eyelids. However, many legless species sport the latter. For example, consider the so-called “glass lizards.” A widespread group, these lithe creatures can be found in Morocco, North America, and parts of Asia. Like snakes, glass lizards are essentially devoid of legs: Their forelimbs are completely gone while their rear legs have evolved into useless nubs that lie buried under the skin. Yet, unlike snakes, glass lizards do possess moveable eyelids.

3. NO KNOWN SNAKE HAS EXTERNAL EAR HOLES.

It’s often said that snakes are deaf. Over the past few decades, research has thoroughly disproved this notion, and we now know that the animals can easily detect certain airborne sounds. So where did the whole myth about snakes not being able to hear come from? Well, the misconception probably has something to do with the fact that snakes don’t have visible ear openings.

Most land vertebrates have both an eardrum and an inner ear. Snakes, on the other hand, lack the former. Their inner ears are connected directly to the jawbones, which usually rest against the ground. Whenever some other animal walks by, its footsteps inevitably produce vibrations. These travel through the earth and cause the snake’s jaw to vibrate in response. The inner ear then signals the brain, which interprets the data and identifies the source of the sound. Low-frequency noises that travel through the air can also be picked up in more or less the same manner.

Look closely at a snake, and you’ll notice that there aren’t any ear holes on the sides of its head. In contrast, most legless lizards have a pair. Then again, some varieties don’t. The Australian Aprasia lizards are adapted for a burrowing lifestyle—one that doesn’t really require external ear cavities. As such, most members of this genus lack these openings altogether.

4. SNAKE JAWS TEND TO BE A LOT MORE FLEXIBLE.

A lora, or parrot snake, eats an evergreen robber frog in Panama. Image credit: Brian Gatwicke via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0


 
Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t unhinge or dislocate their jaws while feeding. They simply don’t need to. An average snake can swallow prey that are several times larger than its own head. This feat is made possible by an amazingly flexible set of jaws.

Just like in humans, a snake’s lower jaw consists of two bones called mandibles. Ours meet to form a chin, which is where the separate bones become fused. Snake mandibles aren’t joined together in this manner. Instead, the two lower jawbones can move independently of each other and can even splay apart to a considerable extent.

By comparison, the jaws of most legless lizards are far less maneuverable. As a result, they tend to eat proportionally smaller prey—but there’s an exception to this rule. Burton’s snake lizard (Lialis burtonis) is an unusual predator that specializes in eating other lizards. Bisecting the skull is a special hinge which enables the front of its snout to swing downwards. This gives Burton’s snake lizard enough oral flexibility to swallow fairly big prey whole. Recurved teeth and a muscular tongue help prevent the prey from escaping.

5. WHEN THREATENED, MANY LEGLESS LIZARDS CAN DISCARD AND RE-GROW THEIR TAILS.

If a snake, crocodilian, turtle, or tortoise loses its tail, the animal won’t be able to replace it with a new one. In the world of reptiles, that talent is reserved for lizards. Many—but not all—lizard species can famously lose a segment of their tail and then regenerate it (although the replacement is not as good as the original). This is no parlor trick: Out in the wild, it’s a potentially life-saving maneuver. Should a predator seize a lizard by the tail, the whole appendage can break off. Afterward, this discarded appendage might flail and spasm, distracting the attacker long enough for our lizard to escape. Check out some graphic images of a glass lizard sans tail.

There’s a correlation between a legless lizard’s habitat and the length of its tail. Species that burrow through dirt or spend most of their time submerged in sand have relatively short tails. In contrast, those that live at the surface have rather long ones. Why is this? To lizards with subterranean habits, lengthy tails can be a nuisance because they create excessive drag during digs. Up above the soil, however, a really long tail reduces the odds of some predator snagging a more vital part of the body.