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New Species of California Legless Lizards Unearthed

CSUF Scientist James Parham Contributes to Discovery

Sept. 17, 2013

James Parham

CSUF scientist James Parham helped to discover four new species of California legless lizards.

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Cal State Fullerton scientist James Parham and a research colleague at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley have discovered four new species of legless lizards from California.

Their collaborative research findings of the genetically distinct lizards named after California naturalists were published today in Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology's peer-reviewed journal, Breviora.

"This is an exciting discovery to science," said Parham, assistant professor of geological sciences and faculty curator of paleontology at the John D. Cooper Archaeological and Paleontological Center.

"This is the first time that so many new species of lizards have been described from California at one time, making this an unprecedented herpetological discovery for the state," added Parham, who studies the DNA of living animals to understand their evolution. "These discoveries illustrate how new species can still be discovered, despite being found in some heavily compromised urban areas."

Parham co-authored the article in collaboration with Theodore J. Papenfuss, a research scientist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley who has been studying the California legless lizard since 1998.

Previously, California was known to have only one species of legless lizards, worm-like reptiles with a distinct yellow belly. The new species have silver or purple bellies, and the number of scales or vertebrae also can distinguish some, Parham explained.

"The main differences among the new species are determined from their DNA, which shows that these species have been separated from each other for millions of years," said Parham, who conducted the genetic studies. Parham joined CSUF last fall, but has been involved in this research effort since 1999 as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in integrative biology.

The names for the new species were chosen to honor California natural historians whose contributions influenced the study of the state's vertebrate biodiversity, Parham said. The lizards' namesakes are: Anniella alexanderae for Annie Montague Alexander (1867-1950); Anniella campi for Charles Lewis Camp (1893-1974); Anniella grinnelli for Joseph Grinnell (1877-1939); and Anniella stebbinsi for Robert Cyril Stebbins, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of zoology and curator emeritus in herpetology of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

According to Parham, the significance of the new species has conservation implications since much of their habitat has been destroyed, or is threatened, due to urbanization, agricultural uses, or oil and gas exploration. The lizards also are considered a "species of special concern" by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The legless lizards, whose scientific name is Anniella, resemble small snakes and are between 8-12 inches long with a girth like a pencil. Anniella are the only legless lizards in the western United States. Through evolution, Parham explained, the ancestor of Anniella lost its limbs as a result of burrowing and living in the sand. While Anniella and other legless lizards look superficially like snakes, they differ by having eyelids and external ear openings and by lacking a forked tongue.

They live under loose soil and sand in pocket areas stretching from Southern California, including the sand dunes near LAX, to the San Joaquin Valley, the eastern Sierra Nevada and on to the Bay Area.

Because they are burrowing animals and are able to dig and live under soil, the researchers used special search methods in the field to find them, including utilizing thousands of cover boards, such as those made of plywood or cardboard, to create a research habitat.

"Since these species are new to science and because they are so hard to find, and their status and geographic ranges are not well defined, much more work is needed to see where these species exist and what their conservation status should be," Parham said.

In addition to serving on the faculty at CSUF and as faculty curator of paleontology at the Cooper Center, Parham is also a research associate for the University of California Museum of Paleontology, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and the Center for Comparative Genomics and the Department of Herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Media Contacts:

James Parham, 657-278-2043

Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027

Tags:  Academics & Research