We all know what snakes look like. These animals have been with us throughout our evolutionary journey, so they’re some of the most iconic creatures we can think of. But looks can be deceiving, and today’s article is set to showcase exactly that.
Today, we will compare snakes with a particular snake imposter that hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves. I’m talking about the legless lizard or, as is most commonly known, the glass snake.
Let’s see what this creature is all about!
Overview of Legless Lizards
Legless lizards are pretty much widespread throughout the world, including Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. There are several species available, with the glass lizard being the most well-known in North America.
These legless lizards can cause a great deal of confusion among people who are unaware of their existence.
Most people take them for snakes, and some even appear similar to earthworms due to their small, slippery, and brown bodies.
These lizards more considerably slower than snakes, and that’s not the only difference worth mentioning.
Overview of Snakes
Snakes belong to the order Squamata, the same as lizards, a category that encompasses over 10,000 species across both groups. Snakes display incredible adaptations and variety in terms of size, color, pattern, shape, and behavior.
They are cold-blooded animals that depend on their environment to control their core temperature and are exclusively carnivorous.
Snakes are specialized hunters that rely on several tools to detect, chase, subdue, and eat their prey. These include:
- Keen sense of smell
- Heat pits (in some species) that detect infrared radiation emanated by warm-blooded animals
- Good visuals to approximate the distance to the prey
- The ability to sense soil vibrations to detect the prey’s direction and nature (snakes can use this ability to differentiate between prey and potential predators)
- Venom or constricting abilities to kill their target
Despite their scary appearance and behavior, snakes are typically shy and prefer to flee when encountering humans. They will only strike when cornered or threatened, and they see no other way out of the situation. These reptiles also play critical roles in their respective ecosystems by feeding on numerous pests, including rodents, reptiles, and birds.
7 Differences Between Legless Lizards and Snakes
There are quite a few differences between legless lizards and snakes that should be enough to help you distinguish between them easily.
1. Body Shape and Size
Size is usually the most glaring difference because legless lizards are relatively large compared to many snake species. These reptiles don’t grow past 35-40 inches, but many won’t get past 20 inches; it generally depends on the species in question.
Size alone cannot serve to differentiate between the 2 groups, though.
This is why you should always assess the differences in body shape. Legless lizards are typically perfectly cylindrical, whereas snakes have flatter underbellies.
Lizards also appear to have no necks, as their body is typically of the same width throughout, except for the tail tip.
The lizard’s head is also flat and wider than that of a snake, and it pretty much looks like the head of a lizard. Because it is the head of a lizard.
2. Diet and Prey Preference
Both legless lizards and snakes share the same carnivorous preferences, but there are key differences between them.
On the one hand, legless lizards eat primarily insects, slugs, and worms. Larger specimens can also consume birds and small mammals, but that’s rather rare.
There are 2 reasons for that:
- The lack of hunting specialization – Snakes are either venomous or constrictors for the most part. There are some that are neither and rely mostly on jaw strength to immobilize and kill their prey that way, but they’re the outliers. However, legless lizards don’t fall into either category. They cannot constrict their prey and don’t possess venom, which is why their diet is limited to insects for the most part. The lizard’s limited jaw strength is enough to kill insects but not much else.
- The lack of jaw mobility – Lizards cannot displace their mandibles the same way snakes can. Snakes have specialized mandible joints comprising very flexible and elastic ligaments. These can expand, allowing the mandible to detach from the upper jaw. This ability works in conjunction with the powerful jaw and neck muscles to expand the reptile’s esophagus and allow for the ingestion of larger prey. This allows snakes to consume animals significantly wider than their bodies. Lizards cannot do that.
3. Limbs and Moving Ability
Both snakes and lizards have vestigial limbs, but only some lizards carry them on the outside of the body. You can only tell that snakes have vestigial limbs during an X-ray, as you can observe the leg bones still attached to the spine.
The same can be observed in lizards as well, with the exception that some lizard species have exterior vestigial limbs. These legs are smaller and of no use because they are disabled.
The movement pattern is still a bit different in both groups. Snakes typically move in an S pattern, although some species can move differently. Lizards are also slower than snakes, especially on rugged terrain.
4. Movable Eyelids and Ear Openings
All lizards have movable eyelids, including legless lizards. Snakes don’t possess because they don’t need to blink. Instead, snakes have a transparent membrane covering the eyeball called the brille.
This is basically a soft and transparent scale that protects the eyeball against dirt and debris.
Another noticeable difference is in the hearing department. Lizards possess internal ears and external ear openings that look like subtle slits on each side of the head. These may be more visible in some species than others.
Snakes, though, have no external ears, which can confuse some people. If that’s the case, how do snakes hear? The shortest answer is that they don’t, at least not in a classical manner.
Instead, snakes detect the vibrations produced by different sound frequencies. This allows snakes to distinguish the direction and distance to the sound source, as well as approximate what’s producing the sound.
In other words, based on the vibrations that they detect, snakes can determine if the source is prey, a predator, or something else, like a natural phenomenon.
5. Ability to Regrow Their Tails
You already know that lizards are capable of autotomy, which is the practice of self-amputating their own tails in case of need. This is possible due to a unique evolutionary anatomical mechanism that allows lizards to detach their own tails at will.
The mechanism itself relies on a combination of vertebrae, ligaments, muscles, and skin tearing across a specific radius almost instantly when needed.
The lizard also possesses unique anatomical components in the tail that seal the wound to prevent uncontrollable bleeding. The tail is equipped with automatic nerves that keep sending impulses into the tail, causing it to wiggle relentlessly up to several minutes post-autotomy.
The lizard will then use this distraction to flee the scene and leave the predator with only a modest gain. Most lizards possess this ability, legless lizards included.
This does not exist in snakes, despite what some people may think. Some people suggest corn snakes as being able to perform autotomy, but this is rather a case of mistaken identity. The snake in question is indeed the corn snake, and the reptile does, indeed, lose its tail.
But this isn’t the result of voluntary autotomy, but something else entirely. In reality, it’s a bacterial pathogen that produces that effect due to targeting the tail specifically and causing it to fall off following a severe infection.
Tail losses in snakes can also occur due to accidents and dysecdysis (abnormal shedding), causing the snake’s old skin to get stuck around the tail.
This will cause strangulation in the area, restricting the blood flow into the region and causing necrosis. In this case, the subsequent tail loss isn’t the only threat.
6. Behavior and Temperament
The main behavioral difference is in the defensive department. In short, legless lizards pretty much rely on 2 primary defenses: keeping a low profile and fleeing when attacked or rattled.
There are no instances where these lizards will prefer to hold their ground and attack their attackers. They can bite, but only if they are being held against their will and they have no other option left.
The situation is entirely different with snakes. These reptiles have a wide range of defensive mechanisms, depending on the species.
Here are a few to consider:
- Producing sounds – The hissing is the more distinct sound, and pretty much all snakes use it as a deterrent. Then you have specific sounds like those produced by the rattlesnake via tail shaking.
- Posturing – Most constrictor snakes curl up in a defensive ball, hiding their heads inside the curls. Many venomous species do the same for both defensive and offensive purposes. The body positioning allows the snake to protect its head and vitals while putting its body in a spring-like position. This allows the reptile to extend its body and neck at blinding speed to deliver its deadly bite. Then you have cobras, which raise their bodies and flare their hood to make themselves appear larger. Many other species inflate their bodies to intimidate their attackers with varying degrees of success.
- Stinking – This is quite a common defense mechanism that’s mostly seen in non-venomous species. The snakes in question will produce a foul odor that can deter some predators that cannot be bothered to eat carrion or spoiled meat.
- Biting – The bite is the simplest and most natural defensive tool to use, although not all snakes bite at the same rates. Some are more laid back and only bite when absolutely necessary. Others, like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, will bite first and ask hissing questions later. The behavioral differences between these species and the rest lie in the degree of aggression.
- Mimicking other species – Some non-venomous snake species mimic the appearance of venomous species that they share their habitat with. This increases their survivability, including when encountering humans. Such is the case of the bullsnake or gopher snake that mimics rattlesnakes or corn snake and kingsnake that resemble the venomous coral snake.
As you can tell, snakes have a lot of assets up their sleeves compared to legless lizards.
7. Venom Glands and Teeth
When it comes to venom glands, things are fairly straightforward. Snakes have them, but lizards do not.
This being said, not all snakes have venom glands, as some are constrictors and don’t need them. Instead, they rely on their jaw power and constricting abilities to subdue their prey.
When it comes to teeth, legless lizards have either one row or several rows of small teeth located on the upper and lower jaws. These are barely visible because they are not meant to inflict serious wounds but rather immobilize the prey.
They are also large and powerful enough to crush insects, which make up most of the lizards’ meals.
Snakes have a wide variety of teeth, in number, size, shape, and positioning. Venomous snakes have obligatory fangs, many of which are hypodermic (empty on the inside for delivering venom). The Gaboon viper has the largest fangs in the world, up to 2 inches in length.
Constrictor snakes, like pythons, have arguably even scarier teeth. Pythons possess large and sharp teeth all over their mouths, which they use to secure their prey.
The teeth point towards the backside of the mouth, which makes the escape impossible once bitten.
In conclusion, snakes are fascinating animals, but I would say that legless lizards are even more fascinating. These 2 animal groups are quite similar in many aspects, which explains why so many people mistake them for one another.
But, as you’ve seen, there are actually quite a few differences to note between the 2. You’d better learn and remember because legless lizards don’t have venomous and deadly specimens among their ranks.