It takes more than legs to make a lizard a lizard.
Summer is the time to see lizards sunning themselves on a rock or fence post, scoot across the rocks in a flower bed or making a noisy dash into a pile of leaf litter in the forest. Missouri is home to 13 species and subspecies of these interesting reptiles, which are close relatives of snakes (both are in the Squamata order).
And that brings us back to the “legs” conversation. Most people think the main difference between a snake and a lizard — in other words, the trait that makes a lizard a lizard — is legs. Lizards have them, and snakes don’t.
Well, not exactly. The legs identification theory holds up until you happen to come across a western slender glass lizard (Ophisaurus attenuates attenuates). These brownish, striped lizards, which can be found across the state, have an average length of 26 inches, making them Missouri’s longest lizard. And although they are 100 percent lizard, guess what they don’t have? Legs.
And this brings us to the two main characteristics that distinguish a lizard from a snake — moveable eyelids and ear holes. Lizards have both of these features; snake have neither of them.
Regardless of whether they have legs, lizards are an interesting part of Missouri’s outdoors world. All lizard species found in the state eat insects and many provide a beneficial service to humans by being a natural control of insects that can be pests. For instance, skinks and prairie lizards are known to eat termites in their winged life stage as they emerge from underground in midspring.
Some lizards can release a part or all of their tail when grabbed by a predator. Once the tail is broken, the lizard quickly runs for shelter and is safe, leaving a squirming tail to confuse or distract the predator. A lizard’s tail has special muscles that constrict at a break point and prevent any blood loss. After a lizard has lost its tail, a new one will eventually grow back, but it will not be as colorful or elegant as the original. It might take three or four months to grow the replacement.
If you’re interested in seeing lizards, now is the time to start looking. Here are three of the more common species seen in southwest Missouri:
• Prairie lizard: This grayish-brown lizard, which grows from 4 to 7 inches in length, is common throughout the area. It lives in open forests, glades and along the edges of woods and fields. As its former name “fence lizard” implies, it can frequently be seen on split-rail fences, as well as lumber piles, logs and old railroad ties.
• Five-lined skink: This 5-inch to 8-inch lizard can be seen in a variety of colors, depending on its stage of life. Adults are usually dark brown and have a few lighter tan stripes. However, during breeding season, the head of the adult turns bright red. Young five-lined skinks, on the other hand, are bright blue and striped. It’s thought that the bright blue coloration of juveniles protects them from attack by aggressive adults of their own species.
• Broad-headed skink: This olive-brown lizard can be found during the day in wood lots and forests. They are frequently sighted near trees, stumps, logs or dilapidated farm buildings. Broad-headed skinks have been reported up to 12 inches in length, but most likely the ones you’ll see will be between 4 and 6 inches.
These are three lizards that are common in this area, but you might find others.
Information about lizards in Missouri can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.