It may resemble a juvenile Brown Snake, but the Striped Legless Lizard is actually a shy, non-venomous critter.
It measures 30 cm in length and weighs about 9 grams. Its tail is longer than the head and body combined. Many, but not all, have a dark stripe along each size of their grey to brown bodies (no juvenile snake in Australia has stripes along its entire body length).
Unlike a snake it has a fleshy, unforked tongue, visible external ears and vestigial legs. This lizard's legs have disappeared through evolution, leaving a small protrusion where the legs once were. Without legs, the sleek Striped Legless Lizard can move with ease through its grassland environment, and can burrow quickly into the soil.
Where do Striped Legless Lizards live?
The Striped Legless Lizard is found in south-eastern Australia, mostly on Victoria’s volcanic plains, the grass plains of southern New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. The lizard may be relatively widespread, but it's now uncommon across this range. It’s listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature1 and under Australian legislation.2
The species lives in native tussock grasslands dominated by Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) or Spear Grass (Austrostipa spp.). While it’s also found where exotic grasses dominate, it’s unknown how persistent these populations are.
Striped Legless Lizards are unable to survive in areas where the ground is disturbed by heavy grazing or crop tilling. As such, there are only a few intact habitats left for the vulnerable species.
These creatures are active in the day time, foraging in grass tussocks and sheltering in soil cracks at the base of grass tussocks and under rocks for rest and protection. They’re thought to have a small home range. They squeak to communicate with each other, and when threatened. They can also jump (yes, without legs) 30cm into the air to escape ground-dwelling predators!
Striped legless lizards are carnivorous but their diet hasn't been well studied. It’s thought that they feed mainly on crickets, spiders and moth larvae and supplement this with grasshoppers, caterpillars, cockroaches and other insects.
Females breed at 3 to 4 years old and will lay two eggs per clutch, sometimes in a communal nest. Breeding typically occurs in sprint with eggs laid in early summer. The eggs hatch after about five months and may live to be 10 to 20 years old.3 When threatened, they can confuse predators by detaching their tails, which continue to wriggle!
Habitat loss is the major threat to the ongoing survival of Striped Legless Lizards. About 99.5% of their preferred habitat – natural temperate grassland in south-eastern Australia – has been destroyed or drastically altered since European settlement.4
Much of the lizard’s habitat has been degraded and fragmented by farming, urbanization. Inappropriate grazing pressure, the removal of rocks, ploughing, inappropriate fire regimes and weed invasion.
What's Bush Heritage doing?
It’s been a tough few years for the Striped Legless Lizard, which has continued to lose habitat to urban development. When a site in the Canberra area that was known to contain these lizards was converted into a caravan park and tourist accommodation, Bush Heritage collected 115 lizards to relocate, giving them a second chance.
We translocated them to our Scottsdale Reserve, 45 minutes south of Canberra. We’ve removed stock from Scottsdale, replanted woodland trees, and more importantly for the Striped Legless Lizard, we’re controlling exotic grasses, and re-establishing the native grasslands that the lizard favours.
This is the first experimental translocation of this species. It offers us a great opportunity to learn more about this species, and hopefully, establish a new and thriving population. There are only a dozen or so populations of striped legless lizards in NSW, so this new population at Scottsdale could be very important in securing its survival for the future.
1. IUCN Red List
2. Dept of Environment & Energy: species profile & threats
3. Dept of Environment & Energy: species profile & threats
4. Dept of Environment & Energy: species profile & threats