(Formerly recognized as Black Legless Lizard - Anniella pulchra nigra Fischer, 1885)
This form of Anniella from the coast around the Monterey Peninsula and Monterey Bay in Monterey County was formerly recognized as the subspecies Anniella pulchra nigra - Black Legless Lizard, but it is actually just a melanistic form of Anniella pulchra.
Some herpetologists and state agencies, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, still recognize this subspecies, so it is shown here separately from the rest of Anniella pulchra. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife formerly offered A. p. nigra special protection as a Species of Special Concern, but currently all Anniella found in California are listed as Anniella pulchra, and protected as a Species of Special Concern.
According to a 1943 paper by Charles Miller, A. p. nigra is found near the ocean from Carmel to the Monterey Peninsula. A. p. pulchra is found to the north and east, but there is an intergradient population that connects the two forms extending from near the mouth of the Salinas River as far north as Watsonville. The dark Anniella shown here were photographed not far from Watsonville and are presumed to be part of that intergrade population.
(Charles M. Miller. An Intergradient Population Connecting Anniella pulchra pulchra and Anniella pulchra nigra. Copeia 1943, No. 1 March 31.)
A San Diegan Legless Lizard crawls then quickly burrows into loose soil in Riverside County.
A San Diegan Legless Lizard writhes around rapidly on a board in Riverside County. Accustomed to living on soft sand it can burrow into, it has difficulty moving on the hard surface.
Black Legless lizards burrow into Monterey County sand dunes.
A Bakersfield Legless Lizard crawls and burrows into loose soil in Bakersfield.
The detached tail of a San Diegan Legless Lizard wriggles rapidly, looking like a living creature, until it gradually slows down. This illustrates how a lizard can drop its tail to distract a predator then crawl away to safety while the predator chases the tail.
(This tail was not removed intentionally, it was unexpectedly dropped by the lizard when it was stressed from being handled.)
Based on the one species concept of Anniella pulchra as it was known before being split into 5 species in 2013.
4 - 3/8 to 7 inches long from snout to vent (11.1 - 17.8 cm). (Stebbins, 2003)
A small slender lizard with no legs, eyelids, a shovel-shaped snout, smooth shiny scales, and a blunt tail.
Sometimes confused for a snake, but snakes have no eyelids. On close observation the presence of eyelids is apparent when this lizard blinks.
Color and Pattern
Dorsal coloration varies from metallic silver, beige, dark brown, to black.
Ventral coloration varies from whitish to bright yellow.
Typically there is a dark line along the back and several thin stripes between scale rows along the sides where the dorsal and ventral colors meet, but variations occur.
Lizards from Porterville, Tulare County, have dark blotches underneath. (Stebbins, 2003)
Life History and Behavior
The following information is based on descriptions of Anniella pulchra before it was split into five species, unless otherwise indicated.
Does not bask in direct sunlight.
Tolerance of low temperatures allows activity in cool conditions.
Lives mostly underground, burrowing in loose sandy soil.
Forages in loose soil, sand, and leaf litter during the day.
Sometimes found on the surface at dusk and at night.
Apparently active mostly during the morning and evening when they forage beneath the surface of loose soil or leaf litter which has been warmed by the sun.
The tail detaches and writhes on the ground for several minutes to distract a potential predator while the lizard escapes.
Known predators include ringneck snakes, common kingsnakes, deer mice, long-tailed weasels, domestic cats, California thrashers, American robins, and loggerhead shrikes.
I have also received a personal communication that a scrub jay was observed pulling a 10 inch legless lizard out of the ground in a yard in Thousand Oaks, Ventura County.The tail was detached, distracting the bird, while the observer picked up the lizard. The bird flew away with the tail, presumably to eat it.
Diet and Feeding
Eats primarily larval insects, beetles, termites, and spiders.
Conceals itself beneath leaf litter or substrate then ambushes its prey.
Bears live young.
Probably breeds between early spring and July, with 1 - 4 young (usually 2) born between September and November.
Occurs in moist warm loose soil with plant cover. Moisture is essential. Occurs in sparsely vegetated areas of beach dunes, chaparral, pine-oak woodlands, desert scrub, sandy washes, and stream terraces with sycamores, cottonwoods, or oaks. Leaf litter under trees and bushes in sunny areas and dunes stabilized with bush lupine and mock heather often indicate suitable habitat. Often can be found under surface objects such as rocks, boards, driftwood, and logs. Can also be found by gently raking leaf litter under bushes and trees. Sometimes found in suburban gardens in Southern California.
Occurs from the southern edge of the San Joaquin River in northern Contra Costa County south to the Ventura County, south of which there is a wide area where the species of Anniella is or are unknown.
Occurs in scattered locations in the San Joaquin Valley, along the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, and on the desert side of the Tehachapi Mountains and part of the San Gabriel Mountains.
There are old unconfirmed records from Redwood Canyon in Marin County, San Francisco, and Palo Alto. (Stebbins 2003)
Two melanistic or dusky populations occur. One is in coastal dunes from Morro Bay south to the mouth of the Santa Maria River in San Luis Obispo County. The other, recognized as Anniella pulchra nigra, occurs in beach dunes on the Monterey Peninsula and on the southern coast of Monterey Bay (south of the Salinas River) in Monterey County.
Possibly introduced into some areas of the southern Sierra Nevada foothills through nursery and tree-planting operations.
From sea level to around 5,900 ft.
Notes on Taxonomy
The 2017 SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 43 Standard Names List changed the common name of this species to Northern Legless Lizard
In 2008 Parham and Pappenfuss (2008)2 using mt and nuDNA found five previously unrecognized genetic lineages of Anniella pulchra that are evolving independently.
In September of 2013 by Papenfuss and Parham3 divided the existing one species of legless lizard into five species based on the five lineages from their 2008 study2, naming four new species and giving a new common name to the species now known as Anniella pulchra. The five species are:
Anniella alexanderae - Temblor Legless Lizard
Anniella campi - Southern Sierra Legless Lizard
Anniella grinnelli - Bakersfield Legless Lizard
Anniella pulchra - Northern California Legless lizard
Anniella stebbinsi - Southern California Legless Lizard
Range Map of 5 Species:
Anniella pulchra is traditionally split into two subspecies - Anniella pulchra pulchra - Silvery Legless Lizard, and Anniella pulchra nigra - Black Legless lizard, but these subspecies are no longer recognized by the SSAR (whose taxonomy is followed here) because of a 2000 study that showed that A. p. nigra and the Morro Bay populations have been found to have different evolutionary ancestors than A. p. pulchra, but not enough to warrant recognition as a distinct taxon. The 2008 study by Parham and Pappenfuss does not provide any information regarding these subspecies, but it does separate A. p. nigra into its own group, and the authors, in personal communications with an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game (related to me October 2010) have said that there is information that supports the recognition of A. p. nigra as a separate subspecies or even as a unique species, and their belief is that Pearse and Pogson did not mean to completely sink the subspecies, they meant to show that it had diverged significantly from the Morro Bay population, which should not be considered A. p. nigra.
From the SSAR Official Names List 6th Edition, 2008:
"Pearse and Pogson (2000, Evolution 54: 1041–1046) presented evidence that the melanistic form previously designated Anniella pulchra nigra is polyphyletic, its Monterey Bay and Morro Bay populations having been derived independently from the silvery form previously designated A. p. pulchra. Although Pearse and Pogson did not propose any taxonomic changes, their results indicate that the subspecies A. p. pulchra and A. p. nigra do not correspond with separated or partially separated lineages, and therefore we do not recognize subspecies within A. pulchra. The existence and extent of genetic continuity between populations of melanistic and silvery legless lizards, as well as between northern and southern mtDNA haplotype clades, deserves further study."
All Anniella were protected from take with a sport fishing license in 2013.
Much of this lizard's habitat has been lost due to agriculture, housing development, sandmining, and other human land development, recreation, especially off-road vehicles in coastal dune areas, and by the introduction of exotic plants such as ice plant.
"The former A. pulchra, a species of special concern (Jennings and Hayes, 1994), is now divided into five species. This means A. pulchra has a smaller distribution than previously recognized, thereby enhancing concern about its conservation status. The remaining four species have even smaller ranges, some of which are degraded or threatened by human activities. Whereas much of the range of A. stebbinsi is already compromised by urban development, the conservation implications for the other three new species are even more striking because of their very limited distributions. Anniella grinnelli is known from a few sites in the southern San Joaquin Valley, an area that has been greatly modified by urban and agricultural development …. Anniella grinnelli persists in small patches within the Bakersfield city limits, but some of the populations we collected were extirpated by development during the course of this study. The type locality at the Sand Ridge Preserve is a secure site that will help ensure the species survival. Anniella alexanderae is known from two sites at the base of the Temblor Mountains, and should be considered rare pending further study. Finally, Anniella campi is known from just three sites. This species may be restricted to the vicinity of potentially fragile springs in canyons that open into the Mojave Desert and so warrants careful monitoring. Additional research into the distribution, contact zones, and diversity of Anniella is clearly needed."
Papenfuss and Parham (2013)
North American Legless Lizards
North American Legless Lizards
Northern Legless Lizard
Papenfuss and Parham, 2013
Gray, 1852 - Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist., Ser. 2, Vol. 10, p. 440
Anniella - Latin: annela ringed and Latin: -ella little - refers to little rings in pattern. Or possibly an honorific for someone named "Annie" or a coined name. See Farancia. pulchra - Latin - beautiful - refers to the silvery color nigra - Latin - niger = black
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Jones, Lawrence, Rob Lovich, editors. Lizards of the American Southwest: A Photographic Field Guide. Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2009.
Smith, Hobart M. Handbook of Lizards, Lizards of the United States and of Canada. Cornell University Press, 1946.
2 Parham, James F., Theodore J. Papenfuss. High genetic diversity among fossorial lizard populations (Anniella pulchra) in a rapidly developing landscape (Central California) Conserv Genet DOI 10.1007/s10592-008-9544-y
Received: 12 September 2007 / Accepted: 15 February 2008. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008
3 Four New Species of California Legless Lizards (Anniella)
Author(s): Theodore J. Papenfuss and James F. Parham
Source: Breviora, Number 536:1-17. 2013.
Published By: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
2020 Special Animals List Notes:
1) Legless lizards (Anniella spp.) in California were traditionally considered one species, but are now considered five species (Pappenfuss and Parham, 2013). The prior (Jennings and Hayes, 1994) and current (Thompson et al. 2016) Species of Special Concern (SSC) projects evaluated the traditional single species taxon and determined all legless lizards in California to be an SSC. Therefore, the SSC status is carried over to the new taxon concepts until further SSC evaluation.
The 2020 list also shows Anniella spp. California legless lizard (which most likely refers to A. p. nigra) :
This element represents California records of Anniella not yet assigned to new species within the Anniella pulchra complex. Legless lizards (Anniella spp.) in California were traditionally considered one species, but are now considered five species (Pappenfuss and Parham, 2013). CNDDB has assigned new species concepts to most, but not all, previously known and extant legless lizard occurrences. Where an occurrence of a legless lizard is not known to the species level, the general concept California legless lizard (Anniella spp.) will be applied until further evidence is available. All legless lizards in California are a Species of Special Concern (Thomson et al., 2016).
NatureServe Global Ranking
Vulnerable—At moderate risk of extinction due to a restricted range, relatively few populations (often 80 or fewer), recent and widespread declines, or other factors.
NatureServe State Ranking
Vulnerable in the state due to a restricted range, relatively few populations (often 80 or fewer), recent and widespread declines, or other factors making it vulnerable to extirpation from the state.
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA)
California Endangered Species Act (CESA)
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Species of Special Concern
Bureau of Land Management
USDA Forest Service
Anniella pulchra nigra - Black Legless Lizard
NatureServe Global Ranking
The species is Vulnerable - Secure.
This subspecies is Imperiled - Vulnerable.
There are taxonomic questions associated with it.
NatureServe State Ranking
Imperiled in the state because of rarity due to very restricted range, very few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines, or other factors making it very vulnerable to extirpation from the state.