Arxiu de la categoria: Reptiles: Nowadays diversity

Tuatara: reintroduction of a living fossil

There’s a reptile in New Zealand whose lineage arose in the time of the dinosaurs. Even if its external appearance is similar to that of a lizard, the tuatara (whose name means “spiny back” in the Maori language) is an animal with many unique characteristics that classify it in an order different from the other reptiles. In this entry we’ll explain the main characteristics of this relic from the past, as interesting as endangered.

ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION

The tuataras are unusual reptiles whose lineage goes back to 240 million years ago, at the middle Triassic. Tuataras are lepidosaurs, yet they form a different lineage from the squamates, and that’s why they are found in their own order, the rhynchocephalians (order Rhynchocephalia). Lots of species flourished during the Mesozoic, even if almost all of them were replaced by squamates. At the end of the Mesozoic only one family survived, the Sphenodontidae.

homoeosaurus-min
Homoeosaurus fossil, an extinct relative of the tuataras. Photo by Haplochromis.

Of all the existing sphenodontids, only tuataras have survived to the present day. Traditionally it was considered that tuataras included two species: the common tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) and the Brother’s Island tuatara (Sphenodon guntheri), although recent analyses have popularized the idea that the tuatara is only one species, S. punctatus.

TUATARA ANATOMY

As we have already stated, tuataras look externally like a lizard, having a certain resemblance to iguanas. Male tuataras are larger than females, measuring up to 61 cm in length and one kilogramme of weight, while females only measure 45 cm and weigh half a kilo. Tuataras present a spiny crest on their backs which give them their common name. This crest is bigger in males, and can be erected as display.

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Photo by KeresH of a young male tuatara.

What really distinguishes the tuataras is their internal anatomy. All the other reptiles have modified greatly their skull structure, but tuataras have maintained the original diapsid configuration without most changes. While crocodiles and turtles have developed a sturdy skull, tuataras conserve wide temporal openings, and while squamates have developed flexible skulls and jaws, tuataras keep a rigid cranium. Also, unlike most reptiles, tuataras present no external ears.

tuatara_skull-2-min
Modified image from the drawing by Nobu Tamura of the tuatara skull. In it we can see the main characteristics that distinguish it: 1. Beak-shaped premaxilla, 2. Acrodont teeth, fused to the jaws, 3. Diapsid-like wide temporal openings and 4. Parietal or pineal opening.

The name Rhynchocephalia means “beak head” and it refers to the beak-like structure of their premaxilla. Tuataras are also one of the few reptiles with acrodont teeth, which are fused to the maxilla and the jaw, and are not renewed. Also, they present a unique saw-like jaw movement, moving it forwards and backwards.

Video by YouOriginal, of some captive tuataras feeding. In this video we can appreciate the singular jaw movement.

Finally, one of the more incredible anatomic characteristics of tuataras is that they conserve their parietal or pineal eye. This is a structure reminiscent from the first tetrapods, which connects with the pineal gland and which is involved in the thermoregulation and circadian rhythms. Even if some other animals also keep it, the tuataras present a real third eye, with complete lens, cornea and retina, even if it gets covered with scales as they age.

HABITAT AND BIOLOGY

Tuataras live in some thirty islets in the Cook Strait, between the two main islands of New Zealand. Also, the previously considered species S. guntheri is found on Brother’s Island, in the northwest of South Island. All populations live in coastal forests or scrublands, with loose soils easy to dig. Also, in most of their distribution area there are colonies of sea birds, whose nests are also used by tuataras.

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Photo by Satoru Kikuchi of a typical humid forest of New Zealand.

Compared with most reptiles, tuataras live in relatively cold habitats, with annual temperatures oscillating between 5 to 28°C. Tuataras are mainly nocturnal, usually coming out of their burrows at night, even if sometimes they can be found basking in the sun during the day (especially in winter).

Tuataras have few natural predators. Apart from some introduced animals, only gulls and some birds of prey represent a danger for these reptiles. In contrast, their diet is fairly varied. Being sit-and-wait predators, tuataras feed mainly on invertebrates like beetles, crickets and spiders, even if they are able to predate on lizards, eggs and bird chicks, and even younger tuataras. As their acrodont teeth don’t renew, these get worn down in time, so older individuals usually feed on softer prey like snails and worms.

Tuataras mate between January and March (summer), when the territorial males compete for the females, which will lay around 18-19 eggs between October and December (spring). The sex of the offspring depends on the incubation temperature (males at higher temperatures and females at lower ones). The eggs will hatch after 11-16 months (one of the longest incubation periods of all reptiles), from which young tuataras will be born, who will avoid the cannibalistic adults being active mainly during the day.

Unique video of the birth of a tuatara at the Victoria University of Wellington. The translucent mark on the little tuatara’s head corresponds to the parietal eye.

As we can see based on their long incubation period, tuataras develop slowly. These reptiles do not reach sexual maturity until the age of 12, and they keep growing. Also, tuataras are extremely long-lived animals, living up to more than 60 years in the wild. In captivity they can live more than 100 years.

CONSERVATION AND THREATS

Before the arrival of man, the tuataras were present in both main islands of New Zealand and many more islets. When the first European settlers arrived, tuataras were already only found in about 32 little islands. It’s believed that the extinction of tuataras from the main islands was due to habitat destruction and to the introduction of foreign mammals like rats. Other threats include the low genetic diversity caused by isolation of the different populations and climate change, which can affect the sex of the offspring.

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Current distribution map of the tuataras. The squares correspond to the old species Sphenodon guntheri, now considered a population of S. punctatus.

When the first human settlers arrived in the isles, it is thought that 80% of New Zealand was covered in forests. When the first Polynesian tribes came around the year 1250, they caused the deforestation of more than half the archipelago. Centuries later, with the arrival of Europeans, deforestation intensified even more, up to the current situation, with only 23% of the original forest still preserved.

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Photo by Cliff of a Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), one of the main threats for the tuataras.

The introduction of foreign mammals has been one of the main factors of the recent decline of tuataras, especially the introduction of the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans). This rodent has affected the populations of both tuataras and many of New Zealand’s endemic bird species. In studies on coexisting populations of tuataras and rats, it has been observed that rats, apart from preying on eggs and hatchlings, also compete with adult tuataras for resources. With an extremely slow life cycle, tuataras can’t recover from this impact.

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Photo by Br3nda of a reintroduced and tagged tuatara.

Yet, tuataras are currently classified as “least concern” in the IUCN red list. This is thanks to the great efforts of conservation groups that have contributed to the recovery of this species. One of the main tasks has been the eradication of the Pacific rat from the main island where tuataras live. In order to do that, a titanic effort was made in many islets where entire populations of tuataras were captured to participate in captive breeding programs, while the rats were eliminated from these islands. After their main threat was eradicated, all the captured individuals and their captive-born offspring were released in their natural habitat so they could live without such a fierce competitor.

Video by Carla Braun-Elwert, about the breeding success of an old tuatara couple.

Currently, the wild tuatara population is estimated to be between 60.000 and 100.000 individuals. It can be said that this living fossil, which was on the brink of extinction after millions of years of existence, received a second opportunity to keep inhabiting the incredible islands of New Zealand. We hope that in the future, we can keep enjoying the existence of these reptiles, the only survivors of a practically extinct lineage, for many more centuries.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted during the elaboration of this entry:

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Why are sea turtles threatened?

Last week, we saw with detail how is the life of a sea turtle. Did you miss it? So, click here to read it! This week, I am still talking about his amazing animals, but I am focusing on the dangers that are threatening them, both natural or anthropic, and which actions we can do to save them. 

NATURAL THREATS 

Sea turtles are threaten by natural and anthropic dangers. Natural threats include egg loss due to the inundation or erosion of the beach, predation at all life stages, extreme temperatures and disease.

Egg loss

High tides and storms can produce the egg loss for several reasons: the drowning of the eggs, the beach erosion or accretion or nests are washed away. Moreover, there are some animals that feed on sea turtle eggs.

seaturtleeggs
There are several reasons that explain the egg loss (Picture: PaddleAndPath).

Predation on turtles

Despite little turtles usually leave the nest at night, the risk of being eaten by a predator is not zero, since they are part of the diet of raccoons, birds, crabs, sharks and other fishes. Young and adult turtles are also feed by some animals, like sharks and other big fishes, but the impact is not as big as in the first stages. Read the post of the last week if you want to know how many turtles die of old age for each 10.000 eggs. The number will shock you!

Els crancs poden menjar-se les tortugues acabades de sortir de l'ou (Foto: Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program, Creative Commons).
Crabs eat the hatching turtles (Picture: Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program, Creative Commons).

Hypothermia

Below 8º to 10ºC, turtles become lethargic and buoyant until they float at the surface (this condition is known as cold-stunning). At temperatures below 5º to 6ºC death rate can be important.

Diseases

Parasitic infections are common in sea turtles. Up to 30% of the loggerhead sea turtles in the Atlantic ocean have trematodes that infect their cardiovascular system. These infections, at the same time, reduce their immunological defences and then may be infected by bacteria (like Salmonella or E. coli).  Dinoflagellate blooms are also a threat for them because of the poisonous content produce health problems.

ANTHROPIC THREATS

Four are the main anthropic threats for marine turtles: egg and turtle poaching, destruction of nesting beaches, pollution and fisheries by-catch. Here, we will see some more.

Poaching

Fortunately, poaching is not present all over the world, but it can be specially important in some countries. Turtles are hunted for their meat and cartilage or for their shells (used in jewellery and like a decoration). Egg collection is also present.

Tortugues marines comissades per la policia de les Filipines (Foto: Mongabay).
Sea turtles confiscated by Philippine Police (Picture: Mongabay).
Venta d'ous de tortuga marina (Foto: OceanCare).
Sale of sea turtle eggs (Picture: OceanCare).

Destruction of nesting beaches

The building of infrastructures to protect ocean front property produce that females cannot access to nesting beaches and, moreover, produce their erosion. Beach nourishment to fight against beach erosion also affect them because the new beach buries the nests, offshore dredging kills them, beaches may become too compacted for nesting and steep and sand can have different properties (what may reduce, for example, gas diffusion). Tourism also affect them.

Pollution and garbage

It is not completely known if the pollutants, such as fertilizers and pesticides, have a direct impact on sea turtles, but among indirect effects there are the habitat degradation, considering that excess nutrients increase harmful algal blooms.

Garbage is also a problem. Turtles with plastic in the stomach have been found because they confuse plastic bags with jellyfishes, what block intestines and produce their death. Not only are plastics ingested, but also do they become entangled in debris like nets, fishing line or other plastic items. This produces a growth deformation.

La ingesta de plàstics (Foto: Fethiyetimes).
The ingestion of plastic blocks their intestines and produce death (Picture: Fethiyetimes).

Fishing by-catch

Sea turtles are also threaten by fishing by-catch.

Drift fishing, although is forbidden in Spain, are still used and every year, each boat produce the death of a hundred animals.

The longline fishing has an important impact. In Spanish waters, every year, are captured between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals. Despite they return alive to the ocean, they have a hook in the mouth and produce post release death for the wounds. Here you can read a review of the methods to reduce by-catch on loggerhead sea turtle in longline fishing. 

La pesca de palangre captura entre 15.000 i 20.000 exemplars cada any en aigües espanyoles (Foto: Phys).
Longline fishing captures between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals in Spanish waters each year (Picture: Phys).

Mortality in trawling depends on trawl times: mortality increased from 0% with times less than 50 minutes to 70% after 90 minutes. This is explained by the breathing capacity of the animals.

Global change

Ocean acidification due to the continued release of carbon dioxide may have an important impact on sea turtle populations because the quality of the food will probably reduce.  The sea level rise will have a negative impact on sea turtles because endanger the existence of beaches. Moreover, the increase in the temperatures will affect the growth and the sex ratio, since sex depends on the temperature in reptiles: below 29ºC prevail males and above, females.

HOW CAN WE HELP THEM?

  • Avoid any activity or behaviour that can annoy sea turtles. In the case of feeling annoyed, you will observe that they try to leave the area, they do a fast diving and they do abrupt swimming movements.
  • Reduce the speed of the ship if you see any element that could be a sea turtle. In the case of being a turtle, avoid any manoeuvre that can endanger them.
  • Pick up fishing gear or garbage present in the water.
  • In the case of the animal being in danger, first, call the emergency phone of your country. In the case of Spain, call 112. However, there are some actions that you can do while vets arrive:
    • Turtle with a broken shell or open injuries: cover the injuries with a wet rag with iodine (never in the eyes, ears and nose).
    • Drowned turtle: maintain the animal for 5 minutes with the ventral part face up and with the body inclined (head downwards), moving its fins.
    • Turtle with plastics in the mouth: remove the plastic taking care and call the emergency number.
    • Dead turtle: don’t touch the animal and call emergencies.
    • Hooked turtle: don’t stretch the hook and cut the line with 30 cm.
  • Inform the proper authority of the location of possible nests. Some clues:
    • Tracks of turtles in the sand of the beach, with a shape of a V, with the nest in the vertex.
    • Depression in the sand, what indicates about the eclosion of eggs.
    • Observation of a turtle doing the lay.
    • Remainder of eggs or hatching animals.

REFERENCES 

  • Consejería de Medio Ambiente de la Junta de Andalucía (2014). Varamientos de Especies Marinas Amenazadas. Guías prácticas voluntariado ambiental.
  • Gray, J (1997). Marine biodiversity: patterns, threats and conservation needs. Biodiversity and Conservation 6, 153-175
  • Hamann, M et al. ‘Climate Change And Marine Turtles’. The Biology Of Sea Turtles. Volume III. Jeanette Wyneken, Kenneth J. Lohmann and John A. Musick. 1st ed. New York: CRC Press, 2013. 353-378. Print.
  • Harrould-Kolieb, E. & Savitz, J. (2009). Acidificación: ¿Cómo afecta el CO2 a los océanos? Oceana
  • Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente. Guía de buenas prácticas en las Zonas Especiales de Conservación de ámbito marino de Canarias. España. http://www.magrama.gob.es/es/costas/temas/proteccion-medio-marino/201311_guia_bbpp_web_tcm7-229984.pdf
  • Oceana (2006). Las tortugas marinas en el Mediterráneo. Amenazas y soluciones para la supervivencia. 38 pp.
  • Otero, M., Garrabou, J., Vargas, M. 2013. Mediterranean Marine Protected Areas and climate change: A guide to regional monitoring and adaptation opportunities. Malaga, Spain: IUCN. 52 pages.
  • Shigenaka, G (2010). Oil and Sea Turtles. Biology, planning and response. NOAA
  • Smith, T & Smith R (2007). Ecología. Pearson Educación (6 ed.)
  • Velegrakis, A., Hasiotis, T., Monioudi, I., Manoutsoglou, E., Psarros, F., Andreadis, O. and Tziourrou, P., (2013). Evaluation of climate change impacts on the sea-turtle nesting beaches of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos Protected Area. Med-PAN North Project, Final report, 81 pp.

Difusió-anglès

How is the life of a marine turtle?

I have talked about marine turtles in some past posts. In concrete, about the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta). In the following weeks, I am going to talk more about this amazing marine animals. In particular, this week I will explain how is the life of a marine turtle, especially about the loggerhead sea turtle, and in the next one, I am talking about which are the threats that endanger these animals and about what we can do to save them. 

INTRODUCTION

Loggerhead sea turtle is one of the seven sea turtles on Earth. It has a worldwide distribution, being the most abundant species in the Mediterranean, and it can be identified by the presence of a carapace that measures between 80 and 100 cm long with 5 lateral scutes, so that the first of them is in contact with the nuchal scute. It is endangered according to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). The loggerhead sea turtle feeds on jelly plankton like jellyfishes during the oceanic stage, but feeds on fishes and squids in the neritic stage. Additionally, they can consume salt water due to the presence of salt glands placed in the cranium. Like other sea turtles, it cannot hide its head and fins inside the carapace.

Claus d'identificació de la tortuga babaua (Caretta caretta) (Foto extreta de MarineBio).
Identification key for a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) (Picture from MarineBio).

HOW IS THE LIFE OF A MARINE TURTLE?

In marine turtles, the reproductive cycles are circadian, it is that it happens regularly over the time. The periodicity depends on each species, but in the case of the loggerhead sea turtle usually is biannual, so it takes place every two years (but sometimes every three years). Anyway, this cycle is not strict because it is dependant on some factors like food availability or illnesses.

The gregarious behaviour of many species is explained for the ability to recognise the individuals of the same species. In order to recognise each other, most of the species use smell, but they can use sight and sound. During the mating, when the female accept the male, the male bites the female in the neck and in the anterior fins. The male put itself on the female and catches her with the nails of the anterior fins (in the case of the loggerhead, it has two nails per fin). Mating takes place in the sea and usually in the first hours of the day. Moreover, a female can be impregnated by several males.

Aparellament de la tortuga babaua (Caretta caretta) (Foto: OceanWide Images).
Mating of a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) (Picture: OceanWide Images).

The moment when the marine turtles lay the eggs depend on the moon phases, tides, temperature and wind, but it usually happens during summer in sandy beaches. Females return to the beaches where they were born, coming from feeding grounds. They navigate using marine currents, temperature changes, magnetic signals and the sound and smell of the beach.

Depending on the features of the beach, this will be more or less suitable for each marine turtle species. The loggerhead prefers open and shallow beaches and bays, continental or insular, with a slope between 5-10º and with a calm swell. Moreover, these beaches have to be protected by bushes in the terrestrial part and by coral or rockery reefs in the marine part. They usually lay on the first terrace of the beach, in zones without plants and in the first attempt. All the sea turtles have in common the fact that the lay is done beyond the highest tide.

When the female finds the place, with the anterior fins do a cavity where to place its body (called bed) and next, with the posterior fins, dig out the nest and place the eggs. During the period from which the female leave the water and dig out the nest, the animal is very sensitive to bother and can stop doing the nest and come back to water. 

Sea turtles do several lays per year. In the case of loggerheads, they usually do between 2 and 4 lays per year, with 100 eggs that weights 40 grammes (this is 4 kilos per lay). Despite of this, we have to have in consideration that the number of eggs produced for a female is limited by the capacity of storage of the female, which is related with the size. Between each lay in the same reproductive cycle, the mating is not necessary because they can store sperm.

Tortuga en la fase de posta dels ous (Foto: Brandon Cole).
Turtle laying the eggs in a beach (Picture: Brandon Cole).

Eggs are incubated during 50-60 days under the sand of the beach (in the loggerhead). The hatching is synchronized and when the small turtles reach the surface in few minutes are oriented thanks to the beach slope, the sound of the waves and the light of the moon on the sea.

Cria d'una tortuga babaua (Caretta caretta) sortint de l'ou (Foto: Rewilding Europe).
Loggerhead sea turtle baby (Caretta caretta) (Picture: Rewilding Europe).

During the first days of life, turtles present a high buoyancy. In the first weeks, small turtles remain in marine currents and gyres, where food is abundant, so they have a pelagic life. If they are male, the most probable is that they will never touch the land. 

When they are born, the carapace is soft  and, for this reason, the number of individuals that will survive is just a 10% of which leave the egg due to the predators, like crabs, sharks and seagulls. During the first year only survives 10-30% of the animals. Year after year, the mortality rate decreases for the increase of size and the hardening of the carapace. A study has found that just 10 out of every 10.000 eggs will become adults and just one will die for age.

Adult de tortuga babaua (Caretta caretta) (Foto: Deviant Art).
Adult of a loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) (Picture: Deviant Art).

Sea turtles do long-distance migrations, specially in the young stage. When they abandon the beach where they were born, during the next 10 years, they will be travelling long distances. The migrations are between feeding and reproductive grounds.

Then, the cycle restarts with the newborns.

REFERENCES

  • Cardona L, Álvarez de Quevedo I, Borrell A, Aguilar A (2012). Massive Consumption of Gelatinous Plankton by Mediterranean Apex Predators. PLoS ONE 7(3): e31329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031329
  • Consejería de Medio Ambiente de la Junta de Andalucía (2014). Varamientos de Especies Marinas Amenazadas. Guías prácticas voluntariado ambiental.
  • CRAM: Caretta caretta
  • Dodd, C. Kenneth, Jr. 1988. Synopsis of the biological data on the Loggerhead Sea Turtle Caretta caretta (Linnaeus 1758). U.S. Fish Wildl. Serv., Biol. Rep. 88(14). 110 pp.
  • IUCN: Caretta caretta 
  • Márquez, R (1996). Las tortugas marinas y nuestro tiempo. México: IEPSA
  • Smith, T & Smith R (2007). Ecología. Pearson Educación (6 ed.)

Difusió-anglès

Having no legs doesn’t make you a snake

With the arrival of good weather it becomes more probable that we go out to the forest to enjoy nature, and the possibilities of finding snakes and other reptiles sunbathing on a stone or running among the grass increase. Snakes are the best known legless squamates, even though there are many other species of lizards which have also lost their extremities during their evolution. In this entry I’ll explain some distinctive characteristics of the three species of legless lizards that we can find in the Iberian Peninsula, the slow worm and the Iberian worm lizards.

LIMBLESS LIZARDS

The loss of legs is an evolutionary phenomenon that has happened more than once in the Squamata order. In fact, currently there are at least nine different lineages of legless lizards (not counting snakes).  In most groups this happens as an adaptation to a subterranean lifestyle (these usually present a short, round tail) or to a life among grass and vegetation (which usually show a long, slender tail).

1Scheltopusik or European legless lizard (Ophisaurus apodus) a limbless lizard of the Anguidae family, photo by Tim Vickers.

Even though technically snakes are also legless lizards, unlike other groups, some ophidian species may pose a potential threat to human beings. This is why it’s important to know how to tell a snake from a legless lizard. There are some characteristics which can help us to differentiate a snake from a non-venomous lizard:

  • Snakes haven’t got movable eyelids, while the rest of lizards do have.
  • Ophidians have no external ear, while in most lizards the auditory channel can be appreciated.
  • Snakes present specialized ventral scales for locomotion, while most limbless lizards have to move with the aid of the irregularities of the substrate.
  • Many legless lizards can shed their tail as a defense mechanism (caudal autotomy) while snakes can’t.
www.public-domain-image.com (public domain image)Picture of a western green mamba (Dendroaspis viridis), a typical ophidian, by Jon Sullivan.

In a previous entry we already explained the different snake species that can be found on the Iberian Peninsula. Below, I’ll present you the three different species of legless lizards that we can find when we go out to visit natural landscapes of our country.

SLOW WORM (Anguis fragilis)

The slow worm is a legless squamate within the anguid family (Anguidae), in which we find the Anguinae subfamily, in which many species have lost their limbs or have them extremely reduced in size. The slow worm’s scientific name, Anguis fragilis, means literally “fragile snake”, referring to its ability to shed its tail to escape predators.

SONY DSCPhoto of a slow worm close to Nismes, by © Hans Hillewaert.

Description

The slow worm is a small lizard with no visible legs, which can grow to 40 centimetres in length. It presents shiny, smooth scales and a small head with a poorly differentiated neck. Unlike snakes, it has movable eyelids, a forked tong and a small tympanic aperture.

Juvenile individuals usually have a golden or silver brown colouration with their sides and belly of a black coloration. Females and juveniles are similarly colored, being ochre with a dark brown or black belly and a black dorsal band, even though their coloration varies a lot.

Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis), seen near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, during the final test of the August GOC walk, on 3 August 2013. It's the first ever reptile I've photographed, and indeed, the first I've seen in the wild! So I was very happy.Female slow worm, photografied at Hertfordshire by Peter O'Connor.

Males are more uniformly colored, with its back and sides of brown or grey coloration, while some older individuals show dark brown spots on their sides which may become of a bluish coloration with age.

6Male slow worm, with distinctive blue spots, by Maria Haanpää.

Habitat and distribution

It’s a widely distributed reptile throughout most Europe, all being found from the Iberian Peninsula, England and Scotland up to Iran and west Siberia, passing through Greece and Turkey.

7Map showing the slow worm's distribution, by Osado.

In the Iberian Peninsula it is found mainly in the northern half, occupying most Galicia, Asturias, Basque Country and Castile and León and the north of Aragon and Catalonia. The slow worm is a common species that goes unnoticed thanks to its inconspicuous customs. We can find slow worms in a wide variety of open habitats, such as grasslands, scrublands and open forests.

8Distribution of the slow worm in Spain, by Lameiro.

Unlike most reptiles, which look for sunny places to warm up, the slow worm has a strong preference for wet and shadowy places, with plenty of low growing vegetation. It usually shelters under stones, tree logs, plastic wastes or small mammal’s burrows.

Male slow worm (Anguis fragilis)A male slow worm on its habitat, on the Netherlands, by Viridiflavus.

Biology and ecology

In the Iberian Peninsula the slow worm is active from the end of February to November, when hibernation starts, during which groups of up to 100 individuals can be found. Mating lasts from middle March up to July, during which males can be found fighting. Their gestation period lasts about three months, they are ovoviviparous species (females produce eggs but babies hatch inside their mothers) and females give birth from 2 to 22 young.

Many different species of reptiles, birds and mammals prey upon this species. As other lizards, the slow worm can shed its tail as a defence mechanism, which continues moving while the rest of the animal flees. The tail starts to regenerate after a few weeks.

10Picture of a slow worm after shedding its tail, by SuperMarker.

Slow worms feed on snails, earthworms, insect larvae and many other small invertebrates, because, unlike snakes, they can’t unhinge their jaws to swallow big prey. This animal has been unfairly persecuted even though it is a helpful species for fields and gardens, as it feeds on many species considered pests for many cultivated plants.

11Photo of a slow worm feeding on a slug, by Biosphoto/Thiebaud Gontard.

WORM LIZARDS (Blanus cinereus and Blanus mariae)

Amphisbaenians (clade Amphisbaenia) are a group of highly specialized subterranean squamates known as worm lizards. Even though externally they resemble some primitive snakes, they are different in that, while snakes first lost their front limbs and their left lung, worm lizards first lost their hind limbs and their right lung. Currently about 180 species of amphisbaenians are known, two of which are found on the Iberian Peninsula: the Iberian worm lizard (Blanus cinereus) and the Maria’s worm lizard (Blanus mariae), both differentiated by distribution and genomic studies.

12Iberian worm lizard in Andalusia, photo by Antonio.

Description

Worm lizards are reptiles strictly adapted to a subterranean lifestyle, with bodies externally resembling that of earthworms. At first it’s difficult to tell the head and the tail apart, which is useful for worm lizards when it comes to escape predators (just as the slow worm, worm lizards can shed their tail, which doesn’t regenerate completely).

SONY DSCIberian worm lizard next to Murcia. Note the similarity between head and tail. Photo by Jorozko.

Adults may measure more than 15 centimetres in length, with some individuals reaching 30 centimetres. The head is blunt and short, with a wide frontal scale to aid them while digging. Their eyes are vestigial (they can only detect changes of light intensity) and are covered by scales, while they have very acute hearing and smell.

14Photo of the head of an Iberian worm lizard, where you can see the scale-covered eyes, by J. Gállego.

Scales are rectangular and are distributed evenly forming rings around their body. Coloration goes from pale pink, to dark purple and brown, and there is no sexual dimorphism between males and females. Like all amphisbaenians, worm lizards can move both forwards and backwards.

15Adult worm lizard next to Cáceres, in which we can see the rectangular and evenly distributed scales. Photo by Mario Modesto.

Habitat and distribution

The two peninsular species of worm lizard are found exclusively in the Iberian Peninsula, except in the north and northeast, from sea level up to 1800 metres of altitude (in Sierra Nevada). The Iberian worm lizard (Blanus cinereus) is more widely distributed, while the Maria’s worm lizard (Blanus mariae) occupies the southwest of the peninsula.

16Distribution map including both Blanus cinereus and Blanus mariae, by Carlosblh.

Worm lizards are found in a wide variety of habitats, from forests of holm oaks, pine trees and oaks to crops, gardens and sandy areas. They have subterranean habits, and usually take shelter under rocks and logs. Like the slow worm, worm lizards prefer humid zones and with soft soil, easy to dig into.

Biology and ecology

Worm lizards are active all year round, even though their activity specially intensifies during spring, summer and after rainy weather. During the day they usually shelter in underground galleries or under logs and rocks. In winter they maintain their body heat, moving through galleries at different depths or staying under sun warmed stones.

P1050134Photo of an Iberian worm lizard next to Cádiz, photo by Jorge López.

Their diet is composed of insects, arachnids and other arthropods found between leaves or underground. Worm lizards are eaten by a great number of terrestrial vertebrates, and their defense mechanisms include: tail scission, escaping to some of their galleries or curling up to form a ball.

Video of an Iberian worm lizard from Albacete, by Encarna Buendia.

The reproduction season goes from February to June, while mating usually occurs between April and May. Females lay a single relatively large egg, which is abandoned buried underground. Incubation period lasts for 69 to 82 days, and the newborn measure between 78 to 86 millimetres.

16Photo of a pair of Iberian worm lizards in a garden near Seville, by Richard Avery.

OTHER LEGLESS LIZARDS

As I’ve already said, apart from the species described above, there are many other groups of limbless lizards over the world. Some of these other groups are:

Scincidae family: A family of chubby, short legged lizards, many of which have no functional limbs. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find two species: the Bedriaga’s skink (Chalcides bedriagai) and the western three-toed skink (Chalcides striatus).

Benny_Trapp_Chalcides_striatus_Spanien
Western three-toed skink, photo by Benny Trapp.

Pygopodidae family: A group of lizards with absent or reduced limbs, related to geckos.

17Photo of a Burton's legless lizard (Lialis burtoni) from southern Australia, by Matt.

Dibamidae family: Legless tropical lizards of subterranean habits.

18Photo of a dibamid called Anelytropsis papillosus, taken from Tod W. Reeder et al.

Anniellidae family: American legless lizards.

19A legless lizard from the Anniella genus, form California, by Marlin Harms.

Even if most legless lizards are harmless, it doesn’t mean we can touch them and handle them in any form we want when we find them in nature. Legless lizards, as most wild animals, are easly stressed by human handling and shouldn’t be handled except for scientific purposes. The best way to enjoy nature is by observing it without disturbing it.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted during the elaboration of this entry:

Difusió-anglès

Iberian ophidians: nice snakes and venomous vipers

In my first blog entry I talked about the different kinds of snake that exist based on their dentition. In this entry, I’ll explain what species of ophidian we can find in the Iberian Peninsula, which species are venomous and which aren’t, and how we can identify the different species we can find when we are on the field. As we will see in this entry, snakes have been unfairly demonized, as the species in the Iberian Peninsula pose no threat to us.

INTRODUCTION

In the Iberian Peninsula we can find 13 different species of snakes, with representatives of three of the four types of dentition I talked about in my last post. There aren’t any proteroglyphous snake because the members of the Elapidae family are restricted to tropical and subtropical habitats. Most of the iberian species are snakes of the Colubridae family (aglyphous or opisthoglyphous) or vipers and adders of the Viperidae family (solenoglyphous).

Natrix maura bo
Viperine water snake (Natrix maura), aglyphous
Malpolon bo
Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus), opisthoglyphous
Vipera latastei bo
Snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei), solenoglyphous

COLUBRIDS vs. VIPERS

When we find a snake in the wild it’s important to know if that animal is a colubrid or a viper. Bites from Iberian colubrids are mostly harmless because they have either an unspecialized non-venomous dentition (aglyphous) or posterior venomous fangs (opisthoglyphous) which usually doesn’t inject venom and even if they do, normally they don’t inject enough venom for it to be dangerous. On the other hand, as Iberian vipers are solenoglyphous, they inject large quantities of venom, being vipers responsible for most of the snake bite accidents in Spain. Yet, bites are extremely rare, and most happen after a too prolonged manipulation of the animal.

To identify a snake as a colubrid or a viper there are some anatomical characteristics which tell them apart. These characteristics are usually only applicable to iberian ophidians; species from outside the Iberian Peninsula may present different combinations of characters.

The most cited character is the pupil. Normally vipers show an elliptic, slit-like pupil, while colubrids present a round pupil. However, this character is variable, because with low-light conditions a viper’s pupil may look round as the eyes of these animals can adapt to darkness.

PUPILA
Colubrid with round pupil (ringed snake, Natrix natrix) and viperid with elliptic pupil (snub-nosed viper, Vipera latastei). Photos by Honorio Iglesias.

The second character refers to the shape of the body. While colubrids are mostly thin, have an undifferentiated neck and a long slim tail, vipers have a triangular-shaped head with a neck differentiated from the body, and a short and conic tail.

BODYYY
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) and Baskian viper (Vipera seoanei, photo by Daniel Gómez)

Although it may be difficult to look at, scales can be useful to tell colubrids and vipers apart. Vipers always present keeled scales, which have a little keel-like protuberance longitudinally on it. On the other side, even though they can have some keeled scales, most colubrids present smooth scales.

SCALES
Smooth scales of a horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis, photo by Saúl Yubero) and keeled scales of an asp viper (Vipera aspis, photo by Grégoire Meier)

Finally, while colubrids are active animals and usually flee before we can get close to them, vipers rely on their camouflage to avoid predation. Therefore, they stay still so we can’t see them, and may bite if they feel cornered.

IBERIAN OPHIDIANS

Colubridae family:

Coronella genus: Known as smooth snakes. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find the northern smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) which presents a dark mask-like spot covering from the nasal openings up to the neck and dark irregular markings on its back, and the southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica) which presents a pair of parietal marks and dark transversal spots on its back.

Coronella aust gir
Northern smooth snake (Coronella austriaca, left, photo by Christian Fischer) and southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica, right, photo by Evaristo Corral)

Hierophis genus: The green whip snake or western whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) is a brightly-coloured snake with a pattern of black, yellow and green spots over its body. Even though they can grow up to 170 cm of length they are not venomous. It can be usually found from temperate forests to crop fields, and even in abandoned buildings.

Hierophis viri
Green whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus), juvenile (left, by Polypterus) and adult (right)

Natrix genus: Commonly known as water snakes due to their affinity for aquatic habitats. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find two species, the viperine water snake (Natrix maura) named after its zigzag marking and its keeled scales similar to a viper, and the grass or iberian ringed snake (Natrix astreptophora) which presents reddish pupils, an extremely variable coloration and a black “ring” in juvenile individuals.

Natrix mau nat
Viperine water snake (Natrix maura, left, photo by Honorio Iglesias) and iberian ringed snake (Natrix astreptophora, right photo of Fafner).

Zamenis genus: The Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) is a slim, long and harmless colubrid with a characteristically narrow and elongated skull. It is normally found on forested areas, with different microclimatic variations to aid it on its thermoregulation. This species is the one represented coiled around the rod of Aesculapius and the Bowl of Hygieia, symbols of medicine and pharmacy respectively.

Zamensis long
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) (left by Amiralles).

Hemorrhois genus: The horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) is an aglyphous colubrid that, even if it may bite if touched or grabbed, it’s not considered a venomous species. It presents a transversal mark on its head from one eye to the other, and another mark in the shape of a horseshoe on its neck, which gives this species its common name. It’s a species typical of rocky habitats.

Hemorrhois hippo
Horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis). Photos by Accipiter and Raúl León.

Rhinechis genus: The ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris) receives its common name due to the stripes that juvenile specimens present on their back, similar to a ladder, even though adult individuals may present only longitudinal stripes on their body without any transversal marks connecting them. Despite being an apparently aggressive snake, it rarely bites and is harmless to human beings.

Rhinechis sca
Ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris). Photos by Matt Wilson (left) and by Fernando Fañanás (right).

Macroprotodon genus: This is one of the few venomous species in the Peninsula. The western false smooth snake (Macroprotodon brevis) is an animal common on many different Mediterranean habitats. Even if it’s venomous, its small opisthogyphous mouth and its calm behavior make it totally harmless. It is characterised by a dark mark on the back of its head, and its short and flattened skull.

Macroprotodon brev
Western false smooth snake (Macroprotodon brevis). Photos by Saúl Yubero and Amiralles, respectively.

Malpolon genus: With specimens growing up to two and a half meters of length, the Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) is the largest ophidian of the peninsula. Due to its opisthoglyphous dentition it normally doesn’t inject venom when biting (which is extremely rare), but larger individuals with much wider mouths may inject venom, but to cause symptoms it should hold its bite for a long period of time (most bites, even if rare, are dry warning bites). It is easily recognisable for its prominent eyebrows which give it a ferocious look.

Malpolon mons
Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus). Photos by Herpetofauna and RuizAraFoto respectively.

RuizAraFoto

Viperidae family:

There’s only one genus of vipers on the Iberian Peninsula with three representative species. Vipers and adders usually have a wide and triangular head, a lightly elevated snout and usually present a zigzag pattern on their back which help them camouflage. The three Iberian species are venomous, but thanks to modern medicine, their ocasional bites aren’t harmful to human beings. The asp viper (Vipera aspis), the most venomous snake in the peninsula, presents grey, golden or yellow scales, with black or green spots. The snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei) is the most common viper in the peninsula and its coloration varies from brown to grey. Finally the Baskian or Portuguese viper (Vipera seoanei) is a middle-sized viper and with a highly polymorphic pattern.

Vipera asp lat seo
Asp viper (Vipera aspis, top left, photo by Felix Reimann), snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei, top right, photo by Honorio Iglesias) and Baskian viper (Vipera seoanei, bottom, photo by Andre Schmid).

As we have seen, snakes and vipers aren’t as bad as they are portrayed to be. Most species flee from human beings, and accidents and bites happen when we force them to interact with us too much. Also, ophidians help farmers and agriculturers by hunting and eating species traditionally seen as vermin. If we leave snakes and vipers alone, we will be able to enjoy the beauty of this animals in peace.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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