Animal Magnetism
Not a Snake

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Slow-worm (Anguis fragilis) in the forest near Fourmilab
Click image for an enlargement.

One fine day in May 2007 my daily walk took me along the path through the forest behind the Lignières rifle range where I encountered this creature sunning itself right in the middle of the path. My hindbrain screamed snake, but closer examination and a little research proved it to be no such thing.

This is, in fact, a specimen of Anguis fragilis, a legless lizard whose classification is further confused by its common English names of “slow worm” and “blindworm”—it is neither a worm, nor particularly slow, nor blind. (In French, the common name is “orvet”, and German “Blindschleiche”.) This individual was about 30 cm in length, and was probably a male: females run larger, up to 50 cm long, and often have a stripe along the back.

Several characteristics distinguish legless lizards from snakes. The most obvious is that they have eyes with eyelids that blink, unlike the steady gaze of snakes whose eyes are covered by transparent scales. (Only lizards in Disney films sport eyelashes, however.) Legless lizards also have ears, but we're talking about an ear-hole you have to look pretty closely to see, not bunny ears; snakes have no external ears whatsoever. The species name fragilis is due to the lizard's ability to shed its tail should it be seized by a predator, who ends up with a meal, but the business end escapes to wiggle again; the tail will regrow, but not fully—this critter still has the original equipment. Anguis fragilis may be the longest-lived of lizards: about thirty years in the wild; a captive specimen lived 54 years.

A. fragilis is carnivorous, feeding on worms and slugs, and is active during the day, frequently basking in the sun like this one. They are found throughout Europe, and are said to be frequently seen in gardens, but in fifteen years in Switzerland, this is the first I've come across.

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by John Walker
December 30th, 2007

This document is in the public domain.