5 Differences Between Snakes and Legless Lizards

Nope, that's not a snake. It's a glass lizard.
Nope, that's not a snake. It's a glass lizard.
Don Becker via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If a limbless reptile like the one above crosses your path, it’s obviously a snake, right? Maybe not. Over the course of evolution, many different lizards have independently lost their legs. Today, we’re looking at the subtle differences that set these creatures apart from their serpentine brethren.

1. We've yet to find a legless lizard with a forked tongue.

Snakes have forked tongues—as do a fair number of lizards, including gila monsters, monitor lizards (such as the Komodo dragon), and South American tegus. When it comes to tracking down food, these pronged organs are incredibly useful. Here’s how they work: Wandering animals leave microscopic taste particles floating behind them in the air. Snakes and some lizards gather these up by flicking their forked tongues. After the tongue is drawn back into the mouth, the chemicals are delivered to a sensory apparatus called the vomeronasal organs. These help the reptiles figure out what sort of creature produced the taste particles in question. Although legless lizards are a diverse bunch, none that we know of feature this kind of tongue.

2. SNAKES DON’T HAVE EYELIDS, BUT SOME LEGLESS LIZARDS DO.

Snakes can’t blink (or wink, for that matter). Unlike us, the slithering reptiles don’t possess eyelids. Evolution’s given them a different way to protect their invaluable pupils. In the vast majority of species, a thin, transparent scale covers each eye. These are known as “spectacles” or “brilles” and, like most scales, they’re regularly replaced when the snake sheds its skin.

Numerous lizards—including most geckos—also have brilles instead of eyelids. However, many legless species sport the latter. For example, consider the so-called “glass lizards.” A widespread group, these lithe creatures can be found in Morocco, North America, and parts of Asia. Like snakes, glass lizards are essentially devoid of legs: Their forelimbs are completely gone while their rear legs have evolved into useless nubs that lie buried under the skin. Yet, unlike snakes, glass lizards do possess moveable eyelids.

3. NO KNOWN SNAKE HAS EXTERNAL EAR HOLES.

It’s often said that snakes are deaf. Over the past few decades, research has thoroughly disproved this notion, and we now know that the animals can easily detect certain airborne sounds. So where did the whole myth about snakes not being able to hear come from? Well, the misconception probably has something to do with the fact that snakes don’t have visible ear openings.

Most land vertebrates have both an eardrum and an inner ear. Snakes, on the other hand, lack the former. Their inner ears are connected directly to the jawbones, which usually rest against the ground. Whenever some other animal walks by, its footsteps inevitably produce vibrations. These travel through the earth and cause the snake’s jaw to vibrate in response. The inner ear then signals the brain, which interprets the data and identifies the source of the sound. Low-frequency noises that travel through the air can also be picked up in more or less the same manner.

Look closely at a snake, and you’ll notice that there aren’t any ear holes on the sides of its head. In contrast, most legless lizards have a pair. Then again, some varieties don’t. The Australian Aprasia lizards are adapted for a burrowing lifestyle—one that doesn’t really require external ear cavities. As such, most members of this genus lack these openings altogether.

4. SNAKE JAWS TEND TO BE A LOT MORE FLEXIBLE.

A lora, or parrot snake, eats an evergreen robber frog in Panama. Image credit: Brian Gatwicke via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0


 
Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t unhinge or dislocate their jaws while feeding. They simply don’t need to. An average snake can swallow prey that are several times larger than its own head. This feat is made possible by an amazingly flexible set of jaws.

Just like in humans, a snake’s lower jaw consists of two bones called mandibles. Ours meet to form a chin, which is where the separate bones become fused. Snake mandibles aren’t joined together in this manner. Instead, the two lower jawbones can move independently of each other and can even splay apart to a considerable extent.

By comparison, the jaws of most legless lizards are far less maneuverable. As a result, they tend to eat proportionally smaller prey—but there’s an exception to this rule. Burton’s snake lizard (Lialis burtonis) is an unusual predator that specializes in eating other lizards. Bisecting the skull is a special hinge which enables the front of its snout to swing downwards. This gives Burton’s snake lizard enough oral flexibility to swallow fairly big prey whole. Recurved teeth and a muscular tongue help prevent the prey from escaping.

5. WHEN THREATENED, MANY LEGLESS LIZARDS CAN DISCARD AND RE-GROW THEIR TAILS.

If a snake, crocodilian, turtle, or tortoise loses its tail, the animal won’t be able to replace it with a new one. In the world of reptiles, that talent is reserved for lizards. Many—but not all—lizard species can famously lose a segment of their tail and then regenerate it (although the replacement is not as good as the original). This is no parlor trick: Out in the wild, it’s a potentially life-saving maneuver. Should a predator seize a lizard by the tail, the whole appendage can break off. Afterward, this discarded appendage might flail and spasm, distracting the attacker long enough for our lizard to escape. Check out some graphic images of a glass lizard sans tail.

There’s a correlation between a legless lizard’s habitat and the length of its tail. Species that burrow through dirt or spend most of their time submerged in sand have relatively short tails. In contrast, those that live at the surface have rather long ones. Why is this? To lizards with subterranean habits, lengthy tails can be a nuisance because they create excessive drag during digs. Up above the soil, however, a really long tail reduces the odds of some predator snagging a more vital part of the body.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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A Prehistoric Great White Shark Nursery Has Been Discovered in Chile

Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
solarseven/iStock via Getty Images

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) may be one of the most formidable and frightening apex predators on the planet today, but life for them isn’t as easy as horror movies would suggest. Due to a slow growth rate and the fact that they produce few offspring, the species is listed as vulnerable to extinction.

There is a way these sharks ensure survival, and that is by creating nurseries—a designated place where great white shark babies (called pups) are protected from other predators. Now, researchers at the University of Vienna and colleagues have discovered these nurseries occurred in prehistoric times.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Jamie A. Villafaña from the university’s Institute of Palaeontology describes a fossilized nursery found in Coquimbo, Chile. Researchers were examining a collection of fossilized great white shark teeth between 5 and 2 million years old along the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru when they noticed a disproportionate number of young shark teeth in Coquimbo. There was also a total lack of sexually mature animals' teeth, which suggests the site was used primarily by pups and juveniles as a nursery.

Though modern great whites are known to guard their young in designated areas, the researchers say this is the first example of a paleo-nursery. Because the climate was much warmer when the paleo-nursery was in use, the researchers think these protective environments can deepen our understanding of how great white sharks can survive global warming trends.