Top Story: September 18, 2013

Legless Lizards’ Lives

lizards, legless, reptiles, anniella, uc berkeley, museum of vertebrate zoology, uc, museum of paleontology, james, parham

By Molly Michelson

Yesterday we introduced you to four new species of Anniella, or legless lizards, found here in California.

The creatures, previously thought to be categorized under one species known as Anniella pulchra, were described in yesterday’s publication as separate, new species with their own name, range and type locality. Each species was named after a California naturalist that had some association with UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ), home of co-author Ted Papenfuss; and the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), where co-author James Parham (now at Cal State Fullerton) was a PhD student. The biographies behind these taxonomic namesakes offer a fascinating glimpse into the history and impact of the museums. We thought we’d reveal their stories here today.

Anniella alexanderae is named after Annie Alexander. According to the MVZ website,

She was a naturalist, an intrepid explorer, and an extraordinary patron at a time when women did not have the right to vote and few had any involvement with the world outside their homes.

In 1908, Alexander donated $1 million in an endowment for the creation of the MVZ. The gray-bellied Anniella alexanderae is found in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley, near the town of Taft.

Alexander hired MVZ’s first director, Joseph Grinnell. The recently named purple-bellied species, Anniella grinnelli, is named after him. Even in the 1930s, Grinnell was concerned about conservation. From MVZ’s website:

As a visionary, he could see that the rich and unique vertebrate fauna of California was under siege from increasing impacts of human population growth and unsustainable land use practices.

Anniella grinnelli was discovered in a vacant lot behind the Home Depot in Bakersfield a few years ago. That lot is now developed. In yesterday’s paper, the authors placed the type locality for this species in a reserve that has been set aside to protect the endangered Bakersfield cactus.

Charles Camp was an undergraduate under Joseph Grinnell at the MVZ and later became director of UCMP, which was also created by Annie Alexander. Anniella campi, a yellow-bellied lizard with a double stripe, is named after Camp. In 1915, at the ripe age of 20, the young Camp discovered a new salamander species in California—“a major discovery because its nearest relative was found in Italy!” exclaims Papenfuss.

Anniella campi has the smallest range of all of the new California legless lizard species, occurring in just a few canyons that drain out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the Mojave Desert. Papenfuss describes it as a relict: “It dispersed long, long ago when there were moister conditions.”

The yellow-bellied Anniella stebbinsi is named after Robert Stebbins, a herpetologist at MVZ, who was Papenfuss’s advisor. Stebbins, now 98 years old, grew up in the Santa Monica Mountains in southern California. It’s fitting, then, that Anniella stebbinsi’s range is the southern-most of the five California species.

Its type locality is at Los Angeles International Airport—no kidding. “The west side of the main runway at LAX,” Papenfuss confirms. “There are big sand dunes between the runway and the ocean, and the sand dunes are protected due to an endangered butterfly that lives there and nowhere else.” That’s good fortune for Anniella stebbinsi, too. “Everything else around that area is urban sprawl.”

Fascinating reptiles deserve fascinating names and homes!

Anniella grinnelli image: Alex Krohn

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