Slide over, you California Legless Lizard.
Scientists at UC Berkeley and Cal State Fullerton have identified four new species of legless lizards, including three in Kern County, an area once only thought to house the aforementioned state-named slitherer.
In the world of herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles, this is huge. Titanic, in fact -- with the possibility, however remote, that this revelation could hit the scientific equivalent of an iceberg.
Their discovery, which includes a species named for Bakersfield, is believed to be the first new lizard species in California in 27 years, and possibly the first-ever announcement of four new and separate species at the same time in state history.
Meet the purple-bellied Bakersfield Legless Lizard, (Anniella grinnelli), found in vacant northwestern lots off Rosedale Highway west of Highway 99, in the southwest near Cal State Bakersfield, in the Center for Natural Lands Management Sand Ridge preserve 15 miles east of Bakersfield, and on the banks of the Kern River near Highway 99.
There's also the Southern Sierra Legless Lizard (A. campi), which has a yellow belly with five stripes. It's found in northeastern Kern County, off Highway 178, and in southwestern Inyo County.
The gray- or silver-bellied Temblor Legless Lizard (A. alexanderae ) has been found at McKittrick and northwest of Fellows, in unincorporated Kern County.
The Southern California Legless Lizard (A. stebbinsi ) has a yellow belly and three stripes. It has been found in the El Segundo Dunes and in remains of the Surfridge neighborhood, where houses made way for the Los Angeles International Airport.
They join two existing species, including the California Legless Lizard (A. pulchra ).
These four new colored-bellied critters, which can curl up just like their snake relatives, live mostly underground. They eat small insects, are harmless to humans and can spend their entire lives in a habitat the size of your bathroom.
While sightings are rare, none is considered endangered. Presently, they're stars.
"They became new species as of Monday afternoon. It's really exciting, because this is the first time ever in the history of science, in the state of California, that four new species of lizard have been described in the same scientific publication at the same time," said Theodore Papenfuss, a research scientist who studies amphibians and reptiles at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. "People used to say, 'Don't you know everything about Southern California lizards?' Fifteen years ago, I would have thought so, but I don't any more."
Papenfuss and co-author James Parham, who is an assistant professor of geology at Cal State Fullerton, published research done since 1998 on Monday in the journal Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.
Their work continues, but Parham, who taught at Cal State Bakersfield last year, said he's still amazed that the team found a new species of lizard here.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself -- this is my work. There really is a purple-bellied Bakersfield Legless Lizard," said Parham, whose contributions included DNA research. "The San Joaquin Valley is one of the very biologically interesting places. We need to know about it, and appreciate it, and perfect it."
Officials at the California Living Museum said they believe the Bakersfield Legless Lizard is the only known animal species named after the city.
Papenfuss and Parham began their research 15 years ago, when Parham was still a graduate student.
Inspired by renewed curiosity in the scientific community about California biodiversity, the team borrowed a technique from earlier reptile and insect researchers, drawing out lizards by providing manmade ground cover against Central Valley summer heat. Papenfuss said he currently has out more than 1,000 pieces of cardboard and plywood, in Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.
Periodically, usually in fall and spring, he and Parham would visit their sites on rural, ranch, oil and agricultural land, rake the earth underneath, and uncover specimens.
The team was also helped by Cal State Bakersfield biology professor David Germano, who found Bakersfield and Temblor legless lizard specimens as early as 1993.
"If this stands, I would say 1993 to 1994 is when I first saw a specimen. It's just come out, and this is their opinions," Germano said, pointing out that in the scientific community, so-called "new" plants and animals may be downgraded, or "lumped," after further examination into sub-categories of existing species.
The opposite happened with the discovery of the last new California lizard in 1986, the Sandstone Night Lizard. Initially considered a subspecies of the Granite Night Lizard, it gained full species status in the early 2000s.
The professor who edits Breviora, Jonathan Losos, curator of herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, said he is confident the team's genetic and molecular research -- isolating characteristics such as different chromosomes -- will withstand peer scrutiny.
"I think there's no doubt that the authors have really nailed it, that these are distinct biological species," Losos said. "We expect new discoveries to come from the Amazon or the jungles of Africa or Asia. That's where most of them come from these days. But here we are in California, finding some. It just opens the door to many more questions, now we know there is this level of diversity we didn't know of before."