Tetrapod Zoology

Slow-worms of 2008

At the start of 2008 I promised myself – in fact, I might even have said it on Tet Zoo – that I’d photograph all the Slow-worms Anguis fragilis I see. The bad news is that I only saw four and – of those – one was dead. Nevertheless…

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Both individuals you see here (above) were found in the New Forest, within sight of Bournemouth Airport. Neither are fully adult. The male on the left is doing a nice job of coiling round my thumb, and he’s showing his grey belly scales in the process. Like other anguid lizards, slow-worms have relatively small belly scales: very different from the transversely broad ventral scales of snakes. The female on the right was in very good condition: her lack of scars suggesting that she hadn’t yet mated. Males = brown sides, sometimes with blue spots. Females = blackish sides.

Two more (below). The one on the left is the dead individual I found in a shopping precinct in Southampton (previously discussed here). It was either killed by a bird or a dog and was heavily scarred. An old male like this could potentially be a couple of decades old (or even more); the death of any individual at the jaws or claws of a domestic dog or cat is a real waste. The young, and very much alive, male on the right was encountered on a trip to Town Common, Christchurch, on which I was accompanied by members of the Southampton Natural History Society and the Herpetological Conservation Trust. This individual looks unusually short-snouted, but that’s a fluke: he was looking slightly to the right when the photo was taken.

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Finally, here’s a totally amazing photo of another deceased slow-worm, found at Shoreham-by-Sea (Hampshire, UK) and kindly provided by Steve Langham of the Surrey Amphibian and Reptile Group. It follows that slow-worms have formidable teeth, given that they’re predators of gastropods and other invertebrates, but did you know that they were this formidable?

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I must say that anguimorph lizards impress me with their ability to completely conceal what are often very large, curved teeth behind their scaly lips. Look at helodermatids (gila monsters and beaded lizards) for an even better example: MASSIVE teeth, but no visible hint of them when the jaws are closed.

For previous Tet Zoo posts on anguids see Beasts of Portland (it includes a really exciting video!), Pompey and Steepo and Arboreal alligator lizards. Must finish the galliwasp stuff promised back in May 2007. If only there wasn’t so much stuff to deal with.

Comments

  1. #1 Tim Morris
    January 6, 2009

    Do they bite, what with teeth like that :/

  2. #2 Neil
    January 6, 2009

    I do like slow worms (even though they do have a habit of crapping down my trousers!), they’re probably the most common reptile in Kent (I once found 10+ under one bit of roofing feltand my gf has loads in her garden) but I’m yet to see on here in Essex.
    That skull is pretty nasty looking. Ive always assumed slow worms were like newts – if the bite it won’t hurt…not so sure now!

    TIM – Ive not been bitten and have picked quite a few in the past couple of years, but ive seen someone thats been bitten by a common lizard so I suppose its possible….

  3. #3 Jerzy
    January 6, 2009

    BTW – I meet them usually on sandy forest roads, where they wriggle a lot and not move forward much. Are they unable of effectively crawling on loose sand?

  4. #4 john
    January 6, 2009

    I don’t like it >,<

  5. #5 Darren Naish
    January 6, 2009

    Slow-worms can, indeed, apparently give a nasty bite. Here’s a now-famous comment from Tet Zoo ver 1 (from here)…

    Apologies for the late post but I thought I’d comment on the matter of slow worms biting. I was bitten by a slow worm about 20 years ago when I was at school. I’d taken one into school to show some friends and for reasons that I now can no longer remember I decided to place the animal in the front of my shirt for the afternoon classroom lessons. About a half hour into the class, the slow worm (quite rightly) decided to express it’s feeelings on the matter and bit. As you guessed, it was painfull. It felt like someone had placed a large and very stiff bulldog clip on my belly. As I was in class and did not want to draw attention to myself and have to explain my circumstances, I sat there very quietly trying to focus on the lesson whilst fighting growing panic. As I recall it held on for a good five minutes before it released.

    At the end of the lesson I left the class, moved the slow worm to my blazer pocket and discovered that my white school shirt had a blood stain on it. Later examination of my belly revealed a pair of mirrored “horseshoes” marked out in tiny pin pricks.

    Anyway just thought I’d share that with you. I really enjoy your blog by the way althought a “lot” of it goes over my head.

    Cheers

    James

    Cool.

  6. #6 Zach Miller
    January 6, 2009

    I like that last picture the best. Really nothing but bone under those scales. Leads me to a question I’ve wondered for awhile now, though: Is there “skin” under the scales of lizards, snakes, and crocodiles? Birds have bare, smooth skin under their feathers, so in the transition from scaley-skinned theropod to feathered theropod, were the scales simply lost and replaced with feathers, and the skin remained, or did skin first have to replace scales?

    And here’s another question, totally unrelated: Do slow worms and glass lizards have embryonic limbs that are lost during development?

  7. #7 Rosel
    January 6, 2009

    My god that is scary, I have always picked them up with no fear before.

    We used to have them come into our yard and occasionaly the cat would get one. We always assumed the scars on them were from escaping the cats, but you say “her lack of scars suggesting that she hadn’t yet mated.” so maybe they were females, how do they get this scarring? Do the the males gouge them while mating ?

  8. #8 Mike from Ottawa
    January 6, 2009

    That skull would be terrifying if not for the grass blades for scale. Those are really neat animals.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    January 7, 2009

    Is there “skin” under the scales of lizards, snakes, and crocodiles?

    The scales are part of the horny layer of the skin. Check out bird feet.

    That skull would be terrifying if not for the grass blades for scale.

    Yep. It’s incredibly similar to those of varanids and helodermatids, except for the much larger nostrils which are due to the much smaller body size.

  10. #10 Lilian Nattel
    January 7, 2009

    I had no idea they lived so long. Fantastic pics. I’m going to show them to my kids.

  11. #11 chat
    January 11, 2009

    was it a print subscription? how many copies per year?

  12. #12 Karen Gray
    February 22, 2009

    Hi, on some land behind my garden a housing association is planning to build, but this is a site where there are a lot of slow worms. Can someone tell me how to stop this and who to contact re getting someone in from the Slow worm association or whoever it is to relocate these lovely creatures. They are planning to start end March. Can anyone give me any advise on how to get some help?

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    February 23, 2009

    Karen: find the website of your local county council, and on the site find their planning application section. Somewhere there will be a section that allows you to comment on specific applications. However, I know from experience that finding the required information (e.g., you need the planning application code) can be impossible without special help (councils make this sort of thing as difficult as possible to prevent/delay challenges). Where do you live? There are usually local conservationists, ecologists or naturalists who are experienced in this appeal process.

    Slow-worms are protected by law, so their presence should stop development.

  14. #14 Liz Ritchie
    April 21, 2009

    I live in the centre of Bournemouth and have a whole nest of slow worms under our patio, we have lived there for 2 years and I love them! We have to be careful when cutting the grass as the babies are so small and would hate to injure them. I have also picked them up and never had a problem. Just this Sunday I was in the garden and a big male was slithering on the grass looking for food. I feel quite priveliged that they obviously love my garden as each year we see more and more!

  15. #15 Loosey
    May 26, 2009

    I have a number of slow worms in my garden, (definitely at least 3) which my cat keeps bringing in to the house as presents!

    Luckily my cat is quite gentle and none of them have been killed however, I would like to try to do something to help protect these creatures in the long run.

    Has anyone got any ideas how I can provide a safe environment for them? A nesting box for hybernation perhpas?

    Any ideas where I can find out more about them and how I can ‘care’ for them?

  16. #16 liz
    August 2, 2009

    I also have a lot of slow worms in my garden on the last count there were 20. The best thing I have found to protect the slow worms is a large compost bin with a lid. Every time I cut my grass and put the cuttings in the compost bin they seem to love it cos its warm and safe they get in underneath the bin through a little gap. I think they know they are safe as no other animal can get in.

  17. #17 Ken
    August 6, 2009

    I’m glad I didn’t know about those teeth before I picked up a slow worm this morning! I had to move him back to the long grass beside the path because otherwise the cat which had been toying with him, and I had scared off, would have come back for its toy.

  18. #18 Anne Marie
    May 5, 2010

    I have just lifted a paving slab in my garden and there was three of them “shiver” never seen these slow worm before, and now ive seen the teeth on the picture here, its scary!! I didnt pick them up before I saw the teeth and im not picking one up now LOL

  19. #19 becky collier
    May 21, 2010

    Hi i have just descovered today about 10 slow worms in my compost bin plus a bees nest which there is bees its not an abandoned one the slow worms do not bother me but the bees do as i have young children

  20. #20 Cyril Saunders
    May 25, 2010

    When is their breeding season?

    There were a couple ‘entwined’ in my compost bin two days ago, and assumed that they were doin more than ‘chatting about the weather’!

    Do they lay eggs or give birth to fully-formed young and where would that be?

    If it is in my compost bin, then I would not want to disturb them, so when would it be safe to empty the bin?

  21. #21 Darren Naish
    May 26, 2010

    Breeding season: they mate between April and June, and give birth to live babies in August or September (though sometimes as late as November). There are normally about 8 babies, though clutches range from 3 to almost 30, and – if there are females living in your compost bin – they’ll be giving birth in a hollow or cavity somewhere among your compost. If they’re living _in_ the bin, I don’t know what to suggest as goes emptying it, as they’re likely to be there all year round (of course, they’re normally hibernating between November and the start of February).

  22. #22 Cyril Saunders
    May 26, 2010

    Many thanks for that information.

    I guess that February/March would be the time to empty my bin as, if there are young that were born as late as November, they should be less vulnerable at three months old.

    Of course, I can always ‘transplant’ them to another compost bin!

  23. #23 jamieleigh
    April 19, 2011

    hi my children bought one home today, there are many to be seen where i now live in seaford east sussex, near my house is a little park with small woodland area called chelvington where we see them every day.

  24. #24 flora
    August 2, 2011

    While walking the dogs around a ploughed field yesterday came across a slow worm lying across one of the turned clods went back in the evening with my husband and saw no sign but the dogs picked up the remains of a snake skin. Have come across a snake basking in the sun in my garden which is close by – advice should I be concerned for the dogs.

  25. #25 helen
    August 15, 2011

    We were recently on holiday in Cornwall, Porth kidney sands, and were on our way back up the beach and i was doing a spot of beach combing when i spotted a very unusual piece of drift wood…..yep that drift wood was beautiful and alive!!!i called the family over to look at my find basking on the rocks i reassured my children(and husband) that slow worms dont bite that they are in fact a lizard. i’ve read about them but this is the first time i have ever seen one. we all agreed that it was really ‘cute’ but after seeing those chops me thinks they deserve a bit more respect…..well cool!!

  26. #26 Jim
    August 25, 2011

    I saw a mature adult male Slow Worm two days ago whilst out running, right in the middle of a quiet country lane – I picked him up and placed him in the long grass at the edge of the road to save him from being run over!
    I live in Rowhedge, near Colchester, Essex. Around here we see a few on the MOD range land (the only bit of land the greedy developers haven’t spoilt yet).

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