Ocracoke's nature, flora & fauna

Glass lizards: shy island denizens

A glass lizard may look like a snake, but it is not. This one has lost part of its tail, though it eventually will grow back. Photo by P. Vankevich

A glass lizard may look like a snake, but it is not. This one has lost part of its tail, though it eventually will grow back. Photo by P. Vankevich

By D. Creeksong

Repeat visitors to the island are amazed upon discovery of this simple fact: until you truly park your vehicle, and walk or bike everywhere you possibly can you have never really been to Ocracoke. The magic, the healing nature of this exquisite island, comes from meeting ALL the inhabitants, especially those invisible to us until we slow ourselves down to a natural pace.

At first glance, you’ll think it’s a very shiny, very intelligent-looking snake–and the glass lizard has fooled many a person that way.

But this harmless, legless lizard–on closer view–reveals characteristics that identify its more “lizardly” nature: moveable eyelids, distinct head shape, visible ear slit, and a lateral fold along its mid-section. Not as obvious is the attached jawbone (unlike snakes whose detachable jawbones can encompass and swallow prey larger than their heads.)

On Ocracoke Island, you might find a glass lizard sunbathing on the road, or perhaps sleeping or foraging underneath fallen bark or tree limbs. You may even be lucky enough to find one on the beach, resting beneath debris lines left by high tide.

Although little is known about their reproductive behavior, one amazing feature regarding egg-laying females has been witnessed.

Unlike most female lizards that lay their eggs, bury them, and move along, glass lizards actually coil protectively around their clutch of eggs (typically 4 to 17 in number) and go without food for the number of weeks it takes until they hatch.

Oddly, they show no interest in their young once emerged.

In the lizard family, only the five-lined skink displays similar tendencies regarding a nest.

The bellies of glass lizards range from beige through ivory to pumpkin-yellow with few if any markings, but their upper body and tail may be checkered, dashed, and/or horizontally striped with black on a background of light brown, which often becomes more green as they age.

Glass lizards have been known to live up to 15 years in captivity, but because of their extremely shy nature, a shorter lifespan in the wild can only be assumed. And, although their mature length is 18 to 43 inches, 2/3rds of this is actually their tail.

A glass lizard.

A glass lizard. Photo: C. Leinbach

Like many lizards, they will drop part of their tail when pursued by a predator, leaving it thrashing about behind them in hopes that the enticing tail will be eaten while the actual lizard either freezes or makes its escape.

In fact, the name “glass lizard” comes not from their almost mirror-like sheen, but rather from this lizard’s propensity to drop its entire tail which then “breaks like glass”

into a number of wriggling pieces instead of just one.

No other lizard does this, and this is where human tenderness enters: unless you are experienced with handling reptiles, please observe only.

Re-growing a tail can take months to years, requiring much caloric effort from its host. Some sources claim the glass lizard is holding a stable population, but Virginia has declared them to be on a significant declining trend,” and North Carolina prohibits the keeping of glass lizards as pets, commercially or in homes.

It is also true that while glass lizards can be quite friendly, they do not thrive well in captivity.

But with any luck, one might just say “hello” to you from their home here on Ocracoke Island. Loss of habitat is the single largest cause of death for most wildlife, including glass lizards.

For information about retaining habitat, and to learn about certification by the National Wildlife Federation in their Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, google: NWF Backyard Habitat.

Danielle Creeksong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Creeksong has been fascinated with the natural environment her entire life and recently moved to Ocracoke.