By Peter Vankevich
Have you ever come across a slithering creature in the grass, in the road or under some brush or planks on Ocracoke that does not match photos of the 37 known snakes of North Carolina?
If it has a smooth, shiny body, the chances are that it is not actually a snake but a lizard without legs. On Ocracoke that would be an eastern glass lizard.
Recent island visitors, the Scott family of Asheville, noticed one such creature in the Widgeon Woods neighborhood near the light house.
“We’d never seen one before,” said Jesse, age 8, who with his mother Miriam used an app on a cell phone to identify it. “Knowing that it wasn’t venomous, we moved it over to the side of the road so it wouldn’t get run over,” he said.
And that’s what anyone should do should you see one in the road.
Glass lizards, also known as legless lizards, got their popular name because as a defense mechanism, their tails easily break, sometimes into several pieces like glass, when grabbed by a predator.
When broken off, the tail will wiggle, gaining attention of the predator, while the lizard remains motionless, moving on only after the danger is gone. Predators can be hawks, foxes, raccoons, snakes, opossums and cats.
Of the 12 lizard species in North Carolina, three are glass lizards that belong to the scientific genus Ophisaurus. In Greek, ophio means snake and sauros means lizard.
There are about 15 glass lizard species scattered across the world and can be found in the United States, Europe, Asia and North Africa.
On Ocracoke one can see only the eastern glass lizard. The other two, the slender glass lizard and the mimic glass lizard, can be found in various locations and habitats on the mainland.
Eastern glass lizards are resistant to salty environments, which is why they are common in maritime forest and beach dune habitats. Some of the best populations seem to be on barrier islands, according to Jeff Beane, collections manager for herpetology at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences.
Beane describes them as generalist feeders, eating whatever they can catch and overpower. Large insects (such as grasshoppers and crickets), spiders, and earthworms make up much of their diet. They will also eat small vertebrates such as smaller lizards and newborn mice.
Adults can be heavily speckled, with variable pale coloring of light brown, yellow or green; the young are khaki-colored and normally have a dark longitudinal stripe on each side of their backs.
Mating takes place in spring, and they lay eggs in June and July that hatch in August and September.
Unlike many other lizards and snakes, female glass lizards usually remain with their eggs, which are laid in sheltered depressions such as under logs.
Although the length of an adult is listed as 18 up to 42 inches, on Ocracoke they are usually less than that due to a missing or regenerating tail as shown in the Scott’s photo. Although hard to differentiate from the body, the tail can be up to two-thirds of the lizard’s total length.
It takes nine months or more for the tail to grow back and is usually shorter when completed. Adults with perfect tails are rare, Beane said.
A North Carolina glass lizard found in Yates Pond area of Wake County made national news in 1946, when Frank Meacham, a zoologist with the State Museum in Raleigh, proclaimed it the longest at 42 inches ever recorded. It was a slender glass lizard according to Beane.
Unless performing a rescue mission, people should refrain from handling them because if the tail breaks off they will lose their natural defense against predators.
So, how can you tell if you are looking at a glass lizard or a snake?
Two visible differences are that the lizard has moveable eyelids and external ear openings. If it blinks, it is not a snake.
The following lizard species, which includes nonnative invasive species (*), can be found in North Carolina:
Slender Glass Lizard
Mimic Glass Lizard
Southeastern Five-lined Skink
Eastern Fence Lizard
Texas Horned Lizard*
Aside from the green anole and eastern glass lizard, Jeff Beane, collections manager for Herpetology at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, would welcome any photo documentation of any lizards seen on Ocracoke. Send them to: email@example.com.