By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California scientists have discovered four species of legless lizards hidden in unlikely habitats among central valley oil derricks, sand dunes at the end of a Los Angeles airport runway and other arid and desolate spaces.
The findings, announced in a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University this week, brings the number of known snake-like lizard species living in California up from one to five.
"The main thing this is showing is that right here in California ... there is actual natural animal diversity that we don't know about yet," said Theodore Papenfuss, a reptile and amphibian expert with the University of California at Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.
Papenfuss and geologist James Parham from the California State University Fullerton led the research, spending 15 years searching the state for the slithering creatures, their quest fueled by a hunch that at least one relative of California's legless lizard species, the Anniella pulchra, existed nearby.
One of the research team's discoveries was in the protected El Segundo Dunes that butt up against the end of a Los Angeles International Airport runway. The yellow-bellied creature was named A. stebbinsi, after herpetologist Robert C. Stebbins, who studied natural life in a local mountain range.
The three other newly identified species were found in the San Joaquin Valley, over 200 miles to the north, where they likely lived for millions of years, Papenfuss and Parham's research showed.
The silver-bellied A. alexanderae was found in the oilfields near the city of Taft, the A. campi, with a yellow underside, was found in three canyons at the outskirts of the Mojave Desert, and the purple-stomached A. grinnelli, was discovered in a handful of vacant lots in downtown Bakersfield, a city of 352,000.
The animals, named after notable UC Berkeley scientists, were distinguished from other similar identified species using color patterns, number and arrangement of scales and vertebrae, and genetic testing.
All had been collected before and preserved in museums and laboratories, but their distinctive markings and genetic makeup was never examined, and they were thought to have all belonged to the same group as Anniella pulchra, Papenfuss said.
The research team is in discussions the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine if the newfound lizards require special protections, Papenfuss said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)