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Worm Lizards

everything you ever needed to know about Namibian Worm Lizards

Worm lizards belong to the suborder Amphisbaenia. These unusual reptiles used to be classed as lizards but recent studies now place them in a separate suborder within the Squamata. Fossils date back 65 million years ago. There are a number of interesting features that are peculiar to worm lizards. For example all worm lizards found in Namibia are limbless. Other characteristics include; a lack of external ears; backward-facing nostrils that prevent sand from entering the nasal areas; an enlarged medial tooth; a reduced right lung; and a unique middle ear.

Eyes lie deep below the skin and eyelids are fused; there bodies are cylindrical; the scales are smooth and square and arranged in special rings, which give them a worm-like appearance, hence the name. The skull is short and robust and frontal bones protect the braincase. Species with rounded snouts can dig into and inhabit loose soils without fear of self-injury.

Perhaps the most amazing physical feature is that the skin is separated from the underlying body (attached only by 3 muscles sets per vertebra) allowing the head and body to move within the skin. This enables worm lizards to perform a ramming motion that can generate the actions necessary for burrowing.

So it is no surprise to learn from these fascination facts that worm lizards are specialized burrowing reptiles. Tunnels can be dug through soils so hard that the World War II commander of allied prisoner-of-war forces in Colditz would have been proud of.

Most worm lizards feed on invertebrates, especially ants and termites. Medium-sized worm lizards capable of catching larger prey do so by scent and vibration. Victims are gripped between the large teeth and are dragged into the burrow, being torn to bits in the process. Females lay eggs and give birth to live young. Colouration is usually fleshy and the tail is short and rounded and is often waved in the air to mimic the head to confuse predators. The name Amphisbaenia means 'two-headed'.

All worm lizards in Namibia are Tropical Worm Lizards and belong to the Family Amphisbaenidae. These are the largest family of worm lizards and both round-headed and spade-snouted forms exist in the country.

These worm lizards have some purple in their colour and round heads. Other distinguishing features are a distinct nasal and ocular scales.

As you might expect, the name of this species is derived from a broad, horizontal, spade-shaped snout, covered with 1 or 2 large, horny shields. Their body is cylindrical and the tail is short. This species are burrowers in hard soil in a variety of habitats except perhaps for forest. Road construction and ploughing expose spade-snouted worm lizards to the outside world. Other dangers which force them to the surface include carnivorous ants and flooding.

Long-tailed species are known to shed their tails. Reproduction habits are largely not known although 1 species does give birth to babies. Spade-snouted worm lizards feed almost exclusively on termites. Predators include snakes such as quill-snouted snakes and when they are forced to the surface of the ground, then birds of prey and small carnivores are lying in wait for some extra sustenance. There are 4 species of spade-snouted worm lizards in Namibia.

Blunt-tailed worm lizards are similar in appearance to spade-snouted worm lizards but generally larger in size due to a broader horizontal, spade-shaped snout that usually has a single large, horny shield. The body and tail are still slender. They behaviour and habits differ only in that they tend to eat beetles and their larvae, rather than termites. Female worm species lay eggs, but very little other reproductive information is known. Some species can shed their tail as a defence mechanism.

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