Once a week, on "Taxonomy Tuesday," I'll write a short post about some taxonomic weirdness that people might not think about. On this maiden voyage of "Taxonomy Tuesday," we'll talk about snakes...which are lizards.
Now, when most people think about reptiles, they think about turtles, crocodilians, lizards, and snakes as if all four groups are wholly separate from each other (nobody ever thinks about amphisbaenians). The tree diagram in their heads looks something like this, as if snakes and lizards split from a common ancestor:
|Behold the magic of Microsoft Paint.|
|I just realized I left off tuataras...which are not lizards.|
Indeed they do not, but that can't be their distinguishing feature, because lizards lose their legs every chance they get. Among the more well-known examples of non-snake legless lizards are slow worms and glass lizards. They can be distinguished from snakes most readily by having eyelids, an external ear (snakes lack both of these) and a non-forked tongue. Apart from those two groups, however, there are many more lizards from diverse families that have also lost their limbs:
|Lialis, a pygopodid gecko. IT'S A GECKO.|
- Pygopodids lack forelimbs entirely but have vestigal flaps for hindlimbs. Astoundingly, these lizards are geckos.
- Dibamids are limbless and include species that are blind or nearly blind and deaf. They are specialized burrowers and may be the most basal living squamate group. They look like worms.
- Anniellids, or the American legless lizards, are found exclusively in California.
- Gymnophthalmids (GYM-noff-THAL-mids), or speckled lizards, is a large family that contains some species that have all four limbs and others with reduced limbs. Different taxa have different limb/less proportions.
- Skinks, which make up a very large radiation of rather shiny-bodied lizards, include many groups that have independently lost their limbs, some of which only have tiny vestigal flaps remaining and others that have lost their limbs entirely.
|The legless skink Acontias|
- Amphisbaenians are extremely specialized burrowing lizards that, like dibamids, look more like worms than reptiles. Bipes may be the most publicly-known genus thanks to the Internet. Amphisbaenians were, for a long time, considered a unique clade of squamates until molecular evidence moved them into the Lacertoids (along with gymnophthalmids). Lacertoids are what you probably imagine when you think of a generic lizard that isn't a gecko, iguana, or chameleon.
|An amphisbaenian (Amphisbaena, in fact)|
|Jurassic snake Diablophis by Julius Csotonyi|
Within varanoids, there's still some debate about exactly who snakes are closest to. The most recent phylogenies that I've seen (and I haven't seen a ton) indicate that snakes are a sister group of mosasaurs. Interestingly, Cope proposed this relationship back in 1869: snakes and mosasaurs were united in a monophyletic Pythonomorpha but that concept fell out of favor until being revived in the last few years.
Snakes have a fused, transparent eyelid (a bit like geckos), a forked tongue (shared by other anguimorphs), and very reduced skull bones, some of which can dislocate and others that can slide against each-other. Thanks to this, snakes are able to fit through heads around prey items much wider than they are. Compared to other legless lizards, many features of a snake's internal organs are unique compared to non-snake lizards. For example, snakes don't have any lymph nodes. Many snakes are venomous, but venom is more widely distributed in anguimorphs and may actually be more widely distributed in lizards generally, so being venomous, by itself, isn't a feature unique to snakes.
|Titanoboa, a 40-foot long Columbian snake from the Paleocene, by Jason Bourque|
Thanks to Gabriel Ugueto for corrections!