The Florida Worm Lizard
By Carol Leffler Polk County Master Gardener
“Diggin’ up bones...”
These words almost describe the experience I had a week ago in my own front yard. I was digging a brand new planting area in a very dry section of the front lawn, when “lo and behold” I came upon a most mysterious creature. In fact, it was soooo mysterious—and I could only see the tail end of the critter—that I instantly decided not to lay a hand on it, not being able to see the head, whatever it may resemble!
Even after I had carefully unearthed it, I still had absolutely no idea what it could be. That is the wonder of life in Florida. New experiences, even after eight years, still occur. I put it in a container in my trusty Flexible Flyer wagon, and was off to the Internet to search for information.
Central Florida has many plants as well as animals that are endemic to the area, if one chooses to explore the possibilities. One of the most interesting and tenuous habitats in this area is the scrub habitat along what is known geologically as the Lake Wales Ridge. In fact, it is highly probable that many flora and fauna exist there which still are neither “discovered” nor “classified.” Many, which are known, are quite rarely encountered, and my find fell within a common but rarely seen species.
The Florida worm lizard (Rhineura floridana) was first described in the mid- nineteenth century. Like our native coontie, it is yet another
example of prehistoric life existing to modern times. Fossil evidence suggests that the closest relative of the worm lizard lived in the American Great Plains over 60 million years ago. Quite amazing. The search for
information revealed that the creature is
neither worm nor lizard!
I can say that it is, without any doubt, the strangest animal that I have ever found. Skin and scale plates cover the vestigial eyes, and the animal has no legs, yet is not a snake. The body is segmented, yet it is not a worm. It has no ears. This subterranean dweller, in fact, only emerges above ground when heavy rains force it from its burrows, which are formed by forcing its bony-scaled head through the soil in search of food or escape.
Most specimens are reported to be less than six inches in length, so my specimen was a mature adult. Cylindrical diameter measured 5/16”-3/8.” Females commonly lay three eggs at the end of summer.
The Florida Worm Lizard is the only member of the suborder Amphisbaenia (Order Squamata, Class Reptilia). The fabled creature Amphisbaena, in Greek mythology, was called Mother of Ants, and described an ant-eating serpent with a head at each end. This is an excellent description of the endemic Florida worm lizard. At first inspection, one would think that the tail is perhaps the head! The motion of the tail is very active, and perhaps a defense mechanism that allows the head to excavate an exit tunnel if a predator detects the animal.
Now, this whole experience has been interesting because the Florida worm lizard is described as a scrub habitat animal. This gives one an idea of just how dry my front lawn area is, even during periods of regular irrigation—I might say, that the turf is decidedly unhappy in this area of the lawn. This is a good indication that this portion of my landscape could benefit from an update to Florida Friendly LandscapingTM.
Sooooo...What’s this got to do with Master Gardening?? Well, it is just another consideration of any gardening
experience. Knowing what is at stake when you put shovel to earth can be a dicey experience, because beauty is more than about the greenery that is going into the planting hole. It is also about recognizing and appreciating what’s already there!
Further Reading: This site contains actual scans of the head structure; specimen collected from Lakeland, FL and viewed with High- Resolution X-ray CT (U.Texas) in 2005. http://www.digimorph.org/specimens/Rhineu ra_floridana/