Shy lizard enjoys life in the slow lane

IT’S not a worm, it’s not a snake – and to be fair, it’s not particularly slow, either.

So what exactly IS the amiable slow worm, the glossy wriggler cheerfully slipping across a path at Littleworth Common and quickly disappearing into the undergrowth?

It’s actually a legless lizard, it turns out, this shy, elusive burrowing reptile (Anguis fragilis) also known as a deaf adder or blindworm (because of its small eyes), which spends much of its time hiding underneath things.

It has smooth skin, is marked out as a lizard by its ability to shed its tail and blink with its eyelids, and hibernates from October to March.

Found in heathland, gardens, allotments and on woodland edges where they can find pests to eat and a sunny spot where they can bask in the sun, slow worms are much smaller than snakes and come in a range of polished silvers, golds and browns depending on age and gender.

Amazingly, they can live up to 30 years and feast on slugs, snails and insects, though in turn they are preyed on by various birds, as well as badgers, hedgehogs and, in suburban areas, domestic cats.

All six of the UK’s native reptile species – the others are the common European adder (Vipera berus), grass snake (Natrix natrix), smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) and sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) – slow worms are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

They have a number of ways of escaping predators. Sometimes they freeze, while at other times they will flee. moving pretty quickly when they want to, in spite of their name. But if they can’t get away easily, defecation could be the answer: their poo smells nasty enough to deter some predators.

The mating season kicks off in May and is quite a serious business, it seems. Males become aggressive towards each other and, during courtship, the male takes hold of the female by biting her head or neck, and they intertwine their bodies.

Courtship may last for as long as 10 hours, with females incubating the eggs internally and “giving birth” to live young in late summer.

For more information, see the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Natural History Museum and the Guardian.

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