A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

San Diegan Legless Lizard - Anniella stebbinsi

Papenfuss and Parham, 2013

(formerly Anniella pulchra) (aka Southern California Legless Lizard)
Click on a picture for a larger view
Legless Lizards California Range Map
Orange: Range of this species in California
Anniella stebbinsi - San Diegan Legless Lizard

Range of other species of Anniella in California:

Green: Anniella alexanderae - Temblor Legless Lizard

Pink: Anniella campi - Big Spring Legless Lizard

Dark Blue: Anniella grinnelli - Bakersfield Legless Lizard

Red: Anniella pulchra - Northern Legless Lizard

Yellow/Black: Anniella pulchra nigra - Black Legless Lizard

Gray: Area where Anniella are present but the species
has not yet been determined.

Click on the map for a topographical view

Map with California County Names

observation link

California Legless Lizard
Adult, Riverside County
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
  Adult, Riverside County  
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
Adult, Riverside County Adult, Riverside County
© Michael Clarkson
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
Adult, Los Angeles County © Adam G. Clause
Animal captured and handled under state Scientific Collecting Permit and released at point of capture.
Adult, Los Angeles county
© 2004 Bon Terra Consulting
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
Adult, with detached tail,
Riverside County
The body end of the detached tail - Left
The detached tail - Right
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
  Adult, Kern County © Ryan Sikola  
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard
Adult with bronze coloring, Kern County © Chad Lane North American Legless Lizards, genus Anniella, have smooth cycloid scales.
Great Basin Collared Lizard Great Basin Collared Lizard  
This very colorful adult from San Diego County is reflecting its environment to show blue irridescence on its smooth and shiny skin. © Andrew Borcher  
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
Juveniles, like this one, can be darker than adults. It was found crawling on a trail in the late afternoon in San Diego County.
© Timothy E. Robinson
California Legless Lizard Habitat California Legless Lizard Habitat California Legless Lizard Habitat
Habitat, Riverside County desert Desert riparian habitat,
San Bernardino County
Habitat, sandy wash in oak woodlands, Los Angeles County
California Legless Lizard Habitat California Legless Lizard Habitat  
Habitat, Kern County © Chad Lane Habitat, coastal Riverside County
© Michael Clarkson
Predation on Legless Lizards
ring-necked snake eating legless lizard ring-necked snake eating legless lizard ring-necked snake eating legless lizard
Ring-necked Snakes use a mild venom to subdue their prey which include snakes and lizards. This snake from San Diego County regurgitated a legless lizard that it had recently eaten. © Donald Schultz
Short Videos of Anniella Species
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard
A San Diegan California Legless Lizard crawls then quickly burrows into loose soil in Riverside County. A San Diegan California Legless Lizard writhes around rapidly on a board in Riverside County. Accustomed to living on soft sand it can burrow into, it has difficulty moving on the hard surface. Black Legless lizards burrow into Monterey County sand dunes.
California Legless Lizard California Legless Lizard  
A Bakersfield Legless Lizard crawls and burrows into loose soil in Bakersfield. The detached tail of a San Diegan Legless Lizard wriggles rapidly, looking like a living creature, until it gradually slows down. This illustrates how a lizard can drop its tail to distract a predator then crawl away to safety while the predator chases the tail.
(This tail was not removed intentionally, it was unexpectedly dropped by the lizard when it was stressed from being handled.)

Size range not Known. The following size information is based on descriptions of Anniella pulchra before it was split into five species.

4 - 3/8 to 7 inches long from snout to vent (11.1 - 17.8 cm). (Stebbins, 2003)

A small slender lizard with no legs, eyelids, a shovel-shaped snout, smooth shiny scales, and a blunt tail.
Sometimes confused for a snake, but snakes have no eyelids. On close observation the presence of eyelids is apparent when this lizard blinks.

Color and Pattern  - from  Papenfuss and Parham (2013)
Dorsum is light olive-brown.
The sides are strong yellow.
Ventral color is moderate yellow.

A black mid-dorsal stripe less than one scale wide is present from the parietals to the tip of the tail.
Black stripes one scale wide are present on the sides from the eye to the tip of the tail.

Comparison With Other Species of Anniella

Distinguished by its yellow ventral coloration from  A. grinnelli, which has a purple (grayish-red) ventral coloration and from  A. alexanderae, which has a light gray ventral coloration.

Distinguished from  A. campi, which also has a yellow ventral coloration by a single dark lateral stripe on each side rather than a double lateral stripe.  "Some specimens of A. stebbinsi have a double lateral stripe, but it is never continuous or exceeds 50% of the combined body and tail length, whereas in  A. campi it is continuous and extends to the tip of the tail."

Papenfuss and Parham (2013)

See Comparison Chart

Life History and Behavior
The following information is based on descriptions of Anniella pulchra before it was split into five species, unless otherwise indicated.

Does not bask in direct sunlight.
Tolerance of low temperatures allows activity in cool conditions. 
Lives mostly underground, burrowing in loose sandy soil.
Forages in loose soil, sand, and leaf litter during the day.
Sometimes found on the surface at dusk and at night.
Apparently active mostly during the morning and evening when they forage beneath the surface of loose soil or leaf litter which has been warmed by the sun.

The tail can become detached and writhe on the ground for several minutes to distract a potential predator while the lizard escapes.
More information about tail loss and regeneration.
Known predators include ringneck snakes, common kingsnakes, deer mice, long-tailed weasels, domestic cats, California thrashers, American robins, and loggerhead shrikes.

I have also received a personal communication that a scrub jay was observed pulling a 10 inch legless lizard out of the ground in a yard in Thousand Oaks, Ventura County. The tail was detached, distracting the bird, while the observer picked up the lizard. The bird flew away with the tail, presumably to eat it.
Diet and Feeding
Eats primarily larval insects, beetles, termites, and spiders.
Conceals itself beneath leaf litter or substrate then ambushes its prey.
Bears live young.
Probably breeds between early spring and July, with 1 - 4 young (usually 2) born between September and November.

"Anniella stebbinsi is found in a broader range of habitats that any of the other species in the genus. Often locally abundant, specimens are found in coastal sand dunes and a variety of interior habitats, including sandy washes and alluvial fans (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2012). Much of the coastal dune habitat has been destroyed by coastal development between Ventura County and the Mexican Border. Fortunately, a large protected population persists in the remnant of the once extensive El Segundo Dunes at Los Angeles International Airport.

The disjunct northern populations occur in sandy soils in the Piute and Tehachapi mountains at elevations of 400–900 m in both Oak Woodland and Mixed Conifer Forest. In the lower drainage of Caliente Creek at Caliente Post Office, individuals have been collected beneath cardboard cover placed under Scalebroom bushes (Lepidospartum squamatum). There is continuous sandy habitat along Caliente Creek between Caliente Post Office and Sand Ridge Preserve, the type locality for A. grinnelli. Additional fieldwork is needed to document the location of an almost certain contact between these two species. Contact between A. stebbinsi and A. pulchra is likely along the coast of California between the cities of Santa Barbara and Oxnard and along the southeastern slope of the Tehachapi Mountains, where  A. pulchra is common in Joshua/ Juniper woodland."

Papenfuss and Parham (2013)

Occurs in moist warm loose soil with plant cover. Moisture is essential. Occurs in sparsely vegetated areas of beach dunes, chaparral, pine-oak woodlands, desert scrub, sandy washes, and stream terraces with sycamores, cottonwoods, or oaks. Leaf litter under trees and bushes in sunny areas and dunes stabilized with bush lupine and mock heather often indicate suitable habitat. Often can be found under surface objects such as rocks, boards, driftwood, and logs. Can also be found by gently raking leaf litter under bushes and trees. Sometimes found in suburban gardens in Southern California.

Geographical Range
"Found throughout Southern California south of the Transverse Ranges into northern Baja California, Mexico.... Populations in the Tehachapi and Piute mountains of Kern County are disjunct from the main distribution of this species to the south. Therefore, the distribution of A. stebbinsi is presumably bisected by southern populations of A. pulchra ranging from the Santa Barbara region into the Antelope Valley of the western Mojave Desert."

Papenfuss and Parham (2013)

Full Species Range Map
Notes on Taxonomy
The 2017 SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 43 Standard Names List changed the common name of this species to
San Diegan Legless Lizard

In 2008 Parham and Pappenfuss (2008) using mt and nuDNA found five previously unrecognized genetic lineages of Anniella pulchra that are evolving independently.

In September of 2013 by Papenfuss and Parham3 divided the existing one species of legless lizard into five species based on the five lineages from their 2008 study2, naming four new species and giving a new common name to the species now known as Anniella pulchra. The five species are:

Anniella alexanderae - Temblor Legless Lizard

Anniella campi - Southern Sierra Legless Lizard

Anniella grinnelli - Bakersfield Legless Lizard

Anniella pulchra - Northern California Legless lizard

Anniella stebbinsi - Southern California Legless Lizard

Range Map of 5 Species:

Anniella Range Map


Anniella pulchra is traditionally split into two subspecies - Anniella pulchra pulchra - Silvery Legless Lizard, and Anniella pulchra nigra - Black Legless lizard, but these subspecies are no longer recognized by the SSAR (whose taxonomy is followed here) because of a 2000 study that showed that A. p. nigra and the Morro Bay populations have been found to have different evolutionary ancestors than A. p. pulchra, but not enough to warrant recognition as a distinct taxon. The 2008 study by Parham and Pappenfuss does not provide any information regarding these subspecies, but it does separate A. p. nigra into its own group, and the authors, in personal communications with an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game (related to me October 2010) have said that there is information that supports the recognition of A. p. nigra as a separate subspecies or even as a unique species, and their belief is that Pearse and Pogson did not mean to completely sink the subspecies, they meant to show that it had diverged significantly from the Morro Bay population, which should not be considered A. p. nigra.

From the SSAR Official Names List 6th Edition, 2008:

"Pearse and Pogson (2000, Evolution 54: 1041–1046) presented evidence that the melanistic form previously designated Anniella pulchra nigra is polyphyletic, its Monterey Bay and Morro Bay populations having been derived independently from the silvery form previously designated A. p. pulchra. Although Pearse and Pogson did not propose any taxonomic changes, their results indicate that the subspecies A. p. pulchra and A. p. nigra do not correspond with separated or partially separated lineages, and therefore we do not recognize subspecies within A. pulchra. The existence and extent of genetic continuity between populations of melanistic and silvery legless lizards, as well as between northern and southern mtDNA haplotype clades, deserves further study."

Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Anniella pulchra pulchra -
Silvery Legless Lizard (Stebbins 2003)
Anniella pulchra pulchra - California Legless Lizard - (Stebbins 1954, 1985)
Anniella pulchra pulchra - Silvery Footless Lizard - (Smith 1946)
Shovel-snouted Legless Lizard
Anniella pulchra pulchra - Silvery Footless Lizard (Anniella texana. Blue Worm-snake, part; Blind Worm; Worm Snake, part; Worm Lizard) (Grinnell and Camp 1917)

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
See Conservation Status note below.

All Anniella were protected from take with a sport fishing license in 2013.

Much of this lizard's habitat has been lost due to agriculture, housing development, sandmining, and other human land development, recreation, especially off-road vehicles in coastal dune areas, and by the introduction of exotic plants such as ice plant.

"The former A. pulchra, a species of special concern (Jennings and Hayes, 1994), is now divided into five species. This means A. pulchra has a smaller distribution than previously recognized, thereby enhancing concern about its conservation status. The remaining four species have even smaller ranges, some of which are degraded or threatened by human activities. Whereas much of the range of A. stebbinsi is already compromised by urban development, the conservation implications for the other three new species are even more striking because of their very limited distributions. Anniella grinnelli is known from a few sites in the southern San Joaquin Valley, an area that has been greatly modified by urban and agricultural development …. Anniella grinnelli persists in small patches within the Bakersfield city limits, but some of the populations we collected were extirpated by development during the course of this study. The type locality at the Sand Ridge Preserve is a secure site that will help ensure the species survival. Anniella alexanderae is known from two sites at the base of the Temblor Mountains, and should be considered rare pending further study. Finally, Anniella campi is known from just three sites. This species may be restricted to the vicinity of potentially fragile springs in canyons that open into the Mojave Desert and so warrants careful monitoring. Additional research into the distribution, contact zones, and diversity of Anniella is clearly needed."

Papenfuss and Parham (2013)
Family Anniellidae North American Legless Lizards Boulenger 1885
Anniella North American Legless Lizards Gray, 1852

stebbinsi San Diegan Legless LIzard Papenfuss and Parham, 2013
Original Description
Theodore J. Papenfuss and James F. Parham   Breviora, Number 536:1-17. 2013.

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Anniella - Latin: annela ringed and Latin: -ella little - refers to little rings in pattern. Or possibly an honorific for someone named "Annie" or a coined name. See Farancia.

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

stebbinsi -

"This species is named after Robert Cyril Stebbins (1915– [2013]) who was appointed the first Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in 1945. Robert Stebbins’ contribution to western North American herpetology includes many scientific publications, but especially his classic, comprehensive, beautifully self-illustrated, and influential field guides (Stebbins 1951, 1954, 1960, 1966, 1972, 1985, 2003; Stebbins and McGinnis, 2012)."

Papenfuss and Parham (2013)

Related or Similar California Lizards
Anniella alexanderae - Temblor Legless Lizard
Anniella campi - Big Spring Legless Lizard
Anniella grinnellii - Bakersfield Legless Lizard
Anniella pulchra - Northern Legless Lizard

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Flaxington, William C. Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Field Observations, Distribution, and Natural History. Fieldnotes Press, Anaheim, California, 2021.

Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Jones, Lawrence, Rob Lovich, editors. Lizards of the American Southwest: A Photographic Field Guide. Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2009.

Smith, Hobart M. Handbook of Lizards, Lizards of the United States and of Canada. Cornell University Press, 1946.

2 Parham, James F., Theodore J. Papenfuss. High genetic diversity among fossorial lizard populations (Anniella pulchra) in a rapidly developing landscape (Central California) Conserv Genet DOI 10.1007/s10592-008-9544-y
Received: 12 September 2007 / Accepted: 15 February 2008. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Four New Species of California Legless Lizards (Anniella)
Author(s): Theodore J. Papenfuss and James F. Parham
Source: Breviora, Number 536:1-17. 2013.
Published By: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

Joseph Grinnell and Charles Lewis Camp. A Distributional List of the Amphibians and Reptiles of California. University of California Publications in Zoology Vol. 17, No. 10, pp. 127-208. July 11, 1917.

Conservation Status

The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the January 2024 State of California Special Animals List and the January 2024 Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California list (unless indicated otherwise below.) Both lists are produced by multiple agencies every year, and sometimes more than once per year, so the conservation status listing information found below might not be from the most recent lists. To make sure you are seeing the most recent listings, go to this California Department of Fish and Wildlife web page where you can search for and download both lists:

A detailed explanation of the meaning of the status listing symbols can be found at the beginning of the two lists. For quick reference, I have included them on my Special Status Information page.

If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can also go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.

California Special Animals List Notes:

"Legless lizards (Anniella spp.) in California were traditionally considered one species, but are now considered five species (Pappenfuss and Parham, 2013). The prior (Jennings and Hayes, 1994) and current (Thompson et al. 2016) Species of Special Concern (SSC) projects evaluated the traditional single species taxon and determined all legless lizards in California to be an SSC. Therefore, the SSC status is carried over to the new taxon concepts until further SSC evaluation."

Organization Status Listing  Notes
NatureServe Global Ranking G3 Vulnerable
NatureServe State Ranking S3 Vulnerable
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife DFG:SSC California Species of Special Concern
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service USFS:S Sensitive

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