Last updated 23 June 2006: updated Introduction and B. cinereus and added B. strauchi.

Amphisbaenians of Europe

Amphisbaenians are sometimes still called "worm lizards", although they are neither worms nor lizards. Nevertheless this old name for them had some truth in it, since these animals are closely related to lizards and snakes and often have the appearance of large, stocky earthworms, sometimes with tiny pin-point eyes. This appearance is deceptive, however, for unlike the invertebrate earthworms, the amphisbaenians have skeletons, jaws and organs similar to other vertebrate creatures. Their way of life is usually fossorial, ie they spent most of their time underground. To help them burrow through the soil the skull is very solid and rather modified, while eyes are small or non-existent dependent on the species. Because of their elongated form, the right lung is considerably reduced in size (this occurs in snakes, but with the left lung). The largest amphisbaenian is about 3'/1m in length, but most are rather smaller than this. The average amphisbaenian lives on small invertebrates and lays eggs, although some are live-bearers. In the tropics some spend much of their time dwelling in termite mounds. The vast majority are found in Africa and South America.

There are only two species of amphisbaenian found in Europe, one at each end of the continent, so to speak. Both are members of the genus Blanus, with two more members of the genus found in North Africa. Even to most herpetologists these remain interesting and mysterious creatures. Much still remains to be discovered about their lives.

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
Blanus cinereus Grey Amphisbaena, Iberian Worm Lizard Southern two thirds of Iberia 12"/ 28-30cm The Grey Amphisbaena is a rare and secretive creature that lives in pine woods and cultivated land but usually beneath the soil. It is sometimes seen in the open after heavy rain. It has eyes, but these are covered by skin and probably capable of detecting only light and shadow, so it relies more on its sense of smell, taste and touch. The moderately pointed head has a large scale on the front that aids in burrowing, and there is a skin fold where the head meets the body. Movement is either as an earthworm (thanks to the crossed grooves on its body) or in a snake-like manner. If it feels threatened, this reptile coils up and tucks its head under its body and waves its relatively short tail at the perceived danger. In Iberia it may be found in cultivated land or pine forest at altitudes up to 1,800m. Prey in the wild is mainly arthropods, especially ants and termites, but these creatures are surprisingly predacious and in captivity should not be housed with any other species. The former subspecies B. c. mettali is now considered a species in its own right. Scalation details: trunk scales are arranged in fairly orderly rings around the body: 110-125 on the body and 20-22 on the tail, with 30-40 scales per ring. Coloration: usually overall light pink, but some specimens have darker brownish-red tones. Reproduction: female usually lays a single elongated egg.
Blanus strauchi Anatolian Worm Lizard Greece (Aegean Islands inc. Rhodes and Kos), Cyprus, W Turkey, N Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, poss. Israel 8-12"/ 20-30cm Fairly similar to the above species and unlikely to be confused with it in the field, since the two live a great distance from one another. However B. strauchi lacks the skin fold found in B. cinereus where the head meets the body, its head is somewhat wedge-shaped and its snout overhangs the lower jaw. Scalation details: the scales are arranged in fairly orderly rings around the body: 100-112 on the body and 18-20 on the tail. Coloration: mauve-white, light grey or pink. Dorsally pinkish-brown (adults), pink or mauve (juveniles). Reproduction: no details available.
B. s. strauchi
B. s. aporus
B. s. bedriagae


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