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The worm that’s actually a lizard

Tuesday 12th March

The worm that’s actually a lizard

Most people could identify a lizard or a snake, but what exactly is a slow worm, and why is now the perfect time to look out for these creatures?

Our Volunteer Feature Writer Jennie Rawling investigates...

Legless and lithe

To start with, the intriguingly-named slow worm is not actually a worm. It could be mistaken for a snake, with its scaly body and flat forked tongue, but it’s actually a legless lizard.

This elusive creature has a blunter tail than British snakes and small shiny scales, and its head is indistinct from the rest of its body. Look closely and you can see it also has eyelids, a characteristic of the lizard family. A neat trick it shares with other lizards is the ability to shed its tail when captured, which can prove a useful distraction for the predator and enable the slow worm to get away to safety.

The adult male and female are slightly different in colour. The female is normally brown with dark brown or black sides, and she often has a dark stripe running down her back. The male is usually a greyish brown and more uniform in colour, without the dark stripe. Some males, however, have very distinct blue spots on their back, so look out for these fellas. The male slow worm also has a larger head than the female.

Baby slow worms look quite different – they are golden brown or greyish silver in colour on the top, with a black belly and sides. A small dark blob on the head can eventually become a dark stripe all the way down the back – this is the stripe that the female slow worms usually keep but the males normally lose once they reach adulthood. Newborn slow worms are very thin and can be as small as 4cm long – a big contrast to the adults, which can reach nearly half a metre in length!

At this time of year you won’t see any newborns, as the breeding season normally begins in May, with the mothers giving birth in late August to early September. The babies are born in an egg membrane, but this breaks not long after birth.

March marvels

So why is now a great time to be on the lookout for slow worms in our county?

Well, March is the time when the slow worm awakes from hibernation and remerges into our green spaces and back gardens. That said, it won’t be the easiest of tasks finding this creature, as it prefers making burrows underground rather than living out in the open. It has also been known to hide under logs, and a compost heap is a great place for a slow worm, where it can stay hidden and feast on slugs and snails.  

If you are lucky enough to spot a slow worm, please try not to interfere with it or its home. The slow worm is a harmless creature, but it is a wild animal. It is also protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which means it is illegal to harm it in any way.

Get spotting

The slow worm is well worth looking out for, so head out to your nearest nature reserve, and you might get lucky!

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