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Bachia lizards – look, no hands!

Legend tells the story of Oedipus, who faced the sphinx guarding the gates to the city of Thebes. To enter, the monster presented him with a riddle:
“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
Oedipus was able to solve the sphinx riddle, granting him entrance to the city. He later became the king of Thebes and married his own mother – but that’s another story.
The answer to the sphinx riddle can be quite intuitive if you stop to think about it, but what if I told you there are animals that fit that description quite easily? It is with my own eyes that I have seen arachnids staring their life with eight legs, losing some of them during growth, and then growing them back like nothing happened in the amazing process of regeneration. Some hemimetabolous insects and even amphibians can do it just as well. And what if I told you there is an animal that is born with legs, and by the end of its life it loses all of them but one? Introducing Bachia, a genus of strange long-bodied lizards.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), a limbless microteiid lizard from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), a limbless microteiid lizard from the Ecuadorian Amazon

The adult Bachia lizards resemble snakes, having an elongated body and reduced limbs. They have small eyes and no external ear openings. These are adaptations for a subterranean lifestyle, as these lizards spend most of their time moving through the leaf litter and in the soil looking for their favorite food – soft-bodied insects. They usually hunt termites and ant brood in underground nests. Occasionally they make their way into decomposing wood, where they will not hesitate to snag a juicy beetle larva if the opportunity presents itself. I encountered my first Bachia while it was hunting termites moving on a trail.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Termite soldiers surrounding the intruding Bachia lizard to defend their colony workers on the trail

Termite soldiers surrounding the intruding Bachia lizard to defend their colony workers on the trail

Closeup on a Bachia's head, showing small eyes and no external ear opening - adaptations for a subterranean lifstyle.

Closeup on a Bachia’s head, showing small eyes and no external ear opening – adaptations for a subterranean lifstyle.

Bachia are not to be confused with other snake-like lizards such as limbless skinks, slowworms, glass lizards, or amphisbaenids, all members of other groups. Bachia lizards belong to family Gymnophthalmidae, also known as microteiids or spectacled lizards. Their closest relatives are the skittish whiptail lizards. The name “spectacled” refers to their transparent eyelids, allowing these lizards to see even when their eyes are closed. Most members of the family are normal looking lizards, like this common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis).

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

As the name suggests, microteiid lizards are generally small. How small? Very small.

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) on finger for scale

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) on finger for scale

Ok, I’m cheating here a little, after all this is a juvenile specimen. But generally speaking, a microteiid lizard can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand, and you will still have room for two or three more lizards.

Portrait of Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale)

Portrait of Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale)

The genus Bachia contains about 30 species, many of which are endemic. The species I have encountered the most is Bachia trisanale, it is one of the more common species with a wide distribution in South America, occurring in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), full body view

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), full body view

One of the most interesting aspects of Bachia lizards is their limbs. All species have a long body with very small limbs. Members of the genus can be easily divided into groups by their limb structure and the level of reduction in the hindlimbs. In many species the hindlimbs are extremely reduced to tiny hooks or absent altogether. Few species, like the Bachia trisanale appearing in this post, lack hindlimbs and show digit reduction in the forelimbs as well. Interestingly, limbs can also be lost throughout the lizard’s lifetime. Although a leg can be lost following an injury, it can also happen due to tissue erosion caused by the lifestyle of digging and burrowing through coarse soil containing clay particles. The hind legs (if present) usually go first, shrinking to tiny knobs or disappearing completely. The stronger forelimbs are eventually eroded as well, first the tiny digits, and then the remainder of the leg. Judging by several specimens that I have encountered, the forelimb loss is even a directional change – usually it is the right forelimb that disappears first, followed by the one on the left side. It is common to find old Bachia lizards with only one limb! Usually by that time the remaining leg has lost its digits entirely, and looks like a small stub.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), closeup on its head and stubby foreleg

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), closeup on its head and stubby foreleg

Surprisingly this has no negative effect on the lizard’s locomotion. One might even argue that losing the limbs makes it more terradynamic, allowing it to “swim” freely in the substrate with no drag.

Bachia trisanale with only one foreleg

Bachia trisanale with only one foreleg

So when you are feeling down, remember that there are small lizards that look like a noodle, diving face first into the dirt after pesky termites and ants. And they do it with no hands!

Meet Your Neighbours

I recently joined as a contributor to Meet Your Neighbours – a global photography project that sets out to connect communities with their local flora and fauna, and promotes nature conservation. The idea is to record all possible biodiversity against a clean white background using a simple field studio. By stripping the subjects off their natural surroundings they become the center of attention, provoking more interest. Another benefit from photographing against a white background using a standard protocol is that all subjects from different parts of the globe get the same level of appreciation, regardless of their location or taxonomic group. This can reveal interesting patterns: when comparing subjects from different origins it is difficult to say which is more exotic. In other cases, subjects that are physically very distant from each other share many similarities in appearance.

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

 

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

 

I discovered Meet Your Neighbours in 2010 and was immediately hooked. I liked this style of photography, which reminded me of old natural history books featuring illustrations of plants and arthropods. At that time I was already trying to achieve similar results in my photography, only I was using white paper as background so the effect was a bit different. For this reason I was delighted and honored when Clay Bolt, one of MYN founders, contacted me in 2013 with the offer to join the project. For me this meant one main goal – presenting species from Israel, even though I am based in Canada and travel quite extensively to other countries.

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

 

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

 

Israel is located at the bridge of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. Due to its geological history and a variety of ecological conditions, Israel is characterized by a climate gradient from north to south, and to some extent from west to east. This creates many habitat types throughout the country, which are home to an impressive diversity of animals and plants. Most species in Israel are typical to the Mediterranean region, but desert species can be found in south of the country, whereas species from colder origins like Europe and Asia are found in northern Israel. For the latter Israel is the southernmost point in their distribution. Some species of tropical origin can also be found in the oases along the Great Rift Valley.

I decided to start my contribution to MYN from the very base, the creatures I know well from the places I explored as a kid.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

 

I grew up in a city in the Central Coastal Plain of Israel. I had the fortune of spending my childhood with a lot of nature around me. Wildflower fields, Citrus orchards, temporary ponds and sand dunes were at walking distance from my house. Every weekend I would go out in the morning and get lost somewhere in the wilderness, looking for interesting animals. And there was much to be discovered: tame snakes, skinks, beautiful insects like beetles and mantises, frogs and spiders. I used to rear butterflies in my room because I was fascinated with the transformation from a caterpillar to the adult butterfly. I am still fascinated by this metamorphosis even today, although I focus on other insect groups.

This spring, I took a short research trip to Israel, and used this opportunity to document some of my favorite animals. I hope that through these photographs people can learn more about the diversity of the country and maybe in time will even consider visiting!

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top - male; bottom - female

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top – male; bottom – female

 

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

 

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

 

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

 

An unexpected encounter

Earlier this summer I spent a couple of weeks in Israel. I like these home visits – regardless of the joy of seeing my family and friends and catching up, there is something rewarding about coming to Israel as a tourist. Sure, it will always be my home country, but since things around are constantly changing, I feel that in many aspects Israel is a home far from being a home. And I love it. It is all mine to re-explore every single time!

In one of my free evenings I planned a herping trip to the dunes in the Western Negev region. I was hoping to find one of the country’s most elusive venomous snakes: the horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). But what I found was way better.

I arrived to the site two hours before sunset. It was disturbingly quiet, as if the desert was teasing you to reveal all the treasures hidden within it. I did what I always do before a night survey – I went for a walk. There were many footprints decorating the sand, a sign for busy activity of lizards, ants and darkling beetles. The few green plants around were crawling with insects, juvenile locusts to be more exact (this is a topic of a future post). At the top of one of the sand dunes I found a baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). This reptile is considered critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, so you can imagine how happy I was to find evidence for successful breeding of this species!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

 

When I reached down to check an Artemisia monosperma, I noticed movements in the sand at the base of the bush. With a small spade I managed to “fish” out the reptile, it was a cute Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). This elongated skink almost never shows up on the sand surface. It has very short legs, and prefers to “swim” inside the sand in snake-like movements, like a terrestrial eel.

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

 

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

 

The sun started disappearing behind one of the dunes. I armed myself with LED flashlights and tweezers and set out looking for trouble.
And trouble found me alright. At the loess grounds leading to the dunes I stumbled upon a painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). This is a venomous snake I do not like to meet up close, because of its typical aggressive behavior. It was hiding in a deserted rodent burrow, and did not pose a serious threat though. A few hundred meters away I found a second snake of the same species, juvenile. I always feel like I am safer with smaller snakes even if they are venomous, but this is just an illusion. The juvenile snakes are as unpredictable and dangerous as the adults ones, and I would not want to find myself in a situation where I am getting bitten. Fortunately for me, this snake was just not in activity yet, so it was slow and sluggish. I could carefully examine it from a close distance.

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

 

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

 

Short-fingered geckos (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus and Stenodactylus petrii) were out and about in search for small prey insects. Their color blends so well with the sand that I had to be carful not to step on them while walking. These are some of my favorite geckos, with their wide heads and big colorful eyes they look like animated plush toys.

Lichtenstein's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

Lichtenstein’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

 

Anderson's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their "hands" looks like human hands!

Anderson’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their “hands” looks like human hands!

 

It was getting late and even though I saw many interesting reptiles and arthropods, I failed to find the snake I was looking for. I decided to walk even further, to another area with tall dunes. It was not there, too. I reached down to photograph a fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) when I suddenly heard the alarming sound of heavy breathing behind me.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) - one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) – one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

 

I quickly snapped a single photo and stood up. The breathing sound became louder. This is not the best scenario one would like to find himself in – alone, in the dark, in the middle of the desert and far from any human settlement. That breathing sounded so heavy, that I blindly assumed I was being watched by a large mammal. My guess was that there is a striped hyena standing behind me. Another one of those animals I do not want to meet up close and personal.

I turned around, but there was nothing there. Suddenly I heard the breathing again, from a few meters away. I aimed my flashlight, and saw this guy:

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

 

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus) is a lizard one really does not see very often in Israel. I consider myself extremely lucky, because I have seen it on several occasions (thanks to my military service which I spent in one of the country’s best locations for observing Varanus) but it is unbelievably impressive every single time. This individual was about a meter in length including its tail, and I presume it is not even an adult. The monitors feed on invertebrates and small vertebrates such as rodents and ground-dwelling birds. They spend most of their life in a large underground burrow, only coming out to feed and reproduce. In fact, the reason this individual was so upset (hence the defensive breathing/hissing) was that I was standing right above its burrow entrance. Once I moved away following the lizard, it took advantage of the situation and quickly rushed inside.

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

 

The desert monitor was my prize for the night. I had already forgotten what else I was looking for. On my way back to the car, while feeling exhausted and ready to call it a night, I suddenly saw it. Hiding between two small Artemisia bushes, trying to blend in.
The horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes).

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

It was a small male, but it was beautiful nevertheless. Tiny azure scales decorated his back, and two devilish horns extended above his cat-like eyes. It flattened its body and started rubbing its scales together, producing a loud Velcro sound. G-o-r-g-e-o-u-s snake. This is Israel’s most beautiful snake in my opinion, and can easily make a fine candidate for one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. I will definitely come back to find it again sometime in the future.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

 

** I bet you are asking yourself – why does someone who present himself as an Entomologist spend so much time posting stories just about anything but insects?? Well, the truth is I have plenty of stories to tell about insects too, but I do not limit myself to six-legged creatures only. I like to appreciate all nature wonders, especially the small and cryptic organisms we tend to ignore/miss. I hope you would do the same.

In two days I will be joining BugShot, a macrophotography workshop in Belize led by some of the world’s finest macrophotographers. I hope to return not only with more photographs and stories but also with better skills, both as an Entomologist and a photographer.