Anguis fragilis. The slow worm
I was going to post these pictures last week, but they were superceded by the rather more glamorous smooth snakes! We went for another walk at Bramshot Heath and found a couple of slow worms, which we caught (very gently) and handled for a while before putting them back exactly where we’d found them. If they’d seemed distressed at any point then we would have released them immediately, but they were perfectly calm and seemed content to be held – maybe because our hands were warm and it was a chilly morning. It was a pleasure to sit and hold them and get to examine them really closely; they are such beautiful creatures.
Slow worms are often mistaken for snakes, but when you get a good look at one’s face then it’s very obvious that it isn’t a snake. Slow worms are, of course, lizards, and you can see that she has a very lizardy face and eyes in comparison to the smooth snake. Lizards have external ear openings too, whereas snakes have retained some of their inner ear structure but have no external ears. The slow worm’s body shape is different too; not much definition between the head and the neck, and a more noticeable difference between their body and the narrower tail. The slow worm retains the lizard’s most spectacular trick; it will shed its tail if it feels threatened (known as caudal autotomy). In the picture below you can see that this female has done so at some point – her tail is blunt and rounded at the end. I love the patterning underneath her tail, very different to the definite ventral scales of a snake.
Their scales are very closely spaced with barely a line between them, giving a very smooth and glossy effect with a metallic sheen. Females and males are differently marked (known as sexual dimorphism), with the females usually displaying stripes down the centre of the back and along the sides. You can see her stripe and some scale detail below. The two individuals we met were differently marked, but both female I think. One of them bore scars on her back, which is apparently quite common in both sexes – the males from fighting and the females from mating.
The other thing that I was really interested to see was the slow worm’s tongue. It is much thicker than a snake’s, and notched rather than forked.
The one my daughter was holding reminded me of Barney the Dinosaur. 🙂