What's the difference between a snake and a legless lizard?

This legless lizard (an Ophisaurus apodus) is a different beast from its slithery look-alike, the snake. See more reptile pictures.
Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Getty Images

In early 2008, in just one month of scouring the savanna of central Brazil, scientists discovered 14 new species. One of those new species was a type of legless lizard no one knew existed. A legless lizard? Wouldn't that be called a snake?

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Nope -- they're two entirely different animals from separate evolutionary lines. Legless lizards evolved from the legged lizards with which most of us are familiar; legless snakes evolved from four-legged snakes that most of us have never seen.


But the two do look an awful lot alike. Both have long, slender, cylindrical bodies; forked tongues; scaly exteriors and can often be found slithering through sand. And then, of course, there's the leglessness. It's tough for the casual observer to tell them apart. It's not impossible, though.


In this article, we'll find out what makes a legless lizard a lizard instead of a snake, why it's often called a "glass lizard," and how you might be able to distinguish this lizard from a snake the next time you find yourself looking at a long, slithery, legless reptile. It's not unlikely that you'd come into contact with one since they live all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica, and can thrive in all sorts of climates -- cool, hot, wet and dry. They're pretty widespread throughout the United States, especially in the Southeast and parts of the Midwest, Texas and California.


So let's say you're out hiking and you come across a snake-looking creature, anywhere from 10 inches (25 cm) to 4 feet (122 cm) long. It has the typical reptile coloring, tan or brown, green, bronze or yellowish, and maybe it sports a dark stripe along its back. Is it a snake or a legless lizard?