The grim May weather has been offset slightly (for the bio-geeks at least) by the finding of an exciting creature about the grounds of Juniper Hall- a slow worm. Though it looks like a snake, it’s actually a lizard, though from a family of lizards that have lost their legs somewhere in the mists of evolutionary time. Though slow worms do bear some pretty striking superficial similarities to snakes, this is strictly due to convergent evolution and not any close family relationship.
If you’re not sure whether what you’re looking at is a slow worm or a snake, take a look at the eyes: snakes don’t have eyelids, whereas slow worms do, as all lizards do.
There’s only one species found in the UK, and its scientific name in Anguis fragilis, which probably refers to the animal’s habit of removing its own tail to escape from predators, hence ‘fragilis.’ This ability is called autotony. Usually, the new tail that regrows contains cartilage rather than bone and is somewhat discoloured and shorter than the original.
Slow worms are not native to Ireland (which is why I find them really exciting), though there are some introduced populations around the Burren in county Clare. In the UK they’re fairly common, though like all native reptile species they’re protected by law.
They spend at least part of their lives underground in burrows and are often found in gardens, hiding underneath stones, paving slabs or in compost-heaps.