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Sep 20, 2013 11:38 AM EDT

'Legless Lizards' Found in Four New Species in Remote Lot Near LAX

California scientists have discovered four new species of legless lizards, not snakes, to be living in a vacant lot in close proximity to LAX, according to a news release.

They were discovered in a highly insignificant vacant lot towards the end of a Los Angeles International Airport runway by two researchers. University of California at Berkley herpetologist Theodore Papenfuss and James Parham, of California State University, Fullerton, identified the new species.

"This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California," said Papenfuss, an expert on reptiles and amphibians.

The two herpetologists decided to name the new discoveries after four legendary UC Berkley scientists: Joseph Grinnell, founder of the museum; Charles Camp, a paleontologist; Annie Alexander, a philanthropist and amateur scientists; and Robert C. Stebbins, a herpetologist. At 98, Stebbins is the only one who is still alive.

"These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown," said Parham, curator of paleontology at the John D. Cooper Archaeology and Paleontology Center. "If you want to preserve biodiversity, it is the really distinct species like these that you want to preserve."

Parham, who received his doctorate from UC Berkeley, and Papenfuss recorded their discovery in Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology's publication Breviora.

The two have been searching the state for nearly 15 years to find relatives of the only species of legless lizards previously known to exist in California, Anniella pulchra.

"These species definitely warrant attention, but we need to do a lot more surveys in California before we can know whether they need higher listing," Parham said.

The common legless lizard is listed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as being of special concern. Parham and Papenfuss will work with them to determine if the lizards need to be moved to a protected status.

"On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection," Papenfuss said. "On the other hand, there may be ways to protect their habitat without establishing legal status. They don't need a lot of habitat, so as long as we have some protected sites, they are probably OK."

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