Common lizard. Image credit John Howlett

Sunshine and Scales: British Reptiles

Alex Howard, PhD Student, writes:

Alex and Alfie (pet royal python). Credit Alex Howard
Alex with Alfie
(pet royal python).
Credit Alex Howard

While our trademark rainy and cold weather are not always the most conducive to ‘herping’ (going outside to look for reptiles), the UK is in fact home to six different species of reptile.

If you’re going on walks early in the morning, you may spot some of our native scaly friends. You’ll be lucky to see them, as all of our reptiles are quite secretive, but as the weather gets warmer you may spot them basking in the sun in commons, parks, and gardens.

Friends to spot in Cambridgeshire

Common Lizard or ‘Viviparous’ Lizard, Zootoca vivipara

The common lizard is a small brown lizard, reaching about 15cm. You’ll see them on commons, heaths, and dry-stone walls. The name ‘viviparous’ refers to their ability to give live birth, female common lizards will incubate their eggs internally, and give birth to fully developed baby lizards only 4cm long.

Common lizard. Image credit John Howlett
Common lizard.
Image credit John Howlett

When threatened, these lizards can do a neat trick called ‘caudal autotomy’. This is the ability to drop their tail, which usually wiggles after being dropped to distract any nearby predator and allow the lizard to escape. The lizard will then be able to regrow the tail later.

Slow-worm, Anguis fragilis

The slow worm, although it has no legs, is not a snake and is in fact a legless lizard! You can tell legless lizards from snakes due to their ability to blink. Legless lizards have eyelids like you and me, whereas snakes instead have clear scale that covers the eye, kind of like built in goggles.

Slow worm. Credit Alex Howard

A slow worm I found under some corrugated iron sheeting. The dark line down the back indicates that this is a female.

Image credit Alex Howard

Slow worms can reach around 40cm, and you’ll find them in heathland and woodland edges. Some people may be lucky to find them hunting around their compost heap, where they’ll be looking for small invertebrates to munch on.

Slow worms are protected by law in the UK, so please practice responsible wildlife observation by looking only.

Grass Snake, Natrix helvetica

Grass snake. Image credit Alex, Teresa and family
Grass snake.
Image credit Alex, Teresa and family

The grass snake is the UK’s longest snake, but it is a harmless beauty. Reaching up to 150cm and living up to 25 years, grass snakes can often be found basking near water or in dry grasslands. They eat a wide variety of vertebrate prey, including amphibians, fish, small mammals and birds. As they hibernate from October to April, you may see them out and about now that the weather is getting warmer, but don’t worry, they are more scared of you than you are of them.

Our species of grass snake used to be considered a subspecies of the European grass snake, Natrix natrix, but research published in 2017 has led to the UK grass snake being elevated to full species status, the barred grass snake, Natrix helvetica.

Adder, Vipera berus

The adder is the UK’s only venomous snake, but their incredibly shy nature means you will be lucky to see one.

Adder. © Bernard Dupont / CC BY-SA

The adder can reach up to 80cm, and can be found in woodland, heathland and moorland. They eat lizards and small mammals as adults, but as small babies they eat worms and spiders.

Adders can be easily identified from their distinctive zig-zag pattern on their back, which is usually brown in females and black in males. Occasionally you may spot an all black individual, known as melanistic, which are usually female.

Adder shed

The closest I’ve come to seeing an Adder! A piece of shed skin, you can see the trademark adder zigzag.

Like all snakes, adders will shed their skin every few months and come out all shiny and nice.

Image credit Alex Howard

Bites from this snake are very rare usually only occurring when the snake is picked up or accidentally stepped on, and while painful they are almost never fatal.

If you live in Surrey, Dorset or Hampshire

Some of our reptiles are restricted to the more milder climes of the South of England, so if you live in Surrey, Dorset, or Hampshire, you may spot one of these cuties.

Sand Lizard, Lacerta agilis

The sand lizard can be differentiated from the common lizard by two strong stripes down the back. Males often have extremely bright green sides during the breeding season from late April to May.

Sand lizard, male.
© Christoph Caina / CC BY-SA
Sand lizard, female.
© George Chernilevsky / Public domain

As their name suggests, this lizard lays their eggs in sand dunes and heathlands, where it is dependent on conditions staying stable while their eggs incubate.

The sand lizard is a rare lizard that due to vast habitat loss is now only found on protected heathland sites. A successful reintroduction program by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust has begun to re-establish populations in their historic range, so we may see more of them in the future.

Smooth Snake, Coronella austriaca

Smooth snake. © Christian Fischer / CC BY-SA

The smooth snake also has a very restricted range, only naturally occurring on some heathlands in the South of England. They are more slender than the UK’s other snakes, and generally have a grey or brown colour. They feed on lizards and small mammals, capturing prey by coiling their body around them. They are the most secretive of the UK’s reptiles, so you are incredibly lucky if you manage to see one.

Smooth snakes are protected by law, so please admire from a distance.

Explore more from the Vertebrate Palaeontology Group here.

If you want to know more about our reptiles, Alex recommends these pages:

Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK

The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust

The Wildlife Trust on reptiles

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