Added September 2003. Last updated 11 April 2010: added details for O. incomptus and O. wegneri, and updated details for O. buettikoferi and O. harti and Bibliography.

Ophisaurus: Glass Lizards



The Ophisaurus, or Glass Lizards, are found in both the Old World (North Africa and Asia) and the New (North America). The common name derives from the ease with which they shed their tails should they feel threatened. Some keepers have kept North American species, but much is still unknown about the Asian species, some of which are in any case fairly rare. All are smaller than the Scheltopusik, Pseudopus apodus, which was formerly considered part of this genus.

The tail is usually the largest part of the body in this genus, varying from three-fifths to two-thirds of the total length. Most species have fracture planes, but some (including O. compressus) do not, and although this does not prevent autotomy, it makes it harder and more stressful, and regeneration is less complete. As might be expected from lizards that shed their tails so easily, most if not all are secretive, being terrestrial and capable of burrowing. They feed mainly on worms, slugs and insects, but in captivity will also accept canned cat and dog food and strips of lean meat. Bartlett also notes that they drink frequently.

Ophisaurs are seen infrequently in the trade, perhaps because there is a perceived lack of interest in "native herps", although Asian specimens are also sometimes available. There is definitely a niche here for dedicated amateurs to tell us more about keeping and breeding these lizards.

O. attenuatus, Slender Glass Lizard O. buettikoferi, Buetikoffer's Glass Lizard O. ceroni, Ceron's Glass Lizard
O. compressus, Island Glass Lizard O. formosensis, Formosan Glass Lizard O. gracilis, Burman Glass Lizard
O. hainanensis, Hainan Glass Lizard O. harti, Hart's/Chinese Glass Lizard O. incomptus, Plain-Necked Glass Lizard
O. koellikeri, Koelliker's Glass Lizard O. mimicus, Mimic Glass Lizard O. sokolovi, South Vietnam Glass Lizard
O. ventralis, Eastern Glass Lizard O. wegneri, Wegner's Glass Lizard  

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
O. attenuatus Slender Glass Lizard USA (SE Virginia to S Florida, W to C Texas, north up Mississippi Valley to SE Nebraska and NW Indiana: SW Wisconsin) 40"(22-42") Favours grassland and open woods as habitat. Of the North American species, apparently tries hardest to escape if restrained and readily autotomises. Also unlike most, does not readily burrow. Scalation: 98 or more scales along lateral groove. Coloration: narrow dark longitudinal stripes below lateral groove and beneath tail: these are black in young but fade with age. Young also have middorsal stripe or series of dashes. Old adults may be brown with irregular light but dark-edged crossbands on back and tail. Females are sometimes strongly patterned in certain areas. Males are flecked with white when nearing sexual maturity: this pattern intensifies with age, so that old males may have a "salt-and-pepper" appearance [Conant & Collins].
O. a. attenuatus Western Slender Glass Lizard W of Mississippi, Illinois and adj. states in North   Length of original tail less than 2.4 times snout-vent length.
O. a. longicaudus Eastern Slender Glass Lizard SE Virginia south to S Florida, west to Mississippi and north to Kentucky 46½" max  May overlap in range with O. mimicus. Length of original tail 2.4 times or more snout-vent length.
O. buettikoferi Buetikoffer's/ Bornean Glass Lizard Malaysia, Indonesia (Borneo)    Mertens (1958) considered this a rare species. Scalation details: unpaired prefrontal not in contact with frontal; interparietal twice as wide as parietal; small scales absent between 1st and 2nd supraoculars Coloration: body pattern of black and blue elements. [SOURCE: Mertens (1958)]
O. ceroni Ceron's Glass Lizard  SE Mexico (Veracruz)   Known from only two specimens in the 1960s: current status poorly known.
O. compressus Island Glass Lizard USA (SE S Carolina, SE Georgia, Florida) 22" ?.
O. formosensis Formosan Glass Lizard  Taiwan 14-16"  Coloration: overall brown,often with yellowish flanks: poorly defined dorsolateral stripe on each side.
O. gracilis Burman Glass Lizard N India, S China, N Myanmar, N Indochina 16"  This species is common at lower elevations in the hills of E India, and "not uncommon" in Shillong. It is found benath logs and stones and feeds on insects and earthworms. Scalation details (based on Campden-Main): 9 supralabials, of which 1st and 2nd border nostril; 9 infralabials; 6 supraciliaries; 5 supraoculars; frontonasal separated from nostril by 3 scales; 85 transverse rows on lateral fold. Other: 7 premaxillary teeth, 17 maxillary teeth, palatine teeth present, vomerine teeth absent; pterygoid with 3 transverse rows of teeth. Coloration: dorsally light or dark brown; darker lateral band with transverse series of blue black-edged spots. Hatchlings are pinkish-buff with a metallic sheen, black lateral band and fine black line running from lower lip to the vent. Campden-Main's female had a chocolate dorsolateral stripe running from shortly behind the ear to the tip of the tail, and a ventrolateral black stripe running from the angle of the jaw to the vent, becoming a ventrolateral series of small spots disappearing on the posterior third of the tail. The dorsum was tan for the anterior two-thirds of the body, then beige, and then brown on the posterior third of the tail. There were several small irregular spots on the anterior dorsum, and the area between the lateral stripes was cream, and the venter white. Reproduction: breeds in rainy season. Daniel records eggs collected in Shillong in September as hatching later in the month. A clutch contains 4-5 eggs. Hatchlings measure about 11½cm, of which about half is tail. Campden-Main's specimen contained 10 yolked follicles [SOURCE: Campden-Main, Daniel]
O. hainanensis Hainan Glass Lizard? China (Hainan Island)    
O. harti Hart's/Chinese Glass Lizard N Vietnam, S China, Taiwan 25" Coloration: dorsolaterally brown with dark dorsolateral stripe on each side and turquoise banding or spotting on the dorsum. Other: very small ear opening. Reproduction: lays 5-7 eggs. 
O. incomptus Plain-necked Glass Lizard  Mexico   Similar to other North American species but differing in coloration in that the whitish markings on the dorsal scales are found on the edges rather than centres, and there are no vertical white bars in the neck area [SOURCE: McConkey (1955)]. McConkey's type specimen was badly damaged in the head area, making it hard to assess scalation details.
O. koellikeri Koelliker's/North African Glass Lizard Morocco, Algeria   Found in areas with vegetation cover and some soil moisture: see KKS for examples. Tend to be most active in cooler parts of the day, dropping considerably during the hottest hours. At higher elevations hibernation takes place, but in other areas estivation may also occur during the hottest part of the year. Normally the animals are slow movers but can move very fast when necessary. They spend a considerable amount of time on lookout or roaming. Soft-bodied invertebrate prey is usually taken; KKS have an interesting flow chart of the species' feeding patterns. Satiated individuals ignore prey items. Coluber hippocrepis preys on this species. One interesting characteristic is that moulting appears very rare: KKS note that it was never observed in a captive adult kept longer than2 years. Scalation details: large prefrontal, as wide as frontal; interparietal larger than parietals or occipital; 5 supraoculars each side. Dorsal scalation: 14 longitudinal and 120 transverse rows, scales rhomboidish and forming straight rows; middorsals obtusely keeled, laterals smooth. Ventral scalation: 10 longitudinal rows. Other: vestigial hindlegs by cloaca are flipper-like, usually at least 2mm long; prominent lateral fold; upper and lower caudal scales are keeled; ear opening hidden. Coloration: overall brownish or olive-brown with a dorsal pattern of dark spots and iridescent speckles. There are two different patterns: (a) dark spots forming transverse bands on every 3rd scale row, with light blue speckles (b) irregularly arranged dark spots and interspersed greenish speckles. In both cases the pattern does not cover the posterior third of the body. Juveniles may have a different patterning, see KKS for details. Reproduction: very little data available. [SOURCE: KKS] 
O. mimicus Mimic Glass Lizard USA (Florida, coastal N Carolina to Georgia, S Mississippi) 22" (15-25¾") Diurnal inhabitant of pine woods and flatwoods: Conant and Collins note that it is difficult to find.  
O. sokolovi South Vietnam Glass Lizard  Vietnam   Only described in 1983.
O. ventralis Eastern Glass Lizard USA (SE Louisiana, S Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, S Carolina, E N Carolina, Florida),
Cayman Islands (introduced)
36-40"  Scalation details: head scales large to small and regular in position. Dorsal scalation: 118-124 transverse rows, 14-16 longitudinal rows. Ventral scalation: 10 longitudinal rows. Other: ear openings small. Coloration:
O. wegneri Wegner's Glass Lizard Indonesia (Sumatra)   Scalation details: paired prefrontals separated from one another; narrow interparietal, only a little wider than a parietal, with small paired accessory plate between the outer edge of the frontal and 1st and 2nd supraoculars; 3 scales in line between nostril and unpaired prefrontal. Other: ear opening large. [SOURCE: Mertens (1958)].


Animal Life, Vol 5, Reptiles, Grzimek.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, R Conant and J T Collins, Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, Boston/New York 1998.

The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians, J C Daniel, Bombay Natural History Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.

"Thoughts on a few Ophisaurs", R D Bartlett, Reptile & Amphibian Hobbyist 6:8. Useful introduction to the genus as a whole with some notes on sizes and natural history. Briefly mentions the Scheltopusik P. apodus. We acknowledge our debt to this article for many of the species listed here.

"The First Record of Ophisaurus gracilis (Gray) (Sauria: Anguidae) in South Vietnam", Simon M Campden-Main, Herpetologica, Vol 26 No 1, March 1970.

"A New Lizard of the Genus Ophisaurus from Mexico", Edwin H McConkey, Natural History Miscellanea, Chicago Academy of Sciences, No. 145, March 31 1955.

"Eine Panzerschleiche (Ophisaurus) aus Sumatra", Robert Mertens, Senckenbergiana biologica 40:1/2, Frankfurt am Main, 1 April 1959. Describes O. wegneri.

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