In the Spotlight- the Slow Worm

Originally published 7th June 2015.

As a budding Zoologist, there are always animals that make my ‘Top to Spot’ list, which consists of animals that intrigue me in some way. Often they are very common animals that are just tricky to spot. The slow worm, Anguis fragilis, made this list of mine many years ago and it was not until last year that I finally managed to get my first (and second) sightings. As a frequent garden visitor, abundant in much of the UK, there was no reason for me not to find this secretive animal sooner, yet even with countless refugia, it eluded me. However, it was more than worth the wait and with slow worm season well under way again for this year, I’m looking forward to many more sightings. With slow worms, once is never enough! Knowing as much as possible about the ecology of the animal you are trying to spot makes it much easier to find, so hopefully this short piece will help you to understand the slow worm a little more and allow you to spot it this season.

The slow worm is widespread throughout Britain, being more common in Wales and South-west England, and is naturally absent from Ireland, though some animals have been introduced there over time. It enjoys a variety of habitats, with heathland, meadows, woodland edges and farmland being favoured. The slow worm moves around in thick vegetation so areas with large quantities of tussocky grasses can make very good habitat. In an urban environment, the slow worm is commonly found in gardens, where it favours compost heaps, log piles and other areas where there is little human disturbance. Slow worms feed on a variety of slow moving invertebrates so areas within these habitats that are insect rich are usually favoured, along with areas that have access to sunlight.

Slow worms are legless lizards and have long, smooth bodies and have no legs. Male slow worms range from grey to dark brown in colour, with a pale underside. Some males, usually mature males, will have blue speckled spots on their sides. Females are golden brown in colour, with dark stripes down each side and a dark stripe down the center of their back. Both sexes can grow up to 18 inches. Like many lizards, the slow worm can shed its tail to avoid predation. Because of its appearance, the slow worm can often be mistaken for a snake, especially to the untrained eye. You can tell a slow worm apart from a snake by looking at its eyes. Snakes do not have eyelids but lizards do and if you watch closely, you will see a slow worm blinking. Another difference between the two is the overall body shape. A slow worm has a uniform cylindrical body unlike a snake, which has a narrowing behind the head.

Hibernation for these animals lasts from late October until the start of March and mating takes place shortly after the end of hibernation. Juvenile slow worms are brown in colour, with golden stripes down each side and a black underside. Some individuals also have a golden stripe running down their back. Juveniles are much thinner than adults and are initially 4-6cm in length.

Overall, the best places to find slow worms are areas with thick vegetation, access to sunlight and a good supply of insects. Slow worms are easy prey for many mammals and birds, especially domestic and feral cats, so avoid looking in areas with a large cat population. If all else fails, refugia can be a great aid in reptile searches, corrugated metal or black matting being favoured materials. Happy searching!

References:

Slow worm videos, photos and facts – Anguis fragilis | ARKive. 2015. Slow worm videos, photos and facts – Anguis fragilis | ARKive. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.arkive.org/slow-worm/anguis-fragilis/. [Accessed 07 June 2015].

Slow worm | Wild About Gardens . 2015. Slow worm | Wild About Gardens . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.wildaboutgardens.org.uk/wildlife/reptiles/slow-worm.aspx. [Accessed 07 June 2015].

| The Wildlife Trusts. 2015. | The Wildlife Trusts. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/species/slow-worm. [Accessed 07 June 2015].

Slow-worm | BTO – British Trust for Ornithology. 2015. Slow-worm | BTO – British Trust for Ornithology. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-reptiles-amphibians/a-z-reptiles-amphibians/slow-worm. [Accessed 07 June 2015].

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Rachel Davies

Rachel Davies

Currently studying for an MRes in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Chester. Research focuses on the White-faced Darter, an endangered dragonfly species here in Britain. Rachel also has a blog titled 'working with wildlife'.
Rachel Davies

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