Eastern glass lizards are snake mimics--long, slender, scaly, and legless. But while they look like snakes, and act like snakes, they just ain't snakes. Their scientific name reveals this truth, with the generic name combining the Greek words ophis, meaning serpent, and sauros, meaning lizard. The specific epithet, ventralis, is derived from the Latin venter, or belly, referring to their wriggling locomotion.
But in contrast to snakes--and revealing their lizard heritage--glass lizards possess eyelids, ear openings, and a lateral fold or groove. This fold allows for the expansion that must occur when eggs develop or meals are particularly hearty. Meals must be modest, however, since the halves of the lower jaw cannot spread sideways, as in snakes. Also, their bodies lack the crawling scutes of snakes, resulting in stiffer and less graceful movement.
Food for eastern glass lizards consists largely of insects and spiders; some reports include other lizards and small snakes in the menu. Well-fed individuals may reach a meter in length. Females coil around the eggs until they hatch, protecting them from attack. This unusual behavior may also provide incubation, the mothers warming their bodies in the sun and returning to the clutch with that heat.
Because they are so often mistaken for snakes, glass lizards are mixed up in ophidian mythology. In one legend, the snake shatters--like glass--into pieces when struck. Later, the pieces miraculously reunite, and the snake crawls away. The truth behind this legend is that "glass snakes," like many other lizards, will jettison their tails in case of emergency, as when pursued by a predator. The tail, which may make up two-thirds of the creature's body, will continue to writhe in front of the pursuer, breaking into smaller pieces, while its abbreviated owner glides away to safety. A new tail is then grown--not as perfect as the first, but still functional. This autotomic action is so commonly practiced that few glass lizards are ever found with their original appendages.
Due to their confusion with snakes, glass lizards remind us that certain fears may be based on outward appearance rather than scientific truth. So ophidiophobes take heed! Before you race, screaming, from that snake, make sure it really is one.