Tuesday 18 June
Burton’s legless lizard (Lialis burtonis)
- Burton’s legless lizard is one of an unusual group of reptiles known as the ‘flap-footed lizards’ because of the two scaly flaps which are all that remain of their greatly reduced limbs.
- An ambush predator, Burton’s legless lizard has a specially hinged skull which enables it to grip tightly onto prey and suffocate it before swallowing it whole, head-first.
- One of Australia’s most variable lizards, Burton’s legless lizard can be found in an astonishing array of colour forms.
- Burton’s legless lizard is Australia’s most widespread lizard, and can be found in a variety of dry habitats, particularly those containing surface rocks and timber to hide under.
Burton’s legless lizard fact file
- Find out more
- Print factsheet
Burton’s legless lizard description
One of Australia’s most common species (3), Burton’s legless lizard (Lialis burtoni) is a limbless (4), snake-like lizard (5) (6), and is one of the largest members of the Pygopodidae family (6) (7). Pygopodids are also known as ‘flap-footed lizards’ (6), and are so named because of the two tiny, scaly flaps which are all that remain of the hind limbs (2) (6) (8) (9). It is thought that these legless lizards evolved their long-bodied, near-limbless shape to move through dense, low vegetation (6).
A stout-bodied, large-eyed species (3), Burton’s legless lizard can be distinguished from snakes and other legless lizards by its long, distinctive, wedge-shaped snout (2) (3) (7) (8). Unlike in snakes, its tail is longer than its body (8), making up two-thirds of the reptile’s total length (9). Burton’s legless lizard has conspicuous ear openings (8), and the paired scales on its underside are noticeably wider than the adjacent body scales (2).
Arguably one of Australia’s most variable lizards (6), Burton’s legless lizard can be found in an astonishing array of colour forms (2) (6), with the body ranging from pale grey to brown, red or yellow. Individuals may be plain and uniformly coloured, or patterns such as black dashes or prominent stripes may be present (2) (3) (8). A dark lateral line can often be seen extending from the eye region along the front part of the body (8).
While colour and markings generally vary within populations of Burton’s legless lizard (8), in some regions it appears that environmental factors may influence patterning. Greater numbers of striped individuals are found in spinifex grasslands, while paler individuals with broad black and white facial stripes are often found in northern woodland areas (2). Female Burton’s legless lizards are known to be noticeably larger than the males (8).
- Also known as
- Burton's snake-lizard.
- Lialis bicatenata, Lialis burtoni, Lialis burtonii, Lialis leptorhyncha, Lialis punctulata. Top
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities - The Action Plan for Australian Reptiles (2012)
Moro, D. and MacAulay, I. (2010) A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Barrow Island.Chevron Australia, Perth. Available at:
Australian Wildlife Conservancy:
Australian Conservation Foundation:
- Active at dusk and/or dawn.
Species 2000 and ITIS Catalogue of Life (December, 2012)
- Wilson, S. (2005) A Field Guide to Reptiles of Queensland. New Holland Publishers, Australia.
- Michael, D. and Lindenmayer, D. (2010) Reptiles of the NSW Murray Catchment: A Guide to their Identification, Ecology and Conservation. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
The Reptile Database (December, 2012)
- Pianka, E.R. and Vitt, L.J. (2006) Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity. University of California Press, California.
- Wilson, S.K. (2012) Australian Lizards: A Natural History. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
- Watharow, S. (2011) Living with Snakes and Other Reptiles. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
- Swan, M. and Watharow, S. (2005) Snakes, Lizards and Frogs of the Victorian Mallee. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
- Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia Set. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
- Tzaros, C. (2005) Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
- Reilly, S.M., McBrayer, L.B. and Miles, D.B. (Eds.) (2007) Lizard Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- view the contents of, and Material on, the website;
- download and retain copies of the Material on their personal systems in digital form in low resolution for their own personal use;
- teachers, lecturers and students may incorporate the Material in their educational material (including, but not limited to, their lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and projects) in hard copy and digital format for use within a registered educational establishment, provided that the integrity of the Material is maintained and that copyright ownership and authorship is appropriately acknowledged by the End User.
Burton’s legless lizard biology
Burton’s legless lizard is mainly a crepuscular species (10), but is also known to sometimes be active at night in warm weather, and during the day in overcast conditions (2) (3) (10). This species’ vertical pupils give it good vision at night, as the pupils can open more rapidly than round ones, and have maximum expansion in low light conditions (6).
A terrestrial species, Burton’s legless lizard worms its way through dense grass tussocks and under small shrubs and fallen timber (9) (10), and is sometimes mistakenly called a ‘grass snake’ (9). This species holds its head and neck in a distinctive elevated posture when at rest or basking, maintaining an angle of about 45 degrees to the ground. If attacked by a predator, Burton’s legless lizard can be surprisingly vocal, producing loud squeaks, and its fragile tail may be easily shed as a defence mechanism (10).
Legless lizards are generally insectivorous, but Burton’s legless lizard is an unusual exception to this rule (7). This species is a lizard specialist (5) (6) (8), feeding exclusively on reptiles (2). While Burton’s legless lizard demonstrates a preference for skinks (9) (10) (11), a group which forms 95 percent of its diet (6), it also preys on other lizards (2) (7), including geckos, dragons and other legless lizard species (8) (10). There have even been reports of this unusual reptile preying upon certain snake species (6) (10).
Burton’s legless lizard is an ambush predator (2) (6) (10), lying in wait for its victim, concealed among thick, low vegetation (6). Prey is snatched via a sideways swipe of the legless lizard’s wedge-shaped snout, and is gripped tightly around the chest and suffocated (2) (10). Interestingly, Burton’s legless lizard has a special adaptation which enables it to do this. This species has a uniquely hinged skull, with an unusual hinge across the head, roughly at eye-level (2) (6), which provides greater mobility. This allows the upper and lower jaws to completely encircle the prey and meet at the tip (3) (5) (6).
The prey is firmly held in place by fine, backward-pointing teeth (3) (6), which are also hinged and lock into place when pressured from behind (6). Once the prey has been suffocated, it is then manipulated by flexing the skull to force the victim head-first down the lizard’s throat (6) (10), and is swallowed whole (5). These special adaptations enable Burton’s legless lizard to eat lizards that are particularly large relative to its own size (6).
Mating in Burton’s legless lizard occurs in the spring (10), with pregnant females being found from September to February (8). As in other flap-footed lizard species, Burton’s legless lizard is thought to lay a clutch of two, flexible-shelled eggs (6) (10), which are deposited under a rock or a log (10). Communal nests have been documented in this species, with a record of 20 eggs per nest (6) (8), and it is thought that Burton’s legless lizard may lay more than one clutch per breeding season (8).Top
Burton’s legless lizard range
Australia’s most widespread lizard (6), Burton’s legless lizard is found in all six of the country’s mainland states (1) (2) (4), as well as in southern New Guinea (2) (6) and parts of Indonesia, including southern Irian Jaya and the Aru Islands (1) (4).Top
Burton’s legless lizard habitat
Like other pygopodid species, Burton’s legless lizard prefers relatively dry habitats, often with a ground cover of spinifex, heath, thick tussock grass or leaf litter, and with an open canopy (6). Such habitats include shrublands with rocky outcrops, dry open forest and woodland (10), heathland and grassland (8).
Areas with surface rocks and fallen timber to hide under are preferable, as are habitats with a well-established leaf-litter layer (3) (10). Burton’s legless lizard can also often be found sheltering under sheets of iron or other bits of human refuse (8). While pygopodids are not generally seen out in the open, Burton’s legless lizard can often be sighted crossing roads and sandy tracks (6).Top
Burton’s legless lizard status
Burton’s legless lizard has yet to be classified on the IUCN Red List.Top
Burton’s legless lizard threats
At present, Burton’s legless lizard is not known to be facing any major threats.Top
Burton’s legless lizard conservation
Although Burton’s legless lizard is not currently thought to be at risk of extinction, proposed habitat management measures to support this intriguing reptile include leaving surface rocks, fallen timber and dead trees in place (3).Top
Find out more
Find out more about the conservation of Australian reptiles:
Learn more about reptile species on Barrow Island:
Find out more about wildlife conservation in Australia:
This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
More »Related species
Play the Team WILD game
MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.
Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials
Copyright in this website and materials contained on this website (Material) belongs to Wildscreen or its licensors.
Visitors to this website (End Users) are entitled to:
End Users shall not copy or otherwise extract, alter or manipulate Material other than as permitted in these Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials.
Additional use of flagged material
Green flagged material
Certain Material on this website (Licence 4 Material) displays a green flag next to the Material and is available for not-for-profit conservation or educational use. This material may be used by End Users, who are individuals or organisations that are in our opinion not-for-profit, for their not-for-profit conservation or not-for-profit educational purposes. Low resolution, watermarked images may be copied from this website by such End Users for such purposes. If you require high resolution or non-watermarked versions of the Material, please contact Wildscreen with details of your proposed use.
Creative commons material
Certain Material on this website has been licensed to Wildscreen under a Creative Commons Licence. These images are clearly marked with the Creative Commons buttons and may be used by End Users only in the way allowed by the specific Creative Commons Licence under which they have been submitted. Please see http://creativecommons.org for details.
Any other use
Please contact the copyright owners directly (copyright and contact details are shown for each media item) to negotiate terms and conditions for any use of Material other than those expressly permitted above. Please note that many of the contributors to ARKive are commercial operators and may request a fee for such use.
Save as permitted above, no person or organisation is permitted to incorporate any copyright material from this website into any other work or publication in any format (this includes but is not limited to: websites, Apps, CDs, DVDs, intranets, extranets, signage, digital communications or on printed materials for external or other distribution). Use of the Material for promotional, administrative or for-profit purposes is not permitted.