What is a Slow Worm?

When is a snake not a snake?  When it’s a slow worm!  The wriggly grey thing may look like a snake, it may have no limbs like a snake and it’s head looks suspiciously serpentine just like a snake, but it has long been known that the slow worm is, infact, a member of the lizard family.

Herpetologists, those who study amphibians and reptiles, have long recognised the Slow worm (or Anguis Fragilis to give it its latin name), as part of the Anguida, the family of lizards that is native to the northern hemisphere.  Amongst the lizard like traits that the legless animal possesses, are the way it can blink its eyes as well as detach its tail in an emergency if caught by a predator. Tthough if it does this, the tail never quite grows back as long as it was.

Habitat of the Slow Worm

The Slow Worm is a native species of Britain, particularly in the south west of England and Wales, but can be found all across the country.  Though not native to Ireland, a few have been brought to the country in recent centuries and proliferated in the wild.  Elsewhere, they can generally only be found in Zoos specializing in lizards. 

As burrowing lizards, the animals prefer to remain in areas that provide them with some cover – under compost heaps or logs for example where their preferred prey, small insects like slugs and snails, can be found.  On less common occasions they can be found basking in the sun, however this is typically dangerous for a Slow Worm; there are approximately 8 million cats kept as domestic pets in the UK, a predator against whom the Slow Worm is otherwise defenceless

Sadly, the numbers of Slow Worms are decreasing across Britain as the island becomes ever more developed and the population of predators (cats mostly) continues to increase.  It was in response to this that the animals are now legally a protected species throughout Britain as part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it illegal to deliberately kill, injure or sell them.

Life as a Slow Worm

Differing themselves further from snakes, Slow Worms do not lay eggs like their scaly cousins.  Rather, like some other species of lizard, the females incubate their eggs internally before giving “birth” to live offspring, a process called ovoviviparity.  This is why it is possible sometimes to see Slow Worms basking in the sun like other lizards on roads, absorbing the heat to incubate their offspring.

Slow Worms are entirely harmless to humans but can often be mistaken for Adders by people who do not know the difference.  Unlike the Slow Worm, the Adder can indeed bite and harm a human and its venom, though low in potency, is capable of killing in rare circumstances.  Though only 14 people have died from Adder bites in the UK since the late 1800’s, it can still inspire a certain fear, caution and even humble aggression towards the Slow Worm through mistaken identity. 

In both cases, the best option is to leave the animal alone or, if it has somehow entered a home, to return it to the wild using thick sturdy gloves.  Like Slow Worms, Adders are also a protected species and deliberately killing or injuring them is against the law.

Slow Worms have long life spans, with wild specimens living up the thirty years and even longer in captivity.  The eldest Slow Worm the ever lived was recorded to be 54 years old and was kept in the Copenhagen Zoo.




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