The reptile world is full of unique and fascinating creatures that have evolved over time to survive in some of Earth’s harshest environments.
One of those environments is just below the surface, where numerous reptile species live and burrow underground.
You may have noticed your pet reptile digging under the substrate in their enclosure, or you may just be curious about which reptiles can survive beneath our feet. Either way, you might find yourself asking:
What reptiles can live underground?
Several species of blind snakes, legless lizards, and worm lizards (amphisbaenids) live their entire lives underground. Other reptile species such as geckos, skinks, Gila monsters, monitor lizards, iguanas, tortoises, and even alligators often burrow underground to escape from predators, regulate their body temperature, lay eggs, or brumate.
In this article, we’ll “dig deep” into 10 types of reptiles that can live underground. We’ll explore the unique adaptations they’ve evolved with over the years, along with survival strategies that allow them to thrive in a subterranean world.
Let’s get right into it!
Reptiles That Live Underground
With distinct features like elongated bodies, specialized scales, and the ability to conserve water, these reptiles have evolved to be able to survive entirely in an underground environment:
We’ve all seen snake holes in the ground, and when you think of a reptile that lives below the surface, a snake is probably your first guess.
Snakes that live primarily underground are typically called fossorial, or burrowing snakes. These slithery creatures have adapted to life in subterranean habitats where they spend most of their time hidden from extreme temperatures and predators above ground.
Fossorial snakes have slender bodies and heads that grow no larger than their necks so they can tunnel through soil and tight crevices with ease.
They have tiny eyes with reduced eyesight or no eyesight at all since their vision is not really needed in their dark environments.
Instead, they rely more heavily on other senses, such as touch, smell, and vibration detection when hunting and navigating through the soil.
Blind snakes, worm snakes, sand boas, and burrowing asps are a few different species of underground dwelling snakes that can be found in different regions throughout the world.
Worm lizards, also known as “amphisbaenids”, are a group of mostly legless squamates that have evolved separately from snakes and other legless lizards.
As their name suggests, worm lizards have a worm-like appearance with unique features that make them perfectly adapted for life underground.
Their elongated bodies and small and stout heads make it easy for them to tunnel through soil. They also have ring-like scales all over their bodies that help to grip the soil as they burrow.
This allows them to move in an accordion-like motion, sometimes backward as effectively as forward!
One type of worm lizard found along the Baja California Peninsula is the Mexican mole lizard. This tiny creature’s most noticeable characteristic is that they are partially limbless – they have two small forelimbs for burrowing near their heads, but no limbs on their back end.
Worm lizards can be found in soil and under rocks in various different habitats. But due to their elusive nature, they are one of the most mysterious and understudied groups of reptiles to exist.
When it comes to living under the surface, legless lizards have adapted quite well. These fascinating reptiles have evolved to live without limbs, which allows them to burrow underground more effectively.
Legless lizards have slender bodies with long tails and can grow up to 4 feet in length. Over time, their legs have slowly disappeared and their scales have grown gradually smoother.
This makes it easy for them to maneuver effortlessly underground as they hide from predators and capture prey.
Because of their snake-like appearance, they are commonly mistaken for snakes. But although they may look and move like snakes, they are actually part of a family of lizards called Pygopodidae.
Legless lizards, such as the Eastern glass lizard, the California legless lizard, and the Sheltopusik can be found on multiple continents.
They feed on a range of critters from insects and invertebrates to small rodents and other lizards.
Reptiles That Like To Burrow
These are reptiles that don’t live entirely underground, but will often burrow to nest, brumate, or avoid extreme weather conditions:
Gila monsters are large, venomous lizards that are native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.
Because of the harsh desert climate that they live in, they have adapted quite well to living most of their lives underground.
Gila monsters use their strong legs and sharp claws to dig deep burrows, where they brumate during cold winter months and escape the heat during the summer.
They are also known to inhabit abandoned burrows that were once dug out by other desert dwellers.
Since they spend so much time underground, Gila monsters have evolved with the ability to keep their metabolism slow and to store excess fat in their tails. This allows them to conserve energy and survive for long periods of time without food.
The most active season for a Gila monster to be out from underground is during spring, when they will emerge to hunt prey, bask on a sunny rock, or drink water after a rainstorm.
Burrowing geckos are found all over the world but typically live in desert and semi-arid regions where the soil is loose and sandy.
Some species of geckos that are known for their digging include the ground gecko, the African fat-tailed gecko, and the leopard gecko.
Each of these gecko species have thick layers of skin that help protect them from abrasive sand particles.
They also have the ability to store fat in their tails, which they can use as an energy source during periods of food scarcity.
Geckos often dig under leaf litter and soil or hide in small crevices to avoid predators, protect themselves from weather elements, or escape to cooler temperatures if it gets too hot.
Since many species of geckos are nocturnal, their digging ability also helps to create a safe and dark place for them to sleep in during the day.
In essence, burrowing is a survival strategy for geckos, enabling them to better navigate their surroundings and protect themselves from danger.
Skinks are a diverse group of lizards found in a variety of habitats around the world. Many species of skinks are known for their snake-like bodies and their burrowing capabilities.
Like legless lizards, skinks have developed elongated bodies, reduced or absent limbs, and smooth scales to help them efficiently tunnel through soil and sand.
The mole skink, for example, is a small, slender skink found along the Southeastern United States.
As its name suggests, the mole skink is a skilled burrower and spends much of its time hiding under soil, sand, leaf litter, and rocks.
The desert skink is another example. These burrowers have been studied for their ability to build intricate tunnel networks underground.
Skinks use their burrows as a safe place to regulate their body temperature, lay their eggs, or rest.
Burrowing also protects them from predators like birds and other lizard-eating animals that can’t dig very deep into the ground.
Monitor lizards are the largest of all lizard species and are known to be excellent burrowers. With their powerful legs and long claws, they can build intricate burrow systems more than 12 feet deep.
Like many other reptiles, monitors mostly dig to lay their eggs or to regulate their body temperature. But they also just seem to genuinely enjoy hanging out below ground.
One of the coolest things about monitor lizard burrows is that they can create their own ecosystems. Because of this, some species of monitors are often referred to as “ecosystem engineers”.
These burrows, also known as warrens, create habitats for a wide range of other animal species.
Some use them to hide from predators, others feed on the prey they find in there, and some hibernate in them or use them to lay their own eggs.
Take this recent study, for example. Researchers excavated a burrow made by a yellow-spotted monitor lizard, and uncovered a whole community of animals living in there!
It’s amazing to think that a single burrow made by a monitor lizard can support such a diverse range of animal species!
Iguanas are a type of large lizard that can be found in tropical environments. While they are mostly known for their tree-climbing abilities, they are also very good at digging.
In most cases, iguanas will dig holes to build nests. Females will use their long, sharp claws to dig as deep as 4-6 feet, then lay their eggs inside and cover them up again when they are finished.
This keeps the eggs protected from predators and also provides a stable temperature and humidity level for the development of the eggs.
Iguanas will also dig underground to get under or around obstacles in their way, or if they’re frustrated or unhappy with their environment.
They are intelligent lizards, so if they’re not happy where they’re at, they will try to escape by digging and tunneling their way out.
In places like Florida, where iguanas are considered to be an invasive species, their burrows have been known to cause extensive damage to infrastructure. By tunneling underground and through peoples’ yards, they have caused sidewalks, canal banks, and other structural foundations to collapse.
Tortoises are another reptilian species that are known to burrow, whether they live in the wild or as a pet.
These skilled diggers will dig into the ground to gouge out soil with their feet and push it out of their holes using a scoop-like motion.
They can create multiple burrows throughout their lifetime, each varying in size and depth depending on their specific needs.
Some tortoise species, such as the desert tortoise, can spend up to 90% of their lives underground.
Their burrows provide shelter from extreme weather conditions, allowing them to hibernate during cold winters and escape the scorching summer heat.
Just like monitor lizards, tortoises are known to dig large, elaborate burrows that can provide shelter for many other species.
The gopher tortoise, for instance, is known as a keystone species due to their vital role in their ecosystem. Their spacious burrows not only provide shelter for themselves but also for up to 350 different species of animals.
It may be surprising to some, but alligators have a remarkable ability to dig burrows, commonly referred to as “dens”.
Alligators are semi-aquatic creatures so they spend a lot of time in the water, but they also like to come on land at times to bask in the sun.
During cooler months or when water levels are low, alligators will dig burrows along riverbanks, ponds, marshes, and other bodies of water.
These burrows serve a variety of purposes, from sheltering the gators from the elements to providing a safe place for them to lay their eggs and protect their young.
Alligator dens can vary in size and complexity. Some may be simple hollows in the ground, while others can have multiple chambers and entrances. They are typically quite roomy, with large openings and the ability to reach depths as far as 65 feet!
Burrowing Pet Reptiles
In this article, we’ve talked about the natural burrowing behaviors of several reptile species in the wild. But almost every reptile on this list can also be kept as a pet (with the exception of Gila Monsters and Alligators).
If you’re a reptile owner, you might sometimes notice your pet reptile digging in their substrate. This could be because the temperature is too warm in their enclosure, they’re preparing to nest or brumate, or they have insufficient places to hide.
But it could also just be part of their natural burrowing behavior. So, if your husbandry elements mimic that of their natural habitat, they could just be following their natural instinct to dig around in their environment!
Should You Worry If Your Pet Reptile Has Buried Itself Under Substrate?
If your reptile is a species that’s known to burrow, then there shouldn’t be any need to worry that they’ve buried themselves under the substrate.
However, if your reptile isn’t the burrowing type, or if you feel they’ve been buried for an extended period of time, it’s worth checking in on them to make sure that they are safe and healthy.
Check the temperature and humidity levels in their enclosure, since reptiles that burrow are often seeking out cooler temps, and make any necessary adjustments to ensure your pet is comfortable.
Also, be sure to keep an eye out for any signs of illness or distress, and don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian if you notice any changes in your reptile’s appearance or behavior.
The underground world is home to several different reptilian species. From elusive snakes and tiny geckos to giant lizards and tortoises, these reptiles have adapted to life beneath the surface.
Not only does this provide them with protection from predators and extreme weather elements, but it allows them to build nests and microhabitats for other species as well.
So next time you venture to the great outdoors, take a moment to appreciate the diversity of critters living just beneath your feet that have evolved to call the underground their home.