By Charlotte Owen
The friendly face of the slow worm is a familiar sight in many Sussex gardens and allotments, where it helpfully feasts on the less desirable denizens like slugs and grubs. Its name is friendly too but perhaps a bit deceptive, since it is neither slow nor a worm. It’s not a snake either, although it does look like one, but is actually an elongated lizard without any legs.
The slow worm leads a semi-fossorial lifestyle, spending much of the time underground, and legs would just get in the way when squeezing through burrows, slithering under stones and sliding through vegetation. Its serpentine appearance earned it the Old English name wyrm, a label broadly applied to anything that crept or crawled, from adders to dragons. A closer look reveals several distinctive features that distinguish the slow worm from our native snakes: its body doesn’t taper at the neck but is uniformly tubular; it has external ears, or tympanic apertures; and it can blink, which might be why it’s also known as the blindworm.
But why ‘slow’?It’s probably not speed-related, although they do tend to stay put when disturbed rather than immediately dart away, and like all reptiles they can be a bit sluggish in colder weather.Instead, it’s likely to stem from the Old English word slawyrm, with sla meaning strike – another generic term applied to any biting, striking or venomous creature. Of course, the slow worm doesn’t fall into any of these categories but folklore declared that it could sting, which explains Shakespeare’s reference in Macbeth to “blind worm’s sting” being stirred into the witches’ cauldron. In reality the slow worm’s defence mechanism is to shed its tail, which keeps wriggling for long enough to distract a predator while the real worm escapes into the safety of the undergrowth. For this ability, the slow worm was given the Latin name Anguis fragilis, meaning fragile snake. While this isn’t quite right either, the advantage of a Latin name is that everyone will know exactly which species you’re referring to, regardless of what the locals happen to call it.