It feels like spring outside. The insects are flying, the birds are singing, the frogs are croaking… and the skinks are basking in the sun!
Skinks are lizards with sinuous bodies, small legs, and no defined neck. Their appearance is a cross between a lizard and a snake. Skinks can be mistaken for snakes because of their long bodies and their fast, serpent-like movement when startled.
The American five-lined skink is one of the most commonly seen lizards in the eastern United States. They range from five to eight inches in body length. The juveniles look markedly different from the adult form and may be mistaken as a separate species. The young are jet black with five golden stripes and a brilliant blue tail, while the adults are uniformly brown or gray with a ruddy face and faded stripes. American five-lined skinks are also known as blue-tailed skinks (because of the juvenile coloration) and red-headed skinks (because of the rosy faces of the adults).
These lizards are a familiar sight in landscapes and wooded areas, preferring moist habitats at ground level. They take shelter in shrubbery, stumps, logs, and fallen trees. The males are aggressive and territorial towards one another. The females exhibit parental care of their eggs and may nest communally with other unrelated females. They wrap their sun-warmed bodies around their eggs, urinate on them to maintain nest humidity, and consume any eggs that are not developing properly.
Skinks, like most lizards, have the ability to detach their tail from their body. Scientifically, this behavior is called autotomy, or self-amputation. This allows the skink to escape with its life while a predator is focused on the twitching tail that was left behind. The skink’s tail will regrow after several weeks, although it will never look the same as the original tail. Regrown tails are boneless, with cartilage replacing the original bones. These new tails are slightly off-color with a different skin texture. They also lack any patterns or markings.
Skinks are beneficial as they eat insects, spiders, and other small critters that may annoy people. Skinks themselves are not considered to be pests, but sometimes they get into houses where their presence is a nuisance. They may get on indoor glue boards and become stuck. Live ones can be rescued by placing the glue board outside in a safe place and coating the skink in vegetable oil – avoid drenching the nostrils to prevent suffocation. The oil will slowly dissolve the glue, allowing the skink to wiggle free.
Some people refer to the blue-tailed juveniles as “scorpions,” but they cannot sting and do not have any kind of venom. They can bite when handled, but the bite is neither painful nor harmful.
Five-lined Skink (Eumeces [Plestiodon] fasciatus). Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Website: https://srelherp.uga.edu/lizards/eumfas.htm. Accessed March 2018.
Five-lined Skink. Animal Diversity Web. Website: http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Plestiodon_fasciatus/. Accessed March 2018.