2011-08-02 / Columns

Eye Of Newt, Tail Of Skink...

The Bright Side
by Annie Bright

Call him Eumeces fasciatus or Plestiodon fasciatus, by any name a blue tailed skink is really a five-lined skink. Just what is a skink? I have been pondering the difference between salamanders and skinks this week. Throw in a newt and a lizard or two and I have a conundrum. The heat index indicated this was not a good day to tackle any of the many outdoor chores on my to do list. So I decided to wile away the afternoon doing a little reading. I already knew the families of lizard and salamander contained many species. I wasn’t sure where skinks fit and was curious what I could learn about newts. As it turned out, I had a lot to learn about these shy creatures.

The main difference is that lizards are reptiles and salamanders are amphibians. A skink is a lizard. Newts belong to the family of salamanders and are more closely related to frogs than skinks. A lizard has a dry scaly skin, which it sheds, but not all at once like a snake. Most lizards lay eggs in the ground. They have four legs. Some salamanders or newts only have two legs. In Europe, the word newt and salamander is often used interchangeably, especially in old writings. Salamanders tend to be nocturnal. Lizards like the sun.

Salamanders, being amphibians need water to mate and lay their eggs. After hatching they spend some time in a larva stage before morphing into the adult form. Their skin is slick and wet to the touch. Earlier this spring, when I was cleaning up the wetland area in the backyard where the crawdads rule, I was surprised by a red salamander. The body was covered with black spots and was about five or six inches long. It quickly disappeared in the leaf litter. I wish I could have examined it more closely. I think it was a red salamander, pseudotriton ruber. It might have been a mud salamander that had strayed over this way. They have brown eyes. The other red salamander in this area is a cave salamander that lives around limestone caves and has a really long tail. The cliffs around here are honeycombed with small limestone caves, however I don’t think it was a cave salamander. I believe my fiery visitor was a red salamander, even though I could not determine if the eyes were yellow. When she is five years old the female will mate in early fall and lay about 100 eggs in a pool of water. Being terrestrial red salamanders spend most of their adult life on land near springs or small pools. They burrow underground where they capture earthworms for food.

The five-lined skink, recently renamed Plestiodon fasciatus, is the most common lizard in southern Indiana. This creature is largely responsible for my love of nature. When I was a child in Brown County, I spent many hours on my belly on the soft earth of the deep woods watching them scamper under and around logs. The scent of the moist earth, the ferns, the sun-warmed forest, the flash of a nacreous tail stays with me, a vivid childhood memory.

Skinks were very plentiful on the Ridge when we first moved here. Their numbers seemed to decline as the cats caught them. Finding pieces of those bright blue tails always upset me. This summer they are back. I’ve seen many of them scampering up the big tulip tree or dashing across the front of the house. The small size and blue tails flashing in the sun told me they were young. They are about two inches long when they hatch. Adults are around eight inches long and lack that dazzling blue tail. Adults are usually black or dark brown, with five light stripes down their backs. Stripes fade as the skink gets older, so adults may look all brown. I already knew this about the blue tailed skink as I mistakenly called this creature.

Females may keep a bluishgray tail as they age, but males’ tails will turn brown. Five-lined skinks mate in the spring. Male five-lined skinks often have bright orange jaws during the breeding season. Females dig a nest and lay up to a dozen eggs, which will hatch between June and August, depending on when they were laid. Females will stay with their eggs until they hatch.

These lizards are found in moist woods, rock piles and leaf litter. They congregate on the west end of my house in late afternoon to catch the sun rays. They liked the clay pots that accumulated around the potting table that used to sit there. Five-lined skinks are diurnal. Basking in the sun is their favorite activity. They are always looking for a meal. Five-lined skinks eat crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars. They also eat spiders, earthworms, snails, slugs, isopods, other lizards, and small mice. I like to think they are under the house eating those big wolf spiders. Five-lined skinks will often climb dead trees where there are a lot of insects. Predators of these lizards include raccoons, foxes, opossums, snakes, hawks and our black cat, “Iddy.”

What a luxury to have a whole afternoon for reading about the diverse creatures lurking in the leaf litter. These tiny animals are threatened by the loss of habitat and the use of chemicals. Many species need leaf litter to survive. By leaving a small portion of land undisturbed, homeowners can invite the shyest of creatures to visit. That is a small price to pay for the experience of watching a lizard with an iridescent tail scamper up a tree.

‘til next time,

Annie

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