Outdoor walls and porches at our house are popular spots for the American five-lined skink.
Also known as the blue-tailed skink (as juveniles) and red-headed skink (as adults), this small lizard is fun to watch as it basks in the sun.
The iridescent blue of their tails is an astonishing color, which may warn predators that they are poisonous, though it’s unclear if they are truly toxic.
Some folks swear cats can die from eating them, but they are no threat to humans. This is another good reason to keep cats indoors.
Most remarkably, skinks, like some other lizards and salamanders, can deliberately release a section of tail if a predator grabs them. This ability is known as autonomy. The tail will keep wiggling to distract the predator as the skink scampers away.
In some species, at least part of the tail can re-grow, though it usually regenerates as cartilage rather than bone. One large skink on our porch is working on re-growing his tail.
Even if you don’t see skinks, they leave behind distinctive inch-and-a-half-long excrement that is black with a white tip.
Five-lined skinks are named for their color patterns, which include vertical yellow stripes along the length of their bodies that fade as they age and a blue tail that will become gray.
As female skinks mature, the contrast of the body color decreases, and the tail turns from bright blue to grayish blue. In the case of males, the vertical stripes fade away leaving a brownish body and tail. During mating, the males develop an orange-red color on the head and neck.
The lizard can grow to six to eight inches, and it may live up to 10 years, though six or seven is more common.
Like other reptiles, these lizards are also cold-blooded, meaning their body temperature fluctuates according to the environmental temperature. That’s why they like to bask in the sun.
Their preferred choice of habitat is a rocky terrain with a bit of shrub cover providing plenty of food and hiding places. They also seek rotting wood with an abundance of insects.
Skinks mainly feed on ants, spiders, grasshoppers, flies, caterpillars, snails, crickets, worms, beetles and even newborn mice.
Mating season is April to May. The females form a nest by burrowing close to areas with high soil moisture. The females lay 15 to 18 thin, fragile eggs.
The eggs can take from 20 to 60 days to hatch depending on the temperature. The colder it is, the more time the eggs will take to hatch. The female mothers display a defensive brood behavior while watching over her batch of eggs.
This parental care is exhibited for only about two to three days after the eggs hatch, when the juveniles must forage for food on their own. Skinks reach sexual maturity within two years.
Some people keep skinks as pets, but I prefer mine as outdoor neighbors — another important player in the web of life.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.