By Ken Schwab
That’s right– skinks not skunks. These small lizards, found throughout California, do possess distinguishing black and white stripes like a skunk; however skinks take advantage of a novel defense mechanism that doesn’t involve a foul odor. During times of flight, skinks will detach their vibrantly colored tail, distracting predators by its conspicuous wiggle, providing a brief moment for safe passage to a protective shelter. The skink’s life-saving tail will eventually grow back.
So who are these critters?
Skinks are members of genus Plestiodon, belonging to the Scincidae family that includes the ‘true’ lizard. They can grow to be eight inches in length with shiny, smooth scales. Skinks look just like a lizard except that they have a short, stumpy neck with small arms and legs. This anatomical configuration produces a slither-like locomotion where the body resembles a snake’s. Two species of the Plestiodon (formerly Eumeces) genus can be found in California; P. gilberti and P. skiltonianus (Western skink). The former having a population distribution that extends south from the Sacramento area to the Mexico border that includes both central valley and coastal regions, and the latter inhabiting the entire northern California area and coastal regions in the remaining parts of California.
Skinks prefer to take refuge, as burrowers; in grasslands, chaparral or slightly dense forest habitats that contain rocks or woody debris which shade and keep soil moist and provide a place to hide from predators. These areas are usually located next to a water source such as a pond or stream. During the day, skinks become ‘active’ which involves basking in the direct sunlight. They feed on detritus (leaf litter), dense vegetation, and on smaller invertebrates including, but not limited to; insects, spiders, sow bugs, worms, and beetles. When breeding season begins in June or July, skinks begin to develop a reddish-orange color on their heads, throats, chin, and tail to attract their mate.
So why are they important?
The size of the skink places them near the bottom of the food chain and makes them fare for many predators. Various snakes, birds, along with lizards of their own kind will dine on a skink. Actually, baby skinks need to flee the hatchery quickly before mom begins to think of them as her next meal. A decrease in skink population can have a direct impact on the predator populations all the way up the food chain, so skinks play a vital role in the food web.
Top two photos by Gary Nafis.