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  • Writer's picturePam Owen

Warm days trigger reptilian desire

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

With only intermittent warm days during this cool, and recently rainy, spring, many animals here on Oventop Mountain have had limited opportunity to get out and reproduce, including reptiles. When the weather recently turned much warmer and sunnier at the end of May, some lizards got busy.

May 26 was, to me, that perfect mid-spring day in Virginia. Temps hovered around 80, with just enough humidity to soften the air and turn the slight breeze that was blowing into a gentle caress. A mix of blackberry, honeysuckle, and rose perfume pervaded the air. I dreamt of such days when I lived on the dry, cold Northern Plains of Wyoming, which at best smelled of sage. The downside is that the rising humidity is also a harbinger of the hellish sauna Virginia summers usually bring.

Many cold-blooded animals, including reptiles, need the ambient temperature to rise sufficiently just to move around, let alone mate. This includes five-lined skinks. Virginia has three skink species with five lines running down their backs, the Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), the Southeastern Five-lined Skink (P. inexpectatus), and the Broad-headed Skink (P. laticeps). The way to tell them apart is the pattern of scales near their vent (from which they eliminate waste and lay eggs).

I look photos of the underside of one male several years ago to confirm the species with an expert at the Virginia Herpetological Society (a wonderful resource for learning about reptiles and amphibians). He said it a Common Five-lined. While I imagine, since the Common is more abundant (hence the name), that this is the species I see around my house and yard, but I can't be sure. I'd have to catch and turn over every skink to do that, and I'm not ready to take on that project. Since the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service lists no confirmation of any of these skink species here in Rappahannock County, I'm hoping some herp expert will take it on, and I've been in touch with VHS from time to time about that.

The Common Five-lined Skink breeds in May, and the breeding time of the other two species appears to be around that time as well. Since April, I had seen a few of various ages and genders hunting and basking on or near my house during brief warm stretches, but then they’d disappear when temperatures dropped or rain moved in. On the day in question, I found three large males suddenly on the prowl in varying locations on the property.

Although these species are named for the lines running down their backs and sides and are known for the signature blue tail of the juveniles and subadults, the lines on males fade as they mature, and their overall coloring becomes browner, the blue on their tails disappearing altogether. The blue is brightest on young skinks, an evolutionary adaptation to distract predators while the youngsters learn to avoid them. The lizard twitches its tail, focusing the predator’s attention on this expendable body part, which also breaks off easily with no blood loss.

A juvenile skink with a bright blue tale on the side of a house
The bright blue color of this juvenile skink's tail will fade over time

There are toxins in the tail, which can discourage some predators from attempting to eat more skinks. (Good for pet owners to keep in mind, too, since cats and dogs will also go after skinks.) The tails do grow back, but at a cost of energy for the escapee. The tail's regeneration takes three to four months, its pretty useless for predator distraction for much of that time. If a skink loses its tail too often, it doesn't grow back.

The heads of mature males are now in full breeding color—bright orange—making them easy to spot. I found a big male on the move in my landlady's flower garden in the afternoon. A little later, I went down to the ponds at the base of the mountain to photograph some sedges there, bringing my dog, Mollie, along so she could swim.

The heads of mature male skinks, such as this one, turn bright orange during the breeding season

I had frequently seen a mature male skink hanging around the dock, which is sunny most of the day, but he was always alone. As I was walking by the dock that day, I caught him in flagrante delicto with a female. It's not often that I get to witness and document animals mating, and any shame at being a Peeping Tom is always overridden by my curiosity.

I only had my 90mm macro lens with me, for shooting closeups of the sedges, so I tried to sneak up as close as I could to the reptilian couple to get some photos, without any cover to hide behind. I finally got a few shots before the lizards pulled apart and skittered out of site under the dock on the pond side.

A male Common Five-lined Skink, in orange breeding color, mates with a female
Five-lined skinks mating, with the male on top

I sat nearby, but not too close, and waited to see if the lizards would get back together. First the male reappeared on the dock, then the female. She obviously wasn't finished with her tryst. She walked up to him, then away, her tail seductively raised, then rubbed against the deck, undoubtedly leaving pheromones to attract the male. She then disappeared over the edge of the dock again.

The male, aroused, animatedly sniffed her trail and skittered after her, disappearing over the edge at the same spot she did. I had visions of seeing little blue-tailed skinks playing on the dock in a couple of months. Hoping I'd gotten a usable shot of the mating session, I headed back up the mountain with Mollie.

Later that evening, as Mollie and I sat on my deck enjoying the fine weather over a beer (me, not her), I had my final skink sighting of the day. A large male, again in full breeding color, scampered up an Ailanthus tree in the copse a few feet away. It stopped in full view, about 15 feet up and stayed still for about 20 minutes. I’d never seen a skink go that high up a tree. Mostly, they hang around my deck and porch, the foundation of the house (particularly on the sunny south side), and on a large rock in a garden in my back yard—all good places to bask and hunt for prey.

A male Common Five-lined Skink on an Ailanthus tree
A male five-lined skink, in breeding color, 15 feet up on an Ailanthus tree

I pondered the intent of this handsome male. I doubt any females were up there, and the light was fading, so not a good time to start basking, and no prey appeared while he stayed frozen in place. Eventually, he disappeared down the tree, obscured by the vines and shrubs that surrounded its base.

I’ve been a big fan of skinks since I was a little kid and have provided some vegetation for them to hide and hunt next to my house. With the warm weather sticking around, I look forward to seeing them more often, particularly the youngsters with their bright blue tails.

© 2020 Pam Owen

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