Subject: Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).
Location: Pinery Provincial Park.
Date: May 2017.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: As I mentioned in the previous photo-story, I have only rarely sought out a target species when photographing or wandering in nature. Instead, I usually just stumble upon whatever I stumble upon and find out about it later. Not so at Pinery Provincial Park, one of the only locations I’ve visited where I can see a wild lizard. While camping in the park, I had always dreamed of spotting that elusive beast: the Common Five-Lined Skink, the only lizard species that lives in Ontario. It was actually on the way to the bathroom that I spotted this creature, poking out from behind a bulletin board with announcements attached to the outside of the facility. The creature dropped down out of sight when I walked past. I caught sight of the animal out of the corner of my eye and my brain only registered what I saw a few seconds later. Then I raced back to my campsite to retrieve my camera and raced back to hopefully capture some pictures of this almost mythical creature. Thankfully the Skink hadn’t moved away and I was able to take a few pictures, my heart pounding with excitement.
The Story Behind the Species: Before we get into the more general information about these Skinks, I’d like to take a moment to describe what I can of this individual lizard that I observed and photographed. Because of its size and coloration I can tell you that it was an adult male skink. Young five-lined skinks have a bright pattern of yellow stripes on black, with a strikingly blue tail. Some female skinks retain the blue tail into adulthood but males’ tails usually fade to grey, and they develop a reddish-orange head which is evident in the pictured individual.
It takes two or three years for five-lined skinks to reach maturity (Harding and Mifsud 2017), so this individual was likely at least two years old when I encountered it.
Although the five-lined skink is the only lizard species in Ontario, and within the province its distribution is limited to coastal dunes along the edges of the Great Lakes, populations of this species range across much of the eastern United States all the way south to Florida and Texas. Because of this wide range of latitude, some populations experience much colder conditions than others. The populations in Ontario and northern populations in the United States spend the winter inactive and dormant (around the Great Lakes from about October to late April) (Harding and Mifsud 2017). These dormant lizards hide themselves away in stumps or logs, rock or building crevices, or mammal burrows. It’s intriguing to think of a five-lined skink taking refuge from the Canadian winter inside the burrow of a chipmunk and it seems that this likely happens.
In the spring, the skinks emerge from dormancy and form loose territories which males will defend against other males in order to mate with receptive females. A month after mating, the female finds a hidden nest site (in the same sorts of places used for overwintering, see above) and lays up to 20 eggs (Harding and Mifsud 2017). After 1-2 months, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings leave the nest within 1-2 days.
As already mentioned the juveniles have bright blue tails and a pronounced striping pattern down their backs, adult males have bright reddish-orange heads especially during the breeding season (May-June in Ontario). You might expect that these lizards use visual cues for reproduction, and they likely do but they also have a powerful sense of smell which has been shown to be capable of distinguishing reproductive characteristics of other skink individuals (such as maturity and sex) and a related species has even been shown to be able to distinguish individuals by scent (Cooper 1996).
It seems that the bright blue tails are more of an antipredator adaptation than a visual signal to other skinks (though it no doubt functions as both). How does the tail help a skink escape predation? The colour draws the eye of visually-hunting predators, distracting from more vulnerable parts of the skink such as the head or torso. And I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: if seized by a predator, the tail can become detached and will even wriggle for several minutes on its own.
What sort of predators hunt five-lined skinks? Basically anything that can catch these swift little lizards: snakes, mammals, birds, and perhaps most surprisingly… Spiders. An excellently illustrated and fascinating book about lizards, Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity (Pianka and Vitt 2003), contains a photo of a juvenile five-lined skink caught by a spider (p. 66). Usually the invertebrates are on the menu for the skink which feeds on a wide variety of leaf-litter inhabitants. Large skinks will feed on small vertebrates as well such as frogs or baby mice.
Well, that’s that: the only lizard species in Ontario, and I was lucky enough to see and photograph it.
Next up is a two-for-one (two species in one photo) which features an insect that has caught another, both species are fascinating. Stay tuned…
Cooper, W. E. Jr. 1996. “Chemosensory recognition of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics by the scincid lizard Eumeces laticeps.” Ethology 102: 1-11. cited in: Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.
Harding, James H. and Mifsud, David A. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region: Revised Edition.
Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.Pianka, Eric, and Vitt, Laurie. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity.
For the previous articles in my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 series, see: