The Five-lined Skink uses his head,
when keeping his predators fed.
He offers his tail
to insure they will fail
in eating his body instead.
The last time I saw a Five-lined Skink, it was peeking out from between the cushions of a pumpkin orange over-stuffed chair that someone had discarded along the edge of the road. As you might expect, it was the last place I expected to see one (one does not expect to see a lizard sitting in a roadside chair except, perhaps, in a Geico commercial). That one eluded further investigation and escaped as I tore through the chair. No, it was not a lounge (chair) lizard!
Granted, that experience wasn’t all that long ago but it was preceded by a lifetime of drought. I’ve seen these common reptiles in Kentucky and parts south, but I’ve never seen a wild one in Michigan. I’ve seen wild caught Michigan skinks in captivity, pictures of Michigan skinks, and even stories about where to find Michigan skinks but up to that recent chair incident that was about it. So, you can imagine my disappointment in getting only a Sasquatch glimpse of one.
As a native Michigander, I live in a state of lizard deprivation. We only have two species, although for all practical purposes we only have one with any regularity. The Six-lined Race-runner can be found in the thumb area (and possibly in the extreme S.W. dune country if I recall). There are no one, two, three-lined, or any other lined species found here. If the thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel were a lizard it might make up for all those missing Michigan stripes, but alas it is not. No, the Five-lined Skink will have to do and it would do just fine if it would only show itself every now and then.
Well, as you can see by my pictures, my drought has finally ended. While this incident is of true significance only to me, in this time of sharing all of one’s personal secrets on-line I feel compelled to share it with you. Consider this a “like” or “pin” or “a stick in the eye” or whatever, but consider it. I suspect you fellow Michiganders out there have led an equally lizardless life up to now and can feel my elation at pretending to be an Arizonan or a New Mexican. In true Five-lined skink style this fine specimen turned up in one of the most un-expected of places – my own yard. It was sunning on my Dollar Lake dock near West Branch.
I don’t need to elaborate on the reasons why this lizard is called a Five-lined Skink, but should explain that “skink” comes from the Greek “skinkos” which means lizard (as in “oh my goshish, Demetrius, theris a skinkos in the sinkos!). I shouldn’t, but I will, go on to point out that the presence of four legs, blinking eyes, and ear openings are all features that distinguish this creature from a snake.
My dock lizard was a younger individual as evidenced by its sky-blue tail. Mature skinks are paler in color, lack the blue tail hue, and have a reddish head that looks like a stubbed toe. My eye was drawn to that wonderful electric tail as the reptile dashed across the dock and threatened to jump into the rushes. I was extremely cautious in my approach, but every time I moved the skink shifted closer to the edge and waved its blue appendage back and forth (see short video here). This curious behavior has a very good purpose, of course. Skinks can sacrifice their tails in the event they are attacked by a predator and it will detach if roughly grabbed. The detached tail will continue to twitch and wiggle on its own as the owner makes its hasty escape. It will grow a new tail, so the loss is only temporary. By flashing that lure while it is still attached, the lizard is making sure that it – and not the body – will become the object of attack.
I eventually moved one step too close and the skink took a header into the weeds, but not before pausing just a second to dangle that blue tail out of the grass. Forget the fact that Five-lined Skinks are among the most common lizards in North America and forget the fact that they are distributed across the state and even the central U.P. It has taken me over a half-century to catch a quality glimpse of one and I am satisfied. My next step is to put an orange chair out by the dock and see if it is tempted to come out again.