The common five-lined skink is one of Missouri's most abundant skinks and is often seen by people. It occurs nearly statewide. It has shiny scales and a dark ground color with light stripes. The color varies with age and sex. It is commonly confused with the similar-looking broad-headed skink.
Adult males are uniform olive or tan with a faint dark stripe running along the side along with a few light stripes, but during the breeding season, the male's head is bright red orange. Adult males are slightly larger than adult females.
Adult females are normally brown with a dark brown stripe running along the side, 5 tan stripes, and a blue or blue-gray tail. Adult females are slightly smaller than adult males.
Hatchlings and young adults are black with 5 yellow stripes running from the head to the base of tail, and they have a bright blue tail, which is why this species is sometimes called the blue-tailed skink. (Note that the juveniles of some other skink species also have black bodies with blue tails.)
Similar species: Broad-headed skinks are very similar, though they generally reach larger sizes (to nearly 13 inches in length). You can verify the identification by examining the scale patterns along the upper lip.
The common five-lined skink:
- Has 7 upper labial scales (not counting the single scale at the very front/center of the mouth, count the scales backward along the upper lip, up to and including the obvious large scale at the base of the jaw); also, counting from the front, the fifth upper labial scale is the first to contact the orbit of the eye (eye circle).
- Has 2 postlabial scales (these are scales that are positioned, one on top of the other, in the space between the last, fairly large lip scale and the ear hole).
- Has a maximum snout-to-vent length less than 3¼ inches. (It is generally smaller than the broad-headed skink).
The broad-headed skink:
- Has 8 or 9 upper labial scales; also, the sixth upper labial scale is the first to contact the orbit of the eye.
- Lacks or has only 1 or 2 small postlabial scales (these are either absent or quite small).
- Has a maximum snout-to-vent length more than 3¼ inches. (It is generally larger than the common five-lined skink).
Adult total length: 5 to 8¾ inches. Adult males are slightly larger than adult females.
Statewide, except for a few counties in extreme northern Missouri.
Habitat and Conservation
These skinks live in open woods, along wooded bluffs and on rocky, south-facing hillsides. They require shelters such as rocks, downed logs, stumps, and standing dead trees. They occasionally climb trees, especially when threatened or searching for insects. They also often live around farm buildings, rock gardens, rock piles, firewood piles, and patios.
In Missouri, this species is active from March to October, with a peak from April into early June. As with most other skinks, the tail breaks off easily, allowing these lizards to escape predators. Very little blood is lost when this happens, and a new tail eventually grows back later. The regrown portion of the tail will be shorter than the original and is a drab gray color.
Common five-lined skinks eat a variety of insects, spiders, snails, and smaller lizards.
One of the most abundant lizards in Missouri and is often seen by people.
In Missouri, egg-laying takes place from late April through June. Females nest in leaf litter or under rotten logs, tree stumps, or rocks, laying 4–14 eggs. The female stays with her eggs until they hatch, eating any bad eggs to remove them from the nest. The eggs hatch in 1–2 months. The strikingly different coloration of juveniles is believed to be a way of protecting them from territorial males who, during breeding season, might attack them if they looked like adult five-lined skinks.
Domestic cats are known to prey extensively on lizards and small snakes.
Old-time Ozarkers called skinks "scorpions," but these lizards are completely unrelated to those spider-like creatures and are certainly not venomous. But that colorful nickname indicates that Missourians have long been intrigued by these fascinating and harmless lizards. It's amusing to note that Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph reported that true scorpions were often referred to as "stingin' lizards" in Ozark dialect. He also reported that old folks in the Ozarks used to maintain that "wherever you find" one of these lizards, "there is always a snake only a few feet away." Folklore studies is a branch of anthropology that records and studies the traditional understandings of our many human cultures across the globe.
It's not clear how these lizards came to be called "scorpions," but it may have to do with several other types of lizards that typically curl their tail and waggle it around when threatened. This is a defensive behavior that fools a predator into attacking the detachable, expendable tail rather than aiming at the lizard's indispensable head. The curled, waving tail of these lizards kind of resembles the infamous, venom-delivering tail of an actual scorpion. Perhaps some people called all lizards "scorpions," or perhaps the bright blue tail of juvenile skinks was especially conspicuous, especially since it often wiggles for a while after it detaches. The extra wiggling of the detached tail can trick the predator into attacking the amputated tail instead of pursuing the fleeing, surviving lizard.
Lizards are predators that help keep populations of insects and other small animals in balance. They, and their vulnerable eggs and hatchlings, fall prey to hawks, opossums, armadillos, skunks, moles, shrews, snakes, and larger lizards.
The skinks (Scincidae) are a large family of lizards with species on nearly every continent and many oceanic islands. There are over 1,580 species worldwide, representing about 115 genera. The smallest species may be only 3 inches long; the largest (in Australia) may reach a length of over 2 feet. Most species have smooth, overlapping scales and live either on or under the ground. Five genera with about 15 species occur in the United States. A few nonnative species have been introduced into southern Florida. Missouri skinks are represented by two genera with a total of six species and one additional subspecies. All our skinks can quickly break off their tails if grasped by a predator. A new tail will regenerate, but is usually dull grayish brown.