Plestiodon fasciatusFive-lined Skink

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Geographic Range

The range of Plestiodon fasciatus, the five-lined skink, extends south from the lower peninsula of Michigan, southern Ontario, and eastern New York to northern Florida, and west to Wisconsin, part of Michigan's upper penninsula, Missouri, and eastern regions of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Isolated populations also occur in northeasten Iowa, west central Minnesota, and connected portions of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin (Harding 1997).

Habitat

Five-lined skinks prefer moist, but not wet, wooded or partially wooded areas with significant cover and abundant basking sites. These sites may include wood or brush piles, stumps, logs, rocky outcrops, loose bark, and abandoned buildings. Most five-lined skinks inhabit disturbed environments, such as forest edges, cleared areas, or burned regions, commonly called ecotone areas. Five-lined skink populations may also occur among driftwood piles on the sandy beaches of the Great Lakes (Harding 1997). Home range size is affected by available habitat type as well as changes in seasonal food distribution, shelter, and other requirements. Home range may also vary in size and shape in accordance with the age and gender of the individual skink (Fitch 1956). Five-lined skinks seek cover in rotting wood, rock crevices, vegetation or sawdust piles, or building foundations, remaining inactive during cold winter months (Harding 1997).

Physical Description

Adult five-lined skinks, 12.7 to 21.6 cm in length, are characterized by five yellow to cream colored stripes of equal width running dorsally and laterally from the snout to tail. These stripes, separated by darker lines, may lighten with age, eventually disappearing in older males. The typical black background color of juveniles and young adult females also fades with maturation to a brown, gray, or olive hue in adults (Harding 1997). The body is slender and elongate lacking a distinct neck or narrowing before the wedge-shaped head. The small limbs are pentadactyl with well developed toes and claws. Hatchlings, 5 to 6.4 cm in length, possess bright blue tails and distinct white or yellow stripes on a black background. Tail color dulls with age, and is more commonly retained in females than males, which display gray tails as adults (Fitch 1956). Although no sexual difference in body length is apparent, clear sexual dimorphism of head size and coloration exists among five-lines skinks (Vitt and Cooper 1986). In males the development of a widened head and reddish orange coloration of the snout and jaws intensifies during the spring breeding season (Harding 1997). (Harding, 1997; Vitt and Cooper., 1986)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes shaped differently
  • Range length
    12.7 to 21.6 cm
    5.00 to 8.50 in

Development

The egg incubation length varies with temperature, so that colder temperatures lead to longer times to hatching.

Reproduction

Fertilization in five-lined skinks is internal, with eggs laid by the female between the middle of may and july, at least one month after mating. Females lay fifteen to eighteen eggs in a small cavity cleared beneath a rotting log, stump, board, loose bark, a rock, or an abandoned rodent burrow (Harding 1997). Females prefer secluded nest sites in large, moderately decayed logs. Soil moisture is also an important factor in nest selection. Females often place nests in regions where soil moisture is higher than in adjacent areas. Vertical position of the nest also varies with moisture, with nests located deeper in a soil cavity at dry sites. Even when nesting sites are not limited, a significant amount of aggregation occurs (Hecnar 1994). The parchmentlike eggs of five-lined skinks, similar to many other reptiles, are thin and easily punctured. Freshly laid eggs range from spherical to oval in shape averaging 1.3 cm in length. Absorption of water from the soil leads to increased egg size. Egg coloration also changes over time, from white to mottled tan, after contact with the nest burrow. The incubation period ranges from 24 to 55 days, and varies due to fluctuations in temperature (Fitch 1956). Females typically brood their eggs during this time, exhibiting defensive behavior against smaller predators. Parental care ends a day or two after hatching when hatchlings leave the nest. Young five-lined skinks, with a potential life span of up to six years, attain sexual maturity and begin reproducing within two to three years of hatching (Harding 1997). (Fitch, 1956; Harding, 1997; Hecnar, 1994)

  • Breeding interval
    Five-lined skinks breed once each year.
  • Breeding season
    Female skinks lay eggs between May and July .
  • Range number of offspring
    15 to 18
  • Range gestation period
    55 (high) days

Females typically brood their eggs during incubation, defending them against small predators. Females place their bodies around or over their eggs, depending on soil moisture. Females try to cover the eggs more when the soil is dry, to reduce water loss from the eggs. They will also urinate on the eggs to maintain their moisture. Females keep their eggs warm by basking in the sun, then returning to the nest to warm the eggs with their body heat. Females form communal nests where they may share in the care of eggs, alternating between foraging and guarding eggs so that eggs remain protected all of the time. Any eggs displaced from the nest are retrieved by head or snout rolling, and rotten eggs are eaten. Parental care ends a day or two after hatching, when hatchlings leave the nest.

Lifespan/Longevity

Five-lined Skinks can live up to 6 years in the wild, although most probably die as young skinks, before reaching maturity.

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    6.0 (high) years

Behavior

Adult male five-lined skinks exhibit complex courtship and aggressive behavior. Although males tolerate juveniles and females in their territories, they actively defend these areas against other males. Vomeronasal analysis of chemical cues and recognition of sex specific visual stimuli, including tail and body coloration, aid in the identification of gender (Harding 1997). Evidence suggests that males may rely more on contact phermones than volatile airborne molecules in the identification of conspecifics (Cooper and Vitt 1985). Courting males grasp the necks of receptive females in their jaws after approaching them from the side. Using the tail to align cloacal openings, males initiate copulation by inserting one of the two hemipenes into the female's cloaca. Copulation events typically last four to eight minutes (Harding 1997).

Female five-lined skinks demonstrate high levels of parental care which reduces of egg mortality. Females exhibit several brooding positions of variant contact levels with the body placed beside, over, through, or in a coil around the eggs. Brooding position varies according to soil moisture. Maternal body contact increases at lower moisture levels potentially reducing transpirational loss of the eggs. In communal nests, females may alternate foraging and guarding of the nests, leaving eggs protected at all times (Hecnar 1994). Females may also urinate in the nests and turn eggs to maintain humidity. In addition, females transfer heat from basking through body contact. Any eggs displaced from the nest are retrieved by head or snout rolling, and rotten eggs are eaten (Harding 1997).

Five-lined skinks also exhibit antipredation behavior. In evasion of various predators including snakes, crows, hawks, shrews, moles, opossums, skunks, raccoons, and domestic cats, skinks may disconnect their entire tail or a small segment. Skinks run to shelter to escape their distracted predators as the disconnected tail continues to twitch. Skinks may also utilize biting as a defensive strategy (Harding 1997).

Communication and Perception

Five-lined Skinks use their vision and their ability to detect chemicals (pheromones) to determine the sex of other skinks.

Food Habits

Five-lined skinks are generally insectivorous, feeding on spiders, millipedes, crickets, termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, and beetle larvae. They may also consume snails, as well as small vertebrates including frogs, smaller lizards, and newborn mice (Harding 1997).

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats non-insect arthropods

Predation

Five-lined skinks are preyed on by large birds, such as American crows, northern shrikes, American kestrels, or sharp-shinned hawks. They are also preyed on by foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, shrews, moles, domestic cats, and snakes. Five-lined skinks are quick to escape and take refuge in crevices. If confronted with a predator, skinks may disconnect their entire tail or a small segment. The tail is often brightly colored and twitches, this distracts the predator long enough for the skink to run away. They re-grow their tails over time. Skinks also bite at their attackers.

Ecosystem Roles

Five-lined Skinks act as a food source for their predators and help to control insect and other invertebrate populations.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Where populations are abundant, five-lined skinks may aid in controlling insect pests (Harding 1997).

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Five-lined skinks are hosts and carriers of the common chigger, a species that regularly attacks humans (Fitch 1956).

Conservation Status

Distribution of the five-lined skink is often patchy and colonial, with small isolated populations in parts of its range. Habitat destruction in these regions could lead to local extinctions of the species (Harding 1997).

Contributors

Elizabeth Vanwormer (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor), Michigan State University.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

Cooper, W., L. Vitt.. 1985. Responses of skinks, E. fasciatus and E. laticeps to airborne conspecific odors: further appraisal. Journal of Herpetology, 19: 481-486.

Fitch, H. 1956. Life history and ecology of the five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus. Pp. 1-156 in E Hall, A Leonard, R Wilson, eds. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History Publications volume 8. Topeka, Kansas: University of Kansas.

Harding, J. 1997. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Hecnar, S. 1994. Nest distribution, site selection, and brooding in the five-lined skink (Eumeces Fasciatus). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 72: 1510-1516.

Vitt, L., W. Cooper.. 1986. Skink reproduction and sexual dimorphism: Eumeces fasciatus in S.E. United States with notes on E. inexpectus. Journal of Herpetology, 20: 65-76.