Plestiodon laticepsBroadhead Skink

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Geographic Range

Broad-headed skinks can be found in central and eastern parts of the United States, ranging from Pennsylvania to Florida and Indiana to Texas. (Roots, 2006; Smith, 1995)

Habitat

Broad-headed skinks are arboreal, and prefer open forest habitats. However, they are also found hunting, mating, and nesting on the ground. Areas with abundant dead or decaying tree matter are selected for nesting. (Mitchell, 1994; Roots, 2006)

Physical Description

The bodies of juveniles range from brown to black, with five to seven stripes on the dorsal side. These stripes vary in color from white to light orange, trending to a vibrant blue on the tail. If a juvenile is attacked, the bright blue tail breaks away and wiggles to distract the predator. By sexual maturity, males become a uniform brown color, losing all of their stripes. Their heads become orange to red and increase both in size and vibrancy during mating season. Broad-headed skinks are the second largest skink species, and males are larger than females, reaching a maximum of 324 millimeters. Adult females keep some of their striped coloration, but do not retain the blue stripes on their tails. (Mitchell, 1994; Roots, 2006; Smith, 1995)

Five-lined skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) are often confused with female and juvenile broad-headed skinks because of their blue tail striping, but can be distinguished by having four labial scales around the mouth, while broad-headed skinks have five. (Mitchell, 1994; Smith, 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range length
    324 (high) mm
    12.76 (high) in

Development

Broad-headed skinks hatch from eggs and look like small versions of their parents. No published information is currently available regarding the embryological development of this skink. (Vitt and Cooper, 1989)

Reproduction

Female broad-headed skinks have a urodael gland, which secretes pheromones during the breeding season. This gland is not found on males. Males use tongue-flicking to follow the female's pheromone trails. Females prefer to mate with larger males with the most brightly-colored orange heads. Males initiate a neck grasp with accepting females and breeding begins. Males guard females around a week, preventing other males' attempts at mating, and aggressively fight with any males who approach. If the male finds another female within the next few weeks of breeding season, he will start the courting process over and try to mate again. (Fox, et al., 2003; Mitchell, 1994; Roots, 2006; Trauth, et al., 1987; Zug, et al., 2001)

Broad-headed skinks breed only once per year in late spring. Females usually lay 8 to 13 eggs in their nest, which is made of leaf debris or in a decaying tree. The eggs weigh less than a gram each. The female will remain with the eggs for the 3 to 8 weeks until they hatch, only leaving to feed. Newly hatched skinks venture out of the nest within a few days. They are sexually mature when they reach a total length of 75 mm. (Fox, et al., 2003; Mitchell, 1994; Roots, 2006; Vitt and Cooper, 1989)

  • Breeding interval
    Broad-headed skinks breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding season occurs over several weeks in late spring. Eggs have an incubation period of 3-8 weeks.
  • Range number of offspring
    8 to 13
  • Average number of offspring
    11
  • Range gestation period
    3 to 8 weeks

Females guard their egg clutches until they hatch. They leave shortly after hatching, offering no further parental investment. Males do not participate in taking care of the eggs. (Mitchell, 1994; Roots, 2006; Vitt and Cooper, 1989)

  • Parental Investment
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

The lifespan of broad-headed skinks in the wild is unknown. Five-lined skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), a related species, live an average of four years in the wild and it is thought that broad-headed skink lifespans would be comparable. One report suggests that broad-headed skinks can live at least eight years in captivity, since a skink was captured at approximately four years of age and lived for four more in captivity. (Cooper and Vitt, 1987; Mitchell, 1994)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    8 (high) years

Behavior

Broad-headed skinks are diurnal, solitary animals, only coming together to mate. Males are territorial during breeding season and commonly chase away smaller males. This species is mainly arboreal, but often nests and hunts on the ground. These skinks hibernate from October to March in northern regions of their range. (Mitchell, 1994; Roots, 2006)

Home Range

No published information is available regarding home range or territory sizes in broad-headed skinks.

Communication and Perception

Little is known about how broad-headed skinks communicate, although it is known that they can visually distinguish between sexes and can also detect the scent of pheromones. Males smell by tongue flicking in order to track pheromones emitted by females during mating season. They are very likely to use these senses in general perception of their environment, as well. (Mitchell, 1994; Trauth, et al., 1987)

Food Habits

Broad-headed skinks consume many different kinds of insects, arachnids, mollusks, rodents, and smaller reptiles, including juveniles of its own species. Broad-headed skinks search for food in trees and on the the ground using visual and chemical signals, which are detected via tongue flicking. (Mitchell, 1994; Pianka and Vitt, 2003; Roots, 2006; Vitt and Cooper, 1986)

  • Animal Foods
  • mammals
  • reptiles
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks

Predation

Broad-headed skinks are preyed on by carnivorous birds, larger reptiles, and some mammals, including domesticated cats. Like most skinks, broad-headed skinks have tails that break away when grabbed by a predator. The tail continues to wiggle and distracts the predator while the skink makes its escape, often climbing into a surrounding tree or under leaf debris. (Mitchell, 1994)

Ecosystem Roles

Broad-headed skinks are a food source for their predators and their consumption of insects can help keep populations under control. Although not documented in this species, Saurian malaria, caused by Plasmodium mexicanum has been known to affect related skink species. (Mitchell, 1994; Thompson and Huff, 1944)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Broad-headed skinks are often taken from the wild and placed into the pet trade. (Bartlett, et al., 2001)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Broad-headed skinks have no known negative impact on humans.

Conservation Status

Broad-headed skink populations are stable and they are not considered a conservation risk.

Contributors

Brandy Quesenberry (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Kiersten Newtoff (editor), Radford University, Melissa Whistleman (editor), Radford University, Jeremy Wright (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

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

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

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.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

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).

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.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

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

tactile

uses touch to communicate

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

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Bartlett, P., B. Griswold, R. Bartlett. 2001. Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates: An Identification and Care Guide. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series.

Burt, C. 1937. The lizards of the southeastern United States. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 40: 349-366.

Cooper, W. 1999. Tradeoffs between courtship, fighting, and antipredatory behavior by a lizard, Eumeces laticeps. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 47/1,2: 54-59.

Cooper, W., L. Vitt. 1987. Deferred agonistic behavior in a long-lived scincid lizard Eumeces laticeps: Field and laboratory data on the roles of body size and residence in agonistic strategy. Oecologia, 72/3: 321-326.

Cooper, W., L. Vitt. 1988. Orange head coloration of the male broad-headed skink (Eumeces laticeps), a sexually social cue. Copeia, 1988/1: 1-6.

Douglas, N. 1965. Observations on the predaceous and cannibalistic feeding habits of Eumeces laticeps schneider. Herpetologica, 21/4: 308-309.

Fergus, C. 2003. Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland and Washington. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Fox, S., J. McCoy, T. Baird. 2003. Lizard Social Behavior. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mitchell, J. 1994. The Reptiles of Virginia. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pianka, E., L. Vitt. 2003. Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Roots, C. 2006. Hibernation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Smith, H. 1995. Handbook of Lizards: Lizards of the United States and of Canada. United States: Cornell University Press.

Thompson, P., C. Huff. 1944. A saurian malarial parasite, Plasmodium mexicanum, n. sp., with both elongatum-and gallinaceum-types of exoerythrocytic stages. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 74/1: 48-67.

Trauth, S., W. Cooper, L. Vitt, S. Perrill. 1987. Cloacal anatomy of the broad-headed skink, Eumeces laticeps, with a description of a female pheromonal gland. Herpetologica, 43/4: 458-466.

Vitt, L., W. Cooper. 1986. Foraging and diet of a diurnal predator (Eumeces laticeps) feeding on hidden prey. Journal of Herpetology, 20/3: 408-415.

Vitt, L., W. Cooper. 1989. Maternal care in skinks (Eumeces). Journal of Herpetology, 23/1: 29-34.

Vitt, L., W. Cooper. 1985. The relationship between reproduction and lipid cycling in the skink Eumeces laticeps with comments on brooding ecology. Herpetologica, 41/4: 419-432.

Zug, G., L. Vitt, J. Caldwell. 2001. Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.