Home | Lizards | The Skinks (Family Scincidae) – An Overview of the Largest Lizard Family

The Skinks (Family Scincidae) – An Overview of the Largest Lizard Family

Prehensile-Tailed SkinkIntroduction
The family Scincidae, the skinks, contains over 1,200 species – more than any other family of lizards.  Skinks range throughout the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, reaching their greatest diversity in Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa.  Among its members we find some of our most common pet reptiles and least-known lizards.  The following information is meant to introduce you to their wonderful diversity of forms and lifestyles.

The Unusual Giant
The group’s largest member, the Prehensile-Tailed Skink, Corucia zebrata, reaches 28 inches in length and is unique in a number of ways – it is entirely arboreal, has a prehensile tail, is limited in range to the Solomon and surrounding islands, feeds on leaves, gives birth to 1 (rarely 2) large offspring after a gestation period of 8-9 months, and seems to have a complex social structure that includes parental care of the young.

Lifestyle and Diet
Typical skinks are elongated in form with small legs and shiny scales.  Most are secretive and, although often diurnal (active by day), spend a good deal of time below rocks, logs or leaf litter.  Legs are absent or reduced in many species, including the various African and Middle Eastern “Sandfish” (Shenops and other genera) which seem to swim as they wriggle through shifting sand dunes.  Most skinks are insectivorous, but many also take fruit, carrion and small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  Several consume vegetation exclusively.

Skink Reproduction
Almost half of the known species bear live young, and a number of these have evolved a primitive placenta.  Many oviparous (egg-laying) skinks guard their eggs, and there is evidence that females may move the egg clutch in response to disturbances. 

A Few That Break the Mold
Quite a few skink species depart from the group’s typical body plan and lifestyle.  New Guinea’s Fojia Skink, Fojia bumui, for example, has plate-like scales down the center of the back and granular scales along the sides.  It clings to vertical rock surfaces along streams, dives after small invertebrates that swim by, and climbs into bushes to sleep on large, sturdy leaves.  The genus Egernia contains at least 23 species that live in extended family groups and exhibit complex social behavior.  There are also aquatic, arboreal and fossorial skinks, some of which have scale-covered, sightless eyes.

Carl Kauffeld and New York City’s Lizards
While growing up in NYC, I was pleased to learn that New York State is home to 2 skink species – the Five-Lined Skink, Eumeces fasciatus and the Coal Skink, E. anthracinus. They are, in fact, the state’s only native lizards – Staten Island’s Eastern Fence Lizards were introduced there by none other than the Staten Island Zoo’s famed reptile man, Carl Kauffeld (to provide a source of food for lizard-eating snakes) and the Italian Wall Lizard of the Bronx, Queens and Nassau County is a pet trade escapee (I have observed free-living Wall Lizards for some time now…more on them to come).

I’ll cover specific skinks in future articles.  Until then, please write in with your comments and questions.  Thanks, Frank.

Further background information on skinks, with links to individual species, is available at:
http://www.tigr.org/reptiles/families/Scincidae.html

25 comments

  1. avatar

    Very interesting article. I commented on your blog about my Broad-Headed skink some time ago and I found your advice most helpful. Thank you for sharing some very much needed information!

    With the weather warming up, I’ve seen lots of Five-Lined skinks out and I like taking pictures of them when I have a camera handy. The Broad-Headed skink seems to be a bit uncommon here (I live in VA) and so I always check each skink I see hoping that I might come across another broad-head. My question is, how do I tell the difference between five-lined skinks and broad-headed skinks? Most people say they can be identified by counting their labial scales, but I don’t think that is always true because my broad-headed skink has 5 labials on the right side of his head and 4 on the left! Of course, being nearly a foot long, I already know my skink is a broad-head, but I would like to identify the wild skinks I see. Is there any other way to tell the difference between five-lined and broad-headed skinks?

    Thanks.

  2. avatar

    Frank,

    Something I’ve always wanted was a Blue tongue skink. I’ve read so many articles on them and they sound like great pets.

    My question is how come it seems (or at least here in so cal.) that the indonesians are much more common then the northerns. In fact finding a northern here will cost you some serious $$., where as the indonesians seems to be a bit more reasonable.

    I’ve seen many advertised here as the Tiliqua gigas as opposed to the T. scincoides intermedia. Now from what I’m told the T. scincoides intermedia seem to get a bit bigger and longer? Would appreciate any comments you have on either species. Thanks!

    Regards,

    -Dave

  3. avatar

    Hello Dave, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your comment. In general, blue tongued skinks make great pets, with captive breeding a real possibility. There are differences between individuals, but most are long-lived, take a wide variety of foods, are handle-able and adjust readily to captivity.

    The taxonomy of the group is in flux. In these matters, herpetologists generally follow the view accepted by the American Museum of Natural History, which is that there are 3 recognized subspecies of Tiliqua gigas, all occurring in Indonesia and New Guinea and 3 of T. scincoides, 2 which are native to Australia and 1 (T. s. chimaerea) on Tanimba and Baker Island in Indonesia. The various subspecies interbreed where there ranges overlap, which confuses identification.

    Internet sites are constantly coming up with new “forms” and proposed subspecies, but the view accepted by professionals is as above.

    In addition to natural interbreeding, hobbyists produced hybrids between both species, and between subspecies that do not normally occur together in the wild. Trade names often do not reflect the true genetic makeup of the animal, but rather promote the “race” most in favor at the time.

    So, it is nearly impossible to draw any general conclusions about size, origin etc. without genetic testing. However, that has little to do with their suitability as captives – all are interesting, regardless of the price…my advice would be to select the healthiest, most reasonably-priced animals available.

    Sorry I could not provide a definitive answer; hope this is of some use.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Good Stuff Frank, more info then I could’ve hoped for!. Going to have to print this out for my reference.

    I’m going to go tomorrow and see a so called Indonesian juvenille and possibly purchase it depending on it’s condition.

    I’ve seen many here at local pet shops that are missing feet/toes I’m assuming from bad molts/sheds. Again, Thank You!! I will keep you updated.

    -Dave

  5. avatar

    Hello Dave, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.

    The lizards can lose toes due to dry sheds…unshed skin can constrict the toe, causing it to become necrotic; missing feet may be due to aggression, especially in holding/shipping containers where crowding is common.

    Good luck with it,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I purchased a Reptisun 10.0 UVB Compact Fluorescent Lamp for my blue tongue reason being the top of the cage has a mesh top I figured it would be better to go with a 10 rather then a 5.

    Now I’m kind of concerned about the distance I should keep the bulb suspended at or can it be placed right on the cage? I don’t want to hurt the skinks eyes.

    This is what I keep reading in various forums. Really confused about it, or should I have stuck with a 5? stumped.. would appreciate any help! Thanks.

    -Dave

  7. avatar

    Frank,

    Just wanted to add, I read the coils with a aluminum domes have the potential to be dangerous, I guess to over UVB? If that makes sense! I just don’t want to hurt my blue tongue. Thanks again. btw, I’m using the zoo med deep dome fixture with that lamp.

    -Dave

    -Dave

  8. avatar

    Hello Dave, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your comment, nice to hear from you again.

    You were correct in choosing a ReptiSun 10.0 bulb for your blue tongued skink. You can position it right on the screening, and arrange a basking site that is within 12-15 inches of the bulb. In my experience these and related lizards are very good at regulating exposure to UVB.

    The dialog on the inter net concerning eye damage arose largely in connection with some of the newer very high output mercury vapor lamps and then seemed to take on a life of its own.

    Reptiles kept in overly-cool surroundings will spend inordinate amounts of time under basking lamps…if these are paired with a UVB source you could theoretically run in to a problem, but I’m not aware of any specific incidences involving florescent bulbs such as the Reptisun 10.0.

    Amphibians are another matter. I have seen corneal injuries (thickening of the membrane, etc.) in gray treefrogs that perched right under a florescent UVB bulb for extended periods, and have reports of similar incidents with other arboreal frogs. The skin (and eggs) of many amphibians contains UVB filters, and except for a few specialized species (i.e. African gray treefrogs), most do not often bask in the sun. Therefore, UVB exposure should be carefully considered.

    I have used the Zoo Med 2.0 bulb in planted exhibits housing barking, gray and green treefrogs, as well as over poison frog and tarantula terrariums, without incident for several years. The bulb encourages plant growth and has caused no eye concerns, even though the treefrogs stay fairly close to it throughout the day (I provide shaded retreats as well, just in case).

    I hope this was useful to you, please keep me posted and write in if you need more information.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    Hello Dave, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your comment.

    A reflector made of any type of metal will increase the amount of UVB entering the terrarium…this is usually to be encouraged (except for amphibians and perhaps certain nocturnal lizards), especially as screen terrarium covers will deflect a portion of the UVB leaving the lamp.

    I’m not aware of problems specifically associated with aluminum, but Zoo Med puts a good deal of research into their products, and you can assume that the fixture you are using is safe.

    Enjoy your skink, and please let me know if you need anything further.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  10. avatar

    Hi,

    Do you have any experience with a Australian Tree Skink (Egernia striolata)?. I hope that is spelled right, I have opportunity to get one of these little guys.

    I rarely if ever see them in the pet trade. Thought it would be nice to add him to my collection. Please let me know if you have any care tips or know where I can find some. I was told by the current owner that he feeds him mealworms, crickets and occasionally organic baby food.

    Thanks!

    -Dave

  11. avatar

    Hello Dave, Frank Indiviglio here. Nice to hear from you again.

    I’ve had a few Egernia species pass through my hands, mostly as confiscations through US F&W Service at Kennedy and Miami Airports, but have not kept E. striolata. A colleague whom I wrote earlier today informs me that this species is regularly kept in European zoos, and that he cared for a number during his time overseas.

    Their husbandry basically follows that of the blue-tongued skink, although they are somewhat more carnivorous and less likely to take fruits and vegetables (such should be tried, however) than are blue-tongues. Most take readily to tong-feeding, so you might try canned invertebrates (including snails, which they seem to like) in order to increase dietary variety. E. striolata, in common with the other 20-25 members of the genus (Australia’s spiny-tailed skinks), bears live young, with 1-3 offspring comprising a litter.

    E. striolata is found in open woodlands and scrub in central and eastern Australia and is somewhat arboreal. It should be provided with a moist and a dry retreat (rolled cork bark lined with sphagnum and wedged above-ground works well) and misted daily (most related species are adapted to drier environments, but this species does best with a bit of moisture).

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  12. avatar

    our free roam 10 yr old blue tongue attacked his own back foot & toes were missing. couldn’t find a vet in our area, internet help said neosporin & gauze & most likely a bad shed. Put him in huge tank & a week later, again. Healed & now 2-3 weeks later, he’s done it again. Shedding? Parasites? Ever heard of this? Our poor baby, his limbs, even the intact ones seem sore.

  13. avatar

    Hello Candyce, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    Although lizards may bite at dried skin that does not come off normally during a shed, I’ve never run across anything quite so severe as you describe. Do you see unshed skin when the animal begins to bite? Such is not a typical reaction to parasites either.

    You mentioned that the skink is free-roaming…could it have come in contact with a caustic substance at some point?

    Unfortunately, skin scrapings and perhaps blood tests will likely be needed to diagnose the problem. If you are still unable to find a veterinarian in your area, please write back with locality info…perhaps I can suggest someone from one of the lists I have at my disposal. I’ve also written to a colleague for her take on the problem.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  14. avatar

    Hello Ben, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the fascinating post…NYC wildlife is a lifelong passion of mine! Wonderful blog you have there as well.

    Your photo will keep me up nights…the lizard is not a coal or 5-lined skink, both native to NY state and across the Hudson in NJ, but not found in NYC; nor is it a wall lizard. In outline it resembles somewhat a fence lizard, but is too large, and they are only found in Staten Island/ NJ Pine Barrens. I almost want to say that it could be a Tokay gecko – it’s the right size and shape, and these common pet trade lizards have become established in many cities (i.e. Miami) worldwide. They could not take our winter, but often live indoors, within houses and apartments. In fact, some years ago a store in Greenwich Village, I believe, was renting them to people as a roach control measure…I doubt many were captured and returned to the store. Tokays are also escape artists and bite very hard when grabbed – perhaps there is a local population which winters indoors. They are, however, persistently nocturnal…ahhh! I’ll think on it a bit more…meanwhile, please keep me posted on any developments.

    I did not get to write the wall lizard article. They are common along the Long Island Railroad tracks in Nassau County, LI, having escaped from a pet store in Franklin Square some years ago, and are also established in exhibits at the Bronx Zoo and the NY Botanical Gardens, and at 1-2 parks in Queens.

    I post weekly articles about birds on ThatBirdBlog. Most deal with captive husbandry, but I occasionally include notes on wild birds as well.

    The Maritime Aquarium has a camera set up over an osprey nest in CT. The young are out and about, but still return to the nest often. The parents have been seen bringing huge (expensive!) koi to feed the chicks.

    I’ve worked with a few kestrels injured in NYC over the years…one was observed by a co-worker at the Bronx Zoo to be struck by a peregrine falcon, right over Fordham Road in the Bronx!

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  15. avatar

    You mentioned posting your findings on NYC free ranging Italian Wall Lizards. I’ve searched but couldn’t find the article.

    Take alook at my blog. The location of these breeding kestrels is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

    Thanks in advance.

    Ben

  16. avatar

    Frank,

    Thanks for the quick followup and details in your response. 

    I just noticed that I didn’t mention that the image in my blog is of a falcon (American Kestrel) with a lizard in it’s bill.

    The lizard is almost certainly an Ital. Wall Lizard. See my post below concerning a scope view of other lizards taken by the same male kestrel. I’ve seen up to 8 separate lizard takes. 

    The ID at the time was confirmed by Dr. Russell Burke. 

    Also, take a look at the photo taken by Deborah Allen of the same nesting pair of kestrels. This photo shows the lizard nicely.  

    Thanks again and if you have any details of the furthest western sightings on Long Island (incl. Bklyn & Qns) this would be much appreciated. The furthest western site I’ve heard of is Queens College.

    eBirds Scope Views of IWL
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ebirdsnyc/message/6734

    Photo of Same American Kestrel Family by Deborah Allen
    http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=9437536

  17. avatar

    Hello Ben, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks so much for getting back to me…I was just about to forward the photo to Russell Burke! …he’s the last word on Italian lizards for sure (and expert in so many other areas as well). The wonderful photo you’ve just sent (D. Allen) shows clearly that it is a male wall lizard, and a huge, well-fed one at that.

    When looking at the earlier photo, showing the lizard’s outline, I did not key in on how small kestrels are…but I still could not be sure from that angle. Dick Bartlett, noted herpetologist and author, just got back to me that photo – he thought it could be a very large wall lizard as well. I’ll send him the new photo shortly.

    Amazing that the kestrels can catch wall lizards – they are incredibly quick and alert. I went to the Westbury and Carle Place train stations in Nassau County earlier this afternoon to take a look at the wall lizards resident there. Saw 6 adults and several of this year’s young, but could not get within 3 feet of them.

    When you have a moment, please let me know what other food items have been recorded as being brought to the nest, thanks. Former co-workers of mine reported that red tailed hawks nesting in the Bronx Zoo consistently brought 3-4 foot long snakes to their nest, but this was before my time at the zoo; I’m guessing water snakes, black rat snakes or racers captured in Westchester – seems to have been a specialty of that pair.

    I knew of a kestrel nest in the East Village, on the southeast corner of First Ave. and E 4th Street, but have not checked back this year.

    Wall lizards are established in Alley Pond Park in Bayside/Little Neck, Queens, but that is east of Queens College. Other than those in the Bronx, I don’t know any further west than QC, but will think about it.

    Thanks for the most interesting exchange, hope to hear from you again,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  18. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    Recently I’ve been thinking about getting another Broad-Headed skink, preferably a female because I’ve been considering breeding my skink in a couple years. I really enjoy these skinks and would love to have a few more. I know you are knowledgeable of Broad-Headed skinks, so if you have any advice on breeding that would be great. The most difficult part seems to be in finding another skink. I was hoping to get a female next year but I don’t really know where to look, and it would probably be hard to find since there doesn’t seem to be many people who keep these lizards in captivity. Do you know of anywhere I might be able to get a female?

    Thanks!

  19. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Nice to hear from you again, I hope all is well.

    Judging by similar species, I would say that a winter-time reduction in temperature and daylength, especially for animals originating in the northern reaches of the range, would be most useful. I recall that you are doing this already, so the animal you have should be ready in the spring. Compatibility is sometimes an issue as well, especially where a female is being added to a male’s enclosure.

    Unfortunately, you are correct…few people work with this species, or other natives. I receive lists from a few small dealers who sometimes come up with surprises, and will let you know if any turn up. Other than that, I would suggest you monitor kingsnaske.com – perhaps a “wanted” add, if such an option exists, would draw some attention? Herp societies often host member exchanges as well…sometimes less commonly kept animals turn up, but unfortunately I don’t know of any to recommend for broad headed skinks….perhaps herp societies within the species range?

    Sorry I could not be of more help.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

  20. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    Thanks for all the tips. One more question: would I need to incubate the eggs, so just let the female incubate them?

  21. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    It’s usually safer to remove the eggs so that you can control the temperature and humidity, which might not be ideal in the terrarium. However, I have left eggs in place with other lizards and pythons…as long as you can make adjustments to temperature and humidity, it certainly is a more interesting way to go about it. I’ll find out what you need when you are ready.

    Yes, ask the supplier about holding onto the animal, maybe offer some money towards upkeep, or perhaps see if s/he has a regular source.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  22. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I emailed the seller but they didn’t want to hold the skink and sold her shortly after. I’ve also contacted 2 other people who were selling skinks a few months ago but neither still have them. I’ll keep looking around and will go ahead and get a tank ready next year.

    Thanks,

    Sarah

  23. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here, I hope all is well.

    That’s too bad…I’ll keep an eye out as the weather warms and will send you a note.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  24. avatar

    What abt the evodevo of young w/ blue tails? Age & duration?
    Links to physiology,etc.?
    Day in the life of a skink?

  25. avatar

    Thank you, great ideas. I especially like “day in the life of” articles and books, if well done. The book “Wild Season” by Allen Eckert first grabbed my attention in the mid 1960’s….thanks for bringing it up. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind, Best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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