Skinkosaurus rex: We’re just lucky these hunter-killers are so small

Adult male five-lined skinks turn tan as stripes fade, the blue on the tail does likewise and they develop orange on head and face during the breeding season.

Imagine stepping out your door and confronting a voracious reptilian predator, an ancient holdover from the age of dinosaurs, at close range.

It happens to me all the time.

Fortunately, these Plestiodon genus killers are super skinny and the largest are only about 8 inches long. Otherwise, I would have been consumed on the porch or in the yard long ago.

These are five-lined skinks, almost certainly our most common lizard and a familiar creature over most of the eastern U.S. This single species inspires people to imagine that they are multiple kinds of lizards because of changes they incur as they grow.

Juveniles are black with five linear stripes that are a yellowish color. The juvenile skink’s tail is a vivid, cobalt blue. The electric blue tail somehow gives rise to the silly label and notion that these little reptiles are “blue-tailed scorpions.” They are nowhere close to being scorpions, however, and neither do they sting nor bear any kind of venom.

There is a new class of five-lined skinks afoot right now, a freshly hatched batch of the youngest juveniles out there after emerging from eggs that were laid this spring. These new skinks are tiny, at first probably less than a couple of inches long. That’s about all one could expect to come out of a lizard egg of about ½-inch long.

Skinks remain juvenile or at least less than sexually mature for about two years, however. These sub-adults later may be 4-5 inches long. They retain similar colors, but the black background of their bodies may fade somewhat to dark brown, and their stripes may lose contrast, too, changing from yellow to a more muted tan.

As a skink becomes sexually mature it begins to transform even more in color, the body lightening toward a neutral tan. The stripes begin to fade. Aging males gradually lose all their striping, while the adult females lose stripes on their back as developing a dark brown-to-black single stripe on each side of the body.

That famous blue tail on the immature skink fades toward grayish tan, blending more uniformly with the body color of the adult lizard.

Adult males among five-lined skinks develop a hint of orangey-red color on their head, cheeks and throat as they age. During the spring breeding season, these big boy skinks show that they are hot stuff, advertising their reproductive prowess, by the orange hues becoming bright and obvious.

As the skinks go through the aging process and the sexual dichotomy color changes of the breeding season, they transform in appearance from step to step with minor variations in between. But all the different looks belong to our same five-lined skinks.

Reflecting the blue-tailed scorpion belief, some people fear these skinks, but there really is nothing of which to be afraid. They will go to great lengths to avoid and escape people, and they are harmless. If you are fast enough to catch one — and that takes considerable speed — it will bite with ferocity. But a skink’s ferocity should be laughable to us. It doesn’t have teeth and its most punishing bite is effectively painless, a tiny pinch at most.

If you nab one by the tail, that is all you get. The younger skinks take advantage of that glaring blue tail as diversion. In a capture situation, a skink can jettison its tail. The plan is to distract a predator: the skink detaches the bright tail, which contracts and squirms all by itself. While a predator is provoked to pounce on the wriggling tail, the length-abbreviated skink hopes to skitter away to hide in nearby cover.

A skink probably does not mind ditching a tail to save its overall hide. Afterward, it simply regrows a replacement tail. Herpetologists note, however, that subsequent skink tails never grow quite as long as their original equipment. Yet, a shorter, second-growth tail has got to be better than being eaten.

All considered, there is more plus than minus in having skinks around. Their natural habitat is moist woodlands, where they flourish around leaf litter of deciduous trees. However, they are rather flexible in habitat needs, adapting well to manmade environments. They get by nicely in yards and seem to enjoy trouncing around on the sides of houses, patios, sidewalks, gardens and all manner of landscaping.

Skinks don’t hurt anything in the process of living there, and they make that living by eating insects, spiders, worms and even unlikely stuff like baby mice — generally things that most people would prefer to have removed anyway.

The five-lined skink makes a pretty good neighbor despite the fact that if it were large enough and we were small enough, it would chase us down and consume us without a second’s hesitation. As long as we can keep the evolutionary upper hand with a vast size advantage, we are in pretty good shape.

Let the tables turn on the size mismatch, however, and I’m afraid we could be in for a startling episode of Jurassic Patio.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.