First RI lizard species found in South County
Rhode Island’s herpetological community is erupting with excitement at the discovery of the first confirmed lizard sighting in the state. A common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) of uncertain origin was found in South County on April 22.
Emilie Holland, an environmental scientist with the Federal Highway Administration and chair of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, made the discovery and immediately contacted other National History Survey board members with expertise in identifying lizards.
“I was just rummaging around when I saw the little guy,” she said. “I thought it was a salamander at first, and I grabbed it really quickly. When I opened my hand, I thought it was going to be a mole salamander, but it didn’t. moved as fast as a mole salamander normally would.
When University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker received a text and photo of the lizard from Holland, she was in the middle of a virtual meeting.
“My first reaction was, how quickly can I get out of this meeting and go find Emily to see her,” Karraker said.
the five-lined skink is usually found in the Southeast and Midwest, where it is fairly common. Small numbers are also found in the Hudson Valley in New York and in western Connecticut and western Massachusetts. But except for a few unconfirmed sightings, they have never been recorded in Rhode Island.
Growing around 6 inches long with distinct brown and cream stripes, skinks have blue tails as juveniles and adult males have reddish throats. The one Holland found was a minor.
“The blue tail is a defense mechanism,” said herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “A predator will attack the brighter part of the animal, and the lizard may drop its tail to run away. This gives them a protective advantage.
The big question is how it got to Rhode Island: did it come naturally on its own, or was it brought to the area by humans, intentionally or not? Since it was found near railroad tracks and a lumber yard, many possibilities are being considered.
“Skinks like rocky forests where there’s a lot of fallen wood,” Perrotti said. “And they love rail corridors because they’re usually lined with rocks which are great for thermoregulation. Lizards love to climb on rocks.
“Was he a stowaway on a train? Was it transported here in wood or mulch? We do not know. We need to find more specimens. Is it possible that there is a population here? Absolutely. But unless you’re really looking for them, they’re really hard to find.
Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, contacted a colleague who studies Italian wall lizards which dispersed along the northeast rail corridor, but no skinks were found along the tracks.
Holland hopes he arrived alone in Rhode Island.
“The kid side of my brain is like, ‘How cool would that be,'” she said. “But when I stop to think about it, it’s likely he was imported here somehow.”
“It’s not a range extender in the sense that he walked east to Rhode Island,” she said. “My immediate thought is that it came in someone’s mulch – or some eggs did – or in a load of wood. There are enough people like me and Lou and Scott and all my students constantly running around Rhode Island looking for stuff, rolling over logs. If they were widely distributed in Rhode Island, we would know.
Another possibility is that the skink was released by someone who kept it as a pet.
“Almost all animals are in the pet business, but I spent some time going through Craig’s List and had my students investigate pet stores this semester, and I don’t think this species has appeared in anyone’s records,” Karraker said. “They are not something that is easily tamed, they are very sensitive to people around them and they hide, so they don’t make a good pet.”
Because the skink likely survived here in the winter, this raises further speculation. David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey, wonders if climate change may have played a role in his survival in the state.
“If further research shows that this is a breeding population and not just a single escapee, then regardless of how this particular population of skinks got to Rhode Island, they would never have been able to survive here before, but now they can,” he said.
But Karraker noted that some native skink populations in New York are almost as far north as the Adirondack Mountains, where it’s often colder than Rhode Island, so she’s not convinced climate change played a role.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the weather,” she said. “Something moved and the skink was in it, and Rhode Island is not a bad place. The skink sensed that there were no other lizards here to compete with, and it survived.
The next step for the group of herpetologists is to search the area for additional specimens to determine the size of the local population. Buchanan will examine the first specimen for diseases and perform genetic analysis to determine where it came from.
But for now, the skink lives in an aquarium at Karraker’s, where she feeds it termites.
“I didn’t want to take it out,” she said. “It’s up to DEM to make that decision, not me. So I’m just waiting to pass the baton to DEM to take things in hand and know what to do with it.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish directs a wildlife blog.