RI’s first species of lizard discovered in South County – ecoRI News
By TODD McLEISH / ecoRI News contributor
The Rhode Island herpetological community is overflowing with excitement to discover the first confirmed lizard sighting in the state. A five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) of uncertain origin was found in South County on April 22.
Emilie Holland, an environmental specialist with the Federal Highway Administration and president of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, made the discovery and immediately contacted other members of the National History Survey board with expertise in identifying lizards.
“I was just searching when I saw the little guy,” she said. “At first I thought it was a salamander and I caught it really quickly. When I opened my hand I thought it would be a mole salamander, but it didn’t move as fast as a mole salamander normally would.
When University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker received a text and a photo of the Dutch lizard, she was in the middle of a virtual meeting.
“My first reaction was how fast can I get out of this meeting and go find Emily to see her,” Karraker said.
the five-line skink is typically found in the Southeast and Midwest, where it is quite common. Small numbers are also found in the Hudson Valley of 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 about 6 inches long with distinct brown and cream stripes, skinks have blue tails in the juvenile state, and adult males have a reddish throat. The one Holland found was a miner.
“The blue tail is a defense mechanism,” said herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “A predator will attack the brightest 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 love rocky forests where there is a lot of fallen wood,” Perrotti said. “And they love the railroad corridors because they are usually lined with rocks which are ideal for thermoregulation. Lizards love to climb rocks.
“Was it a stowaway on a train?” Was it transported here with wood or mulch? We do not know. We need to find more specimens. Is it possible that there is a population here? Absoutely. 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 made it to Rhode Island on his own.
“The kid side of my brain tells me, ‘How cool would that be,’” she said. “But when I stop to think about it, it’s likely it was imported here somehow.”
“It’s not an extension of range in the sense that it 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 lumber. There are enough people like me, Lou and Scott and all of my students who are constantly running around Rhode Island looking for stuff, rolling on 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 trade, 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 files, “Karraker said. “They are not something that is easily tamed, they are very sensitive to the presence of people and they hide themselves, so they do not make a good pet.”
Because the skink likely survived here in the winter, this raises additional 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 this to be a breeding population and not just a lone escapee, then whatever population of skinks arrived in Rhode Island, they could never have survived here. before, but now they can, ”he said.
But Karraker noted that some native skink populations in New York City are almost as north as the Adirondack Mountains, where it’s often colder than Rhode Island, so she isn’t convinced climate change has played a role.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the climate,” she said. “Something moved and the skink was in it, and Rhode Island isn’t a bad place. The skink detected that there were no other lizards here to compete with, and he 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 it feeds it on termites.
“I didn’t want to release him,” she said. “This decision is up to DEM, not me. So I’m just waiting to hand over to DEM to take charge and figure out what to do with it.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.