Common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)
|Also known as:||five-lined skink|
|Synonyms:||Eumeces fasciatus, Lacerta fasciata|
|Size||Adult total length: 12.5 - 21.5 cm (2)|
- The common five-lined skink is named for the five yellowish-white stripes that run along the length of its body.
- Juvenile common five-lined skinks have conspicuous bright blue tails, but this colour fades with age.
- During the breeding season, the chin of the male common five-lined skink turns orange.
- The tail of the common five-lined skink can break off during an attack to distract the predator and allow the skink to escape.
The common five-lined skink is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is named for the five yellowish-white stripes that run along the length of its body, from the head to the tip of the tail (2). These stripes appear particularly bold in juveniles, offset by the dark brown or black body and bright blue tail (2) (3) (4). The blue tail and dark background fade with age, and the overall colour of the male adult common five-lined skink is uniform brown (2) (3). During the breeding season, the jaw and chin of the adult male common five-lined skink turns orange-red in colour (2) (3) (4).
Because the colour of the common five-lined skink is highly variable and dependant on age and sex, the best way to identify an individual is using the scale patterns (2). Underneath the tail the scales of the central row are widened, and there are four scales that border the mouth on the upper lip and two enlarged scales behind the jaw (2) (5).
The common five-lined skink is found throughout much of the eastern United States, from New York west to Wisconsin and Illinois, and south to Texas and Florida (3) (4) (5). It is also found as far north as southern Canada in the Great Lakes region of Ontario (3) (4).
The common five-lined skink prefers woodland areas with openings where it can bask, usually on logs or rocks (3) (4). It is also seen along the fossil beaches in the Great Lakes region, feeding on the insects found among decaying logs (3).
The common five-lined skink hibernates during the colder winter months between October and April or May, usually in tree stumps, logs, rock crevices or piles of vegetation (3). During the warmer months, it basks on logs or on the ground to raise its body temperature to between 28 and 34 degrees Celsius, which enables it to become active (3). During colder days, this species remains inactive, hidden under logs, rocks or piles of bark (2). In Georgia, juvenile common five-lined skinks are active throughout the warmer months, while activity among adults of the species appears to be concentrated during the month of May (2). The common five-lined skink feeds on a variety of small invertebrates (2) (3). Large males with strong jaws may eat young lizards or mice (3). Captive common five-lined skinks have been observed eating berries (3).
The common five-lined skink breeds in the spring (2). During this time, the male defends its territory against other males, but allows the presence of females and juveniles (3). Males have been observed attacking each other using their powerful jaws (3). When ready to mate, the male common five-lined skink approaches the female from the side and bites her neck in order to enable copulation (3). The female lays between 4 and 18 eggs about a month later, usually inside a rotten log or tree stump (2) (3). The eggs are around 13 millimetres in length and are very thin shelled (3). The female common five-lined skink leaves the nest to bask and sometimes to feed, but otherwise remains with its eggs, curling its body around them, turning them with its snout and viciously defending them against intruders (3). The female remains with its eggs until they hatch, urinating on them to keep them moist, and eating any that spoil before they hatch (3).
The common five-lined skink is skittish by nature and will flee threatening intruders (2). If captured, it will readily bite, but it is unable to break human skin (2). A male common five-lined skink can defend itself against attack by biting the predator with its strong jaws (3).
The common five-lined skink is predated by several species of snake, moles, opossums, skunks, cats and hawks, although the most significant predator is thought to be the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) (3).
The tail of the common five-lined skink is able to autotomise spontaneously (4). This is when the tail breaks off and twitches for several minutes with the aim of distracting the attacker and allowing the skink to escape (4). Experiments involving natural predators of the common five-lined skink have shown that the skink holds its tail off the ground to detract attention away from the body. Once the predator is able to gain a secure hold of the tail, a powerful muscle contraction results in tail autotomy. Following this, there is very little bleeding or fluid loss from the tail (6). The detached tail twitches on the ground. If the tail is not eaten by the attacker, the twitching may result in it being buried into leaf litter or loose surface soil (2). If the skink survives the attack, it may return later to find the tail using chemical cues, and eat it (2). A new tail quickly grows from the stump of the old one, and it is thought that the negative effects of losing the tail are offset by the increased chance of escaping predators (3). However, as the skink matures, the cost/benefit ratio for the process of tail autotomy changes. Tails, and the energy reserves associated with them, are important for reproduction or reproduction-related activity. This is the reason that the tails of adult common five-lined skinks are more cryptically coloured, and that the conspicuous blue colouration is only seen in juveniles (6).
Selective logging in woodland areas can benefit the common five-lined skink by providing open areas with logs and piles of sawdust for basking (3). However, large-scale logging and the clearing of dead logs and beach debris has a detrimental effect on this species (3).
The common five-lined skink may also be threatened by the illegal collection of individuals for the pet trade, as well as by disturbance caused by all-terrain vehicles (4).
The common five-lined skink is protected under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act (4).
Find out more about the common five-lined skink:
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory - Plestiodon fasciatus:
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- Autotomy: the process of spontaneous separation of part of an animal from its body, usually in self-defence when the animal is attacked or injured.
- Cryptic colouration: colouration that makes animals difficult to detect against their background, so serving to reduce predation. The colouration may provide camouflage against a background, break up the outline of the body, or both.
- Hibernation: a winter survival strategy in which the animal passes the winter in a resting state. This period of inactivity is characterised by specific biological and biochemical changes including lowered blood pressure and respiration rate. In reptiles, this is also known as brumation.
- Invertebrates: animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
IUCN Red List (February, 2014)
- Jensen, J.B. (2008) Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia. University of Georgia Press, Georgia.
- Holman, J.A. (2012) The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quaternary and Recent Faunal Adventure. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan.
Ontario’s Biodiversity: Species at Risk - Common five-lined skink (February, 2014)
- Watson, C.M. (2008) Comparative Thermal Biology and Associated Niche Differentiation Among the Five-lined Skinks. ProQuest LLC, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
- Vitt, L.J. and Caldwell, J.P. (2013) Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles. Academic Press, Waltham, Massachusetts.