by Whit Gibbons

May 21, 2006

The great thing about this time of year is that I get to see a lot more natural phenomena unfold out of doors, and the ecological questions about plants and animals come in daily from a variety of people. A second great thing is that I am certain that many of the questions being asked are revealing about people's changing attitudes toward our native wildlife, from negative and ignorant to positive and enlightened. The following is one I received last week.

Q. - I was looking around your reptile and amphibian website (www.uga.edu/srelherp) to find some information on a certain kind of lizard. I believe I have a small family of these lizards at our new home here in Columbia, SC. Based on your pictures the lizard is a broad-headed skink. I am very concerned that we have a family of these living close to our house and was wondering if there is a way to get rid of them, or to remove them without harming them. We have a small child, and although you indicate that some people falsely believe skinks have a venomous stinger, you say they are harmless to people. However, maybe these beliefs are true. Is there anything that you know of that we can do in order to remove them from our property? In protection of my child, I just don't believe that they should be hanging around like the geckos we have outside of the house as well. If there is any information you can give me that would be greatly appreciated.

A. - Your question is noteworthy from a point of irony in that you are interested in getting rid of a native species (the broad-headed skink) that is completely harmless to humans and eats lots of roaches, termites, and other insects, whereas you are not concerned with an introduced species (geckoes) that are not native. Geckoes do no harm either, but you definitely do not want to get rid of the skinks. They would never bite a person unless you picked one up and put your finger in its mouth. Even if you did, it does not hurt. Try to learn to enjoy these fascinating animals (the males have bright red heads in the spring, and the juveniles and young females have bright blue tails). Skinks are good to have around and can even be entertaining to watch. There is no way they can hurt you or your child physically.
I should add that while the belief that skinks or any other lizards have stingers on their tails is completely false, some scientists speculate that some species of blue-tailed skinks are bad-tasting to many predators and can even be lethal to cats that eat them. But as far as having a neat animal roaming around your house, skinks are ideal. The males fight in the springtime (such as now) and the females lay their eggs in rotting wood and actually guard the eggs. The little ones with bright blue tails will appear during the summer.

Now this query about lizards has two features I find very encouraging. First, the mother did not immediately call an exterminator or try to eliminate the skinks herself. Instead, she searched for some information about what kind of animal she was observing, figured out what kind of lizard it was from the website, and then pursued if further by inquiring. The second positive part is that she sent a followup email that stated: "Thank you very much for informing me on skinks a little more. Glad to know that they are not harmful. I'm a woman who loves nature and will do just about anything not to harm something as long as I know it will not do any harm to my child in the long run."

This is the way environmental education should work. Nature is too complex for any of us to know everything. But taking an unprejudiced approach of finding out the true danger of something and then discovering, as is usually the case, that they are completely or mostly harmless, can help anyone get more enjoyment out of the natural world.

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