by Whit Gibbons

June 22, 2014

During warmer months, I am asked many questions about lizards, especially skinks and geckos. Of the almost 6,000 living species of lizards currently recognized, the ones in these families are the most abundant and widespread globally, collectively representing more than half of the world's lizards.

The eastern United States has only one native species of gecko, the Florida reef gecko, which is found only in the Florida Keys. The most frequently encountered gecko in the country is an introduced species, the Mediterranean gecko, which is almost white with little bumps on the body. Mediterranean geckos are benign creatures that are completely harmless to humans. They are not known to cause problems for any native lizard or other animal. The areas where they persist are around human habitation, which means most of the native wildlife has already been eliminated or affected in some way.

Geckos are active primarily at night and are often seen prowling around outdoor lights where they find their prey, insects and spiders. Most southerners will probably appreciate the information that these geckos will eat roaches. Predictions by herpetologists are that geckos will become more and more prevalent in urban areas throughout the Southeast. They have been documented in most large cities including Orlando, Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile and New Orleans. Interestingly, they are virtually never found in natural wildlife habitats.

Many skinks on the other hand are abundant and commonly seen in daytime. At least one or more kind of skink is native to 47 states. Texas, Alabama, and Florida each are home to half a dozen or more. Because of the skinks' prevalence in natural habitats, suburban residential areas, and even green areas within cities, many people are likely to encounter one type of skink or another in most parts of the country. Some people who move from more northern localities to the South seem particularly apprehensive about these native animals that were already here long before any humans arrived. Following are questions I have received this year:

Q: We moved from Michigan where we never saw lizards to Atlanta where we have seen several different kinds, including some our neighbors call skinks. One lady told us they are poisonous and another said only the ones with blue tails are. We have two small children. Should we take some kind of precautions for their safety?

A: As for the children, you shouldn't worry. No skink in the world is venomous, so being bitten or stung by one is not a problem. My grandsons catch them all the time and occasionally get bitten. Skinks run fast and some climb trees, but the most difficult part about catching a skink is being careful not to grab the tail. As with many lizards, when a skink is attacked, its tail will break off and continues to wiggle, distracting a would-be predator. Some skinks may be poisonous to eat. I have heard of cats becoming ill from eating blue-tailed skinks, but the information among veterinarians I have talked to is contradictory and not definitive.

Most skinks in the southeastern region are similar in behavior, general habitat, and appearance. Juveniles of the most common species have smooth black bodies with yellow stripes down the body and a bright metallic blue tail. This distinctive color pattern is seen in a more subdued fashion in adult females. Some species, especially the broad-headed skink, get several inches long and during the breeding season have a bright red head and coppery brown body.

Q: We transferred to Birmingham during the winter, and after this spring we have a question. How do you get rid of skinks? Is there some kind of chemical we can spray?

A: Removing all ground litter (leaves, pieces of bark, and other hiding places) close to your house may help. I know of no chemical that would eliminate skinks without being harmful to many other animals, and possibly yourselves. Skinks are part of the environment in most southern regions, so a permanent solution is not likely.

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