by Whit Gibbons

May 15, 2016

Some iconic animals earn bad reputations because of people's personal experiences with them. For example, if a Bengal tiger ate your favorite uncle or a rogue African elephant destroyed your village, you might be inclined to have a less-than-favorable view of these animals.

Or suppose that every time you look at your prosthetic leg, you think of the great white shark that made a meal of your real one - bad rap justified.

But some really cool animals that actually live around us get undeserved notoriety as bad actors simply because of unfamiliarity. I receive numerous queries every spring about one particularly formidable looking but benign species.

Q: Attached is a photo of a creature in my courtyard that I have never seen before. It is big. I'm frightened of it and scared it could kill my bichon, which is a small dog.

As you can see, the monster is light brown with a huge orange head, At first I thought it was a snake. What is this beast and how dangerous is it? - Karen, Charleston, S.C.

A: It is a great-looking male broad-headed skink, a type of lizard. Some skinks are said to be poisonous to cats that eat them, but that is rare, and I've never heard of a dog being affected, not even a bichon or Chihuahua.

And a skink would never be able to hurt a dog by biting it. My grandsons pick them up all the time (both little dogs and big broad-headed skinks).

Consider yourself fortunate to have breeding skinks around your yard as they perform some fascinating courtship behaviors. You probably also see the smaller juveniles that are black and yellow-striped with metallic blue tails.

As they get older they lose the vivid colors. Adult females become more subdued in color but usually retain the stripes and a bluish tail. Males develop shiny, coppery brown bodies and get much larger than the females.

In springtime male skinks begin courtship and the head and neck turn brilliant red.

Male skinks engage in head-on combat, wrestling and biting each other until one decides that he's had enough and leaves the area. None ever seems to get killed, but the winner as well as the loser may have a few scars from some vicious biting.

If you let a skink bite your finger, seldom will it even break the skin. Some people, perhaps to make a statement about their sense of adventure, may let a skink dangle from one earlobe. This, by the way, is not a recommendation, merely an observation.

The cause of battle between male skinks is territorial rights, often in response to a nearby female interested in mating opportunities. I have watched the winning suitor after a fight spend from several minutes up to an hour chasing around on the forest floor after the female, trying to convince her that he is the man. "Hey, I just whipped that big dude running away."

Male broad-headed skinks are the most robust four-legged lizards in the Southeast. Legless glass lizards get longer but do not have the cachet of a broad-headed skink in fighting colors.

After successful mating, broad-headed skinks lay half a dozen or more eggs in old tree stumps or under rotting logs, and the female stays with them, presumably guarding against attacks by snakes, ants and other small predators. They perform "nursery maintenance" by moving the eggs around in the nest and even eating eggs that become damaged and could harbor bacteria or fungi.

Broad-headed skinks are just one of several species of skinks that collectively range throughout most of the eastern United States. For example, six species of skinks are native to Alabama. Two are smaller look-alikes of "broadheads."

Finding you have skinks in your yard should be viewed as an environmental blessing and an outstanding opportunity to see some interesting behaviors. Plus, you will have an iconic species close at hand.

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