A skink is a member of a large family of lizards with a distinct cylindrical body and short, stubby legs. Skinks can be found widely distributed throughout the world in tropical to temperate zones, and they are incredibly diverse. Their family, Scincidae, contains over one thousand species, some of which are considered rare and endangered, while others are quite abundant and well known in the regions that they inhabit. The determined creatures will readily adapt to fill any available ecological niche, including niches created by humans, such as stone walls and gardens.
Many skinks move more like snakes than lizards, due to their sinuous bodies and short legs. They are also distinguished from lizards by their short necks. Some skink species actually slither like snakes, as they have vestigial or even nonexistent legs. The creatures are small to medium sized, and they vary widely in coloration. Some skinks are relatively staidly colored, blending in well with their background, while others have bright spots or stripes. A few species actually change color during their breeding season, to alert other skinks to their availability.
Several species of skink are quite distinctive because their coloration includes the color blue. Five lined skinks, for example, have bright blue tails which are intended to distract potential predators from their bodies, while the blue tongued skink has a blue to purple tongue. Some people colloquially call these species “blue skinks,” in a reference to their coloration.
Skinks do have a few unique tricks up their sleeves. They can drop their tails when threatened, regenerating new ones later. This is probably why some skinks have brightly colored tails, so that they can lure predators into grabbing the wrong end. Some skink species also bear live young, hatched from eggs which are retained in the mother's body. The creatures are also extremely adaptable, making themselves comfortable in a range of environments from deserts to forests.
As a general rule, skinks are harmless. In fact, they are quite useful to have around the garden, because many species are carnivorous and they will eat insects, slugs, and other small garden pests. Some people also keep skinks as pets, and they can apparently make quite friendly and affectionate animal companions. Like most other reptiles, skinks are awake and active during the day because they cool down at night, and they enjoy sunning themselves in warm spots or taking advantage of rocks which have been heated by ambient temperatures over the course of the day.
Are Skinks Poisonous?
Skinks are neither venomous (capable of injecting toxin through bites or stings) nor poisonous (toxic if ingested) to humans. There is some debate in the veterinary world about whether eating a skink can cause illness in dogs and cats, especially as some types of lizards are known to carry parasites that can be a problem for pets. If your pet eats a lizard, skink, frog, or toad and begins to show signs of illness or distress, it’s a good idea to contact your veterinarian.
Do Skinks Bite?
Skinks do have teeth, but it’s rare for most species to bite unless they are frightened or provoked. Skink teeth are small enough that they do not usually break human skin, but some species can have surprisingly strong jaws that make for painful bites and may even leave bruises.
Do Skinks Sting?
Skinks do not sting, contrary to widespread myths that some species’ brightly colored tails have venomous stingers. Confusingly, in some parts of the US skinks are sometimes incorrectly referred to as scorpions; however, scorpions (which do have stingers whose venom levels and danger to humans vary widely among species) are arachnids and thus a completely separate order of animals from skinks (which are reptiles).
What Do Skinks Eat?
Different species of skinks have different diets, but most are carnivorous and eat mainly insects, though larger species may also eat small lizards and rodents. Some species are omnivorous (eating both animals and plants), and at least two are known to be mainly frugivorous (fruit-eating).
Skinks are energetic hunters and can move very quickly (some species can reach 65 mph on flat ground). Typically they use their tongues to pick up the scent of prey, which they then chase and capture.
How Big Are Skinks?
The majority of skink species grow to be somewhere around 12 cm (4.5 inches), but some are as small as 7.5 cm (3 inches) or as large as 81 cm (32 inches). In most species, a skink’s tail can comprise more than half its total length. The largest species is the Solomans Islands skink (Corucia zebrata) which lives in the Solomon Islands archipelago. The smallest is the pygmy blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua adelaidensis), which is native to Australia and is endangered.
Can Skinks Swim? Dig? Climb trees?
Some species of skinks are capable of swimming, and some live in trees. Most species, however, are terrestrial and can dig and burrow through the ground at various depths and rates of speed. Most skinks seek out sheltered areas as protection from predators. Some skinks create completely underground nests; others nest under low-to-the-ground brush or find shelter underneath or even inside human buildings such as sheds and garages.
Do Skinks Raise Their Babies?
Female skinks usually guard their eggs, and in some species, the female will remain to guard the baby skinks (called skinklets) for a few days after they hatch. Anywhere from one to more than 60 skinklets can come from the same batch of eggs.
How Do You Care For a Pet Skink?
The best habitat for a pet skink is a large tank that provides good ventilation and easy access for cleaning while still being escape-proof. Since skinks are territorial, it’s best to keep only one skink in each tank, and two males especially should never be put together. The bottom of the tank should have about 6 inches of loose soil, sand, or wood chips to allow for burrowing. Skinks also need enclosed spots to hide. The tank should be kept slightly moist and one side should have a heating lamp or under-tank heater that will produce a temperature of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Live insects (available at pet supply stores) are the base of a skink’s diet, but certain types of fresh fruits and vegetables are a good addition. As always, research the dietary needs and restrictions of the specific type of skink you have. A pet skink needs a shallow water bowl for both drinking and bathing, and you should change the water every day.
Be gentle and careful when handling a pet skink. Always make sure the skink knows you are about to pick it up, support its body and most of its tail, and never turn it upside down. A skink that is hissing or showing an open mouth is feeling hostile or threatened and should be let alone for a while.
Finally, if you are considering a pet skink, make certain first that there is at least one reptile veterinarian in your area, and take your new pet in promptly for a check-up and to learn more details of how to care for it.