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What Is a Skink?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon311552 — On Jan 02, 2013

It is easier to let little kids rear common garden skinks because they are easier to maintain and you wouldn't waste any money if it eventually dies. Also, having a skink as a pet can fit your daily schedule perfectly. They can keep you busy all day long and sometimes you only need a minute to see to it. I highly recommend one.

By anon260818 — On Apr 12, 2012

I work in a park and have been observing three skinks and an Eastern Fence lizard all living under the same sidewalk. They all seem to get along just fine. I was surprised to observe more than one species of lizard cohabitate.

By Matis — On Jun 02, 2011

@jellies- The general consensus seems to be that it is a bad idea to put anoles in with skinks. Skinks eat a wide variety of foods, including smaller lizards. I have heard of someone who kept a five lined skink in with an anole, and another lizard and snake.

The idea was keeping them well fed prevented the skink from eating the anole. They did not have any problems in their case. I don’t know if I would risk it.

By jellies — On Jun 02, 2011

I have a large tank which is home to my anole lizards. I would love to get a skink but don’t really have space for another enclosure. And aquariums can get expensive. Can anoles and skinks live together?

By oopart28 — On May 31, 2011

I had the chance to buy an orange-eyed crocodile skink. I’ve had a variety of snakes as pets, but this was my first skink. I love the bright orange ring he has around his eyes! Definitely a unique looking creature.

I use an aquarium, as well. I got a ten gallon tank with hopes of eventually having a pair. That was the recommended size for two skinks.

The most difficult part in keeping the little guy happy has been maintaining humidity for him. I use sphagnum moss inside an old cricket tub. It has a hole in the side and I spray it with de-chlorinated water to refresh it. I change out the moss when it needs it. Also, keeping limited ventilation is important.

My crocodile skink has the mild disposition these lizards seem to usually have. He makes a great pet. If you get a chance to find one of these guys, you won’t be disappointed.

By andromeda — On May 28, 2011

I worked at a pet store when I was a teenager. I spent a fair amount of my time responsible for the reptile department. I ended up buying a pet skink for myself. It was a Schneider’s skink.

They do require attention but are not difficult to take care of. I had an aquarium with sand and mulch. It had an undertank heater as well as a cooling area. I put in a rock for backing on under the incandescent light. You also need a full spectrum fluorescent light for about 12 hours a day.

Skinks need clean water, of course. I fed mine crickets and meal worms. Skinks should get a vitamin supplement once or twice a week. They also need daily calcium. So, maybe skinks are not a great pet for a little kid to take care of all by themselves. But, they aren’t as labor-intensive as a lot of pets.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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