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Sounds in the night coming through the thin walls of a tent can make your imagination run wild at any age. Night critters prowling through the woods, wind rattling leaves and branches, or snoring by fellow campers can make sleep hard to come by. Nighttime seems to amplify sounds, making little things sound big and big things bigger. The security of being in a tent can suddenly vanish, making you wish you were at home in your own bed. Being a light sleeper, it doesn't take much to keep me wide-eyed in the middle of the night, especially the sound of something stirring in the leaves. An armadillo rooting around in the night can make more noise than a bull in a china closet. But you're never quite sure what's out there, and when the sounds stop, you start listening even harder.
Even some of the smallest animals can make a heck of a lot of racket scurrying around in the leaves that blanket the ground here in our Cross Timbers woodlands. That build up and accumulation of decaying plant material from our deciduous woody plants is habitat for many species of insects, snakes, lizards and small mammals. On more than one occasion, I've been almost certain a squirrel, rabbit or deer was about to appear from somewhere behind me, only to discover a skink busying itself looking for food in a pile of leaves.
Skinks are small elongated lizards with shiny scales, short legs and long tails. In most species, tail length far exceeds that of the head and body. They're in the Family Scincidae, and of the 8 species found in Texas , 5 call portions of the Cross Timbers of Northcentral Texas home. Unless you're a skinkologist, correctly identifying one can be a little challenging. It's primarily a matter of looking at their length, striping patterns on their back and sides, and coloration. Holding a skink in your hand and referring to a field guide is the best bet when it comes to figuring out who's who.
They're quick'ern greased lightning and hard to sneak up on. Grab one by the tail and that's all you'll wind up with since skink tails are easily autotomized (break off). Don't fret; it'll grow back, eventually. The tails of young skinks are usually bright blue, something predators can't help but notice. Predators that pounce on the wiggling tail piece miss the best part of the meal, but that's the whole idea – it's called “survival of the wiggliest” (hum!)
The Great Plains Skink ( Eumeces obsoletus ) is our largest species at over a foot long. Their light-tan to olive-brown scales are black-edged and arranged obliquely on the side of their body rather than in parallel rows. Juveniles are jet-black with blue tails and have white and orange spots on their head. Great Plains Skinks are secretive and often go unnoticed, preferring rocky grassland country where they hang out under flat rocks, in rodent burrows, moist places around ponds or damp areas. They spend most of their time digging and burrowing through loose soil looking for insects, spiders or small lizards. Females will lay about 20 eggs in moist debris, under a rotting log or in a depression under a rock and then guard them for the 45-65 days it takes them to hatch. Handle these skinks carefully – they bite!
Five-Lined Skinks ( E. fasciatus ) have (you guessed it) 5 stripes down their back and sides, but these fade with age. Dark strips bordered by lighter ones usually extend from behind the eyes along their sides. Males often have a red coloration on their head during the breeding season. They also prefer damp woodlands where they burrow and scavenge through decaying vegetation and litter for insects and other invertebrates. On occasion, they climb into trees to hunt. You're more likely to find these 8 inch skinks in the eastern one-third of Texas , but some occur on the east side of the Cross Timbers.
The Short-Lined Skink ( E. tetragrammus brevilineatus ) is found in southern areas of the Cross Timbers into the Hill Country and to the south and southwest. It can be identified by the two light stripes that originate behind each eye that extend to just past their forelegs and then fades away. Between the stripes is a distinctive dark band. Otherwise, adults are light brown in color. These 5-6 inches long skinks have very short legs which they can fold against their sides to help them squirm to safety.
Southern Prairie Skinks ( E. septentrionalis obtusirostris ) are found in much of the Cross Timbers and the eastern half of Texas northward into eastern Oklahoma and Kansas . They're similar in size and coloration to their Short-Lined cousin but have two light dorsolateral lines on each side and a black strip that extend all the way to their tail. They feed on insects, spiders and snails and are most active at dusk and during predawn hours. They feed in moist places with leaf litter, rocks and pricklypear clumps.
Our most common species is the little Ground ( Scincella lateralis ) or Brown-Backed Skink which is shiny and coppery colored. Black dorsolateral stripes extend from behind the eyes onto the tail. Their tail is about two and a half times as long as their head and body, giving them a snake-like appearance. When disturbed, they'll wriggle off with serpentine movements to escape. Thin transparent “windows” are present on their lower eyelids that allow them to see with their eyes shut. During the spring and summer, female ground skinks lay several clutches of 2-5 eggs, but unlike most other species, don't stay around to guard them for the 50-60 days they take to hatch.
Rotting logs and leaf litter provide moist microhabitats for skinks and a lot of other critters we seldom see. Flip over a flat rock or old decaying log or rake back a layer of leaves here in the Cross Timbers and there's no telling what you might find. Chances are a skink just might be starring right back at you. Take a quick look though because it'll be off in a flash to rustle in the leaves.
Until next time – I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!