by David Banchich, Camp Oty’Okwa AmeriCorps member 2016-17
In the Hocking Hills of Southeast Ohio, spring is a season for creating new memories and reflecting on old ones. Each day seems brighter and warmer than the last, bringing with it a cherished catalog of experiences. Cool, foggy mornings are accompanied by the songs of migratory birds returning from their tropical winter getaways. Rainy evenings belong to the racket of spring peepers and the arrival of small moths at flickering porch lights. Fragrant blossoms fall from trees, and for the first time in what seems like ages, the endless expanse of Midwestern skies return to a brilliant and satisfying sea of blue.
These are the archetypal sights, sounds and smells of spring, remembered and celebrated in the forested hills of Appalachia for as long as human beings have called this land home.
Ohioans of all ages will no doubt be familiar with such widespread and obvious harbingers of warm weather, but very few will venture deep into the forests of Hocking County to seek out lesser-known treasures. Few will crouch down on their hands and knees in small and secluded places, hidden from the bright rays of sunlight that have woken up our meadows and lawns.
It is usually children who find themselves picking through the moldy mulch of rotted stumps, crevices of crumbling stone walls, jungly depths of weed-choked roundabouts and recesses of dark, dusty trash heaps. If their curiosity persists, and their expeditions are encouraged, these young explorers may very well be rewarded with unforgettable discoveries.
Some finds may appear at first to be optical illusions: small, swift shadows that flicker in our peripheral vision, vanishing as we leave the sunlight and enter the dim margins of the woods. Do our minds play tricks on us? The passing shadow was dark and blurry like an inkblot, but something seemed oddly defined. Was it pulsating, as if breathing? Did I catch a glimpse of a tiny gleaming eye that blinked with the speed of a camera shutter? An elongated digit? There may have even been a change in color: a brilliant splash of cobalt set against an earth-toned body.
“Look! Look!” cries the child. “I just saw something running up that wall! It had sharp claws and a bright blue tail!”
If the caregiver is impatient, there may be a rolling of the eyes and a deep sigh.
“Come along, now.”
But if the caregiver is aware of the many secrets lurking in these woods, he or she may stop and stand with the stillness of a statue.
“Stay right there. Don’t move. If we wait, it might show itself.”
There are no guarantees. Perhaps it will find its way deeper into the logs, stones and leaf litter. Perhaps it will spiral up the trunk of a nearby hemlock, with speed, stealth and agility that rival the hardiest of squirrels. Then again, perhaps it will reappear, cautiously peering over the top of a sun-splashed boulder to show itself at last.
No matter what our little beast chooses to do, the child was incredibly lucky to have caught a glimpse. He or she may not know its name, but knows that it is present and very much alive on the grounds of Camp Oty’Okwa.
What are these small, colorful and lightning fast sprites of the spring season?
They are the skinks: a very large family of lizards with an almost global distribution. Of the four species of lizard native to the Buckeye state, three belong to the Scincidae. Some are widely distributed, but rarely present in great numbers. In fact, since the 1970s, fewer and fewer are being recorded within Ohio.
Skinks are generally characterized by elongated and slender bodies, small limbs, powerful little jaws, and rows of smooth, glossy, overlapping scales that make up an impressive suit of armor. The shiny, smooth appearance of these reptiles may cause some to mistake them for salamanders. However, the presence of scales and claws, coupled with their dizzying speed and climbing capabilities, indicate that they are in fact lizards: a group of reptiles that becomes increasingly scarce the further that one travels from the tropics.
Known by early settlers as “scorpion”, the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is the most widespread species in Ohio, and is most common in the southeastern portion of the state. Juveniles are black or very dark brown, with five distinct whitish or yellowish stripes running down the length of the body. The tail is a stunning shade of cobalt, and is used as a distraction against predators. If grabbed, the skink is capable of “dropping” this lure and making a quick escape. The ability of some reptiles to regenerate lost appendages has been studied with great interest by the medical community, in hopes that it could benefit human patients requiring amputations.
Adult five-lined skinks gradually become a more solid earth-toned color, losing the blue coloration as they age. Males in breeding condition often sport a deep reddish hue around the jaws, while females remain drab. The five lines that give these lizards their common name remain present throughout adulthood.
Tiny eggs are laid about a month after breeding in the spring. Thin-shelled and white in color, they are guarded closely by the mother in shallow depressions beneath moist logs or large stones. The female skink is a dedicated caregiver: a trait often lacking in lizards. In addition to defending the nest, she will periodically urinate on the soil to add humidity and possibly slow the growth of harmful bacteria or fungi. She will also spend long periods of time basking in the sun, returning to the eggs throughout the day to transfer her absorbed body heat to the developing embryos within.
Although small and seemingly dainty, Plestiodon fasciatus is a fierce and voracious predator. This species has been observed climbing head first into crowded wasp nests, actively raiding them for their quarry. The thick, overlapping scales form a remarkable defense against stings and other injuries, allowing the lizard to tear apart individual wasps and consume dozens in one sitting. Watching such a small lizard attack and dismember a flying insect with the ferocity of a gargantuan dinosaur is a sight not easily forgotten. Flies, beetles, centipedes, earthworms, spiders, grubs and ants may also be taken as prey.
Our second most common species is the broad-headed skink, Plestiodon laticeps. This is the largest lizard native to the state of Ohio. It may reach lengths of up to twelve inches, though much of that length consists of tail, and the body remains quite slender. Females and juveniles resemble their five-lined counterparts, though the adult male is easy to identify. His massive, broad head is a deep shade of crimson, while his body sports a solid ground color of brown, gold, or olive green. Plestiodon laticeps is just as much at home underground as it is in the trees. An adept burrower, it may writhe its way through loose, sandy soils and construct underground burrows with ease, later venturing into high branches to forage throughout the afternoon.
Smaller, lesser known, and far less common in our region is the little brown, or ground skink, Scincella lateralis. This is a very small lizard, typically growing no more than five inches in length. It spends most of its time underground, as evidenced from its particularly cylindrical body shape, tiny limbs, and rounded snout. Those who are lucky enough to encounter one will probably do so while moving rubble or raking leaf litter. This lizard is identified by two dark brown lateral stripes, outlined in brown or black. You may only catch a quick glimpse as the tip of the tail disappears down a narrow, winding burrow in the damp earth.
Although impressively agile and powerful for their small size, skinks are generally delicate reptiles that should not be handled, as they are easily injured and stressed. Some, such as the broad-headed skink, can deliver a surprisingly strong bite for their small size. This unusual group of lizards is best admired from a close distance. If the observer remains still and quiet, he or she may have the rare opportunity of witnessing many remarkable behaviors up close.
All three skink species found in Ohio are small, secretive, and often overlooked. Patient and persistent explorers will uncover a group of highly-specialized, disproportionately tough, mind-bogglingly fast little reptilian predators reminiscent of long-extinct dinosaur ancestors, distant cousins stomping along the sweltering beaches of Komodo Island, or the flying, fire-breathing dragons of Medieval legend. By ensuring the continued protection of skink habitat throughout the state, naturalists will keep our own reptilian legends alive for generations of Ohioans.
At Camp Oty’Okwa, the best places to spot skinks are around the lower walls of the Nature Room, the edges of the meadow, the garden, compost bins, and foundation of the dining hall. Happy herping!