Mostly I notice skinks when they are basking in the sun, but last week I watched one on a hunting expedition in the herb patch and understood what focused little predators they really are.
I had been weeding in the so-called herb patch when I noticed a little black-and-white jumping spider. I decided to get the camera and I settled down to see if I could photograph the tiny and very shy spider.
Digressing to a photo of the intriguing little jumping spider
While watching the spider I became aware of a skink, partly concealed by vegetation, on the hunt for prey. I was struck by how almost snakelike it looked and how intense its concentration appeared to be.
The skink lifting its head as it actively seeks out prey
Skinks are lizards, and three suborders – namely, lizards (Lacertilia), snakes (Serpentes) and Worm lizards (Amphisbaenia) – make up the order Squamata, which is a diverse group of reptiles comprising nearly 8000 species.
In southern Africa 338 species (in 48 genera in 9 families) of lizards in the suborder Lacertilia are known to occur. One of these families is the skink family (Scincidae). In southern Africa 10 genera and 74 species of skink are found.
The skinks in our garden belong to the genus Trachylepsis (previously Mabuya). The skink species in this genus are known as typical lizards or typical skinks, and there are 23 Trachylepsis species that occur in southern Africa.
A striped skink scanning for prey in our herb patch
The species in our garden in these photographs is, I think, the striped skink (Trachylepis striata), although it can be difficult to differentiate it from the two other species that occur in urban areas in KwaZulu-Natal, these being the Cape skink (Trachylepis capensis) and the variable skink (Trachylepis varia) (Londt).
Like most skinks, striped skinks are largely terrestrial, although they can climb rough surfaces using their claws. They are active during the hours of daylight.
Wending its way through the nasturtium leaves the skink failed to detect the grasshopper concealed from its view by a leaf above its head. Grasshoppers are on the menu of the insectivorous striped skink
I admit to having felt an irrational twinge of unease when the skink turned and stalked rapidly towards me, unsuccessfully pursuing something unseen by me
Most species of skinks in southern Africa give birth to live young. However, a few species of skinks give birth to live young in some regions in their range, but in other regions they lay eggs. In our region striped skinks give birth to between 3–18 babies in the summer.
Despite its best efforts the striped skink failed to catch any prey in our herb patch while I was watching
Basking in the sunshine or on a warm rock is where I usually see the skinks in our garden. This adult skink is about 9 cm (3.5 inches) long from the tip of the snout to the base of the tail
I am not sure if this companionable pair of striped skinks is a breeding pair or not
One sunny morning this skink was demonstrating its climbing skills, using its claws to hang on to the rough surface of the wood and bricks. Skinks lack the specialised footpads that enable geckos to cling to even smooth vertical surfaces
This striped skink is showing the transparent lower moveable eyelid that is partially closed. Another genus of skinks, the snake-eyed skinks (Panaspis), have fused eyelids as do snakes, and they look through the transparent lower lid that permanently covers the eye
The same striped skink with the eyelid open
Not exactly a leaping lizard, but I snapped this striped skink scurrying and jumping from log to log on our wood pile, which is a place of shelter and a hunting ground for the skinks
More usually, I see the skinks relaxed and basking in the wood pile
Yesterday afternoon as it was starting to rain I happened to see two juvenile skinks on the garden path. They were probably less than half of the length of the adults and a lot more slender. An adult skink was perhaps coincidentally nearby. From what I can gather, adult striped skinks do not actively parent their young. Because of the rain I had to wait until today to photograph the youngsters.
They only appeared this afternoon. As I sat on the ground with my camera watching one of the youngsters, I was unaware that the second was approaching quite close, and then an adult emerged onto the cement path and lay down calmly watching. All these photos were taken using the zoom lens, but sometimes the skinks approached so nearby to where I was sitting that they were too close to photograph. Unfortunately, I was not able to photograph the adult and youngsters in the same frame.
A young striped skink on the edge of the path. It ignored the ants, even allowing one ant to run along its back
One of the adult striped skinks showing how broad it is relative to the youngsters, and how tiny the ant near its left shoulder looks
Mostly the young skinks basked or foraged on their own, but at one point they did spend a few minutes together on the edge of the path
This adult skink lay on the path nearby watching both me and the youngsters, and probably keeping a lookout for insects too
As luck would have it, distracted by bloodsucking mosquitoes, I looked away from this youngster just as it caught something, so I just got a photo of it chewing and swallowing. At the same time the sun came out from behind a cloud and messed up the exposure. Anyway, I hope the young skink caught a mosquito but it was likely something a bit larger than that
There is not much babyish about the young skinks. At this age they look like little slender adults, although in the photo above, perhaps the youngster’s small forefoot and claws look less well developed than in the adults
Skinks can become relatively tame. Some people even feed them by hand, but as Jason Londt says in his book Suburban Wildlife in KZN , he does not think that people should do this as such familiarity could place skinks in jeopardy. Some people keep skinks captive as pets, but wild animals are best adapted to living their own lives.
Years ago, we had a dog that had an unusually strong prey drive, and yet he tolerated skinks. One afternoon we were all outside on the back deck, and the dog was lying down lizard-like, basking in the sun. A skink came along and rather than go around the prone dog, it decided to climb over the dog and walked the entire length of the dog’s body, disturbing the dog’s short fur with its claws as it walked. Apart from a few twitches of the skin the dog completely ignored it and the skink safely disembarked on the other side.
Usually though domestic cats and dogs hunt skinks. Other predators include snakes and some birds, such as the fiscal shrike. The skinks in these photos steer clear of our cats who only have access to an enclosed garden on the other side of the house.
Like geckos, skinks can shed their tails in response to an attack by a predator, with the possibility that the predator will be distracted by the writhing tail and the reptile can make its escape. The lost tail regenerates, but it requires a healthy and well fed animal for this to happen. When a tail is shed and after the predator has left, a skink will often return to eat the tail and benefit from its nutrients.
An adult skink being very tolerant of me hanging around with the camera
Alexander, Graham & Marais, Johan. 2007. A Guide to the Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik Nature; Londt, Jason. 2009. Suburban Wildlife in KZN. A Wildlife Handbook, WESSA KZN.
Posted by Carol