Meet the Skink, Rhode Island’s Newest Creepy Crawly

Local scientists are tracking the lizard population.
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Rhode Island Natural History Survey facebook page.

When Emilie Holland, the president of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, was cleaning up around her yard in South Kingstown last April, she noticed an unusual creature beneath a pile of junk. At first, she thought it was an uncommon type of salamander. But when she focused on its brown- and white-striped body and blue tail, she knew it was something she had never before seen in the Ocean State.

No one else has either. It turned out that Holland found a juvenile lizard called a five-lined skink, the first for which there is a verifiable record in Rhode Island. As word spread about her discovery among local reptile enthusiasts, a second skink was found dead in early May about ten miles away in Ashaway.

Despite their distribution across much of the United States, no lizard species has ever been documented in the state. That’s probably because of a combination of their physiology, evolution and ecology, according to Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, but no one really knows. Five-lined skinks are common in the Southeast, and they are found in small numbers as far north as southern Ontario and western Massachusetts. The closest known population to Rhode Island, however, is west of the Connecticut River.

How the skinks arrived in Rhode Island is a question of great debate among the state’s natural history community. It’s unlikely the animals found their way here naturally, since they don’t wander far and none have been observed between western Connecticut and the Rhode Island border. Since the sites of the two Rhode Island lizards are both near building supply storage yards, some speculate that the skinks arrived in a shipment of mulch or compost.

“In all likelihood, they’re hitchhikers,” says Buchanan. “We don’t know if they’ve ever bred here, and we don’t know if there are any established populations.” Unfortunately, this type of human-mediated transport happens all the time, he says.

For now, the skinks are being treated as any other exotic species found in the state: like a released pet that doesn’t belong here. The monitoring and management of exotic/invasive species is a conservation priority for DEM and Buchanan is gathering as much information as he can about other possible sightings. He does not take the skink sightings to represent an expansion of our biodiversity, but it’s difficult to know what the observations mean in the long-term.

“What’s going to happen in 100 years is impossible to know and virtually impossible to control,” he says. “They could become established and become part of our naturalized fauna.”