Some creatures won’t win awards for being warm and cuddly, yet stand out in my mind as some of the most fascinating animals we might have the privilege to see.
At the Steege Hill Nature Preserve in Big Flats, you may get a glimpse of one of the preserve’s timber rattlesnakes, endangered in New York. Or if you’re lucky, you could see another unusual reptilian species, far smaller and even more secretive—one of New York State’s four lizards, the northern coal skink.
New York’s other three lizards—the five-lined skink, the Italian wall lizard, and the northern fence lizard—live only in the southeastern part of the state. The range of the northern coal skink, however, includes parts of the Finger Lakes Region. According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s most recent New York State Amphibian and Reptile Atlas, you can find coal skinks in Chemung, Tioga, Schuyler, Steuben, Tompkins, Seneca, Yates, and Ontario Counties.
Northern coal skinks look much different from most lizards. Instead of having keeled scales and a rough, dry appearance, coal skinks, as well as five-lined skinks, have smooth scales. Their bodies—about five to seven inches long—are glossy, like some snakes. But unlike snakes, skinks and other lizards can close their eyes.
Eumeces anthracinus anthracinus, the coal skink’s scientific name, refers to the anthracite-coal-colored band that runs along its body from snout to tail tip. “Eumeces” means “nice length or height” in Greek. When Spencer F. Baird named this species in 1850, perhaps he was happy that he hadn’t found a larger lizard! Thinner white bands beautifully offset those coal-dark bands against a light brown or grayish background. Young skinks are more intensely colored than adults, sporting iridescent blue tails. Breeding males, on the other hand, have a distinctive brick-red tint around their chin and throat. Females lay four to eleven eggs as early as late April, or as late as the end of June.
If threatened, skinks, like many other lizards, detach their tails to confuse predators. One account I read reported that even after a juvenile jettisoned its blue tail, the tail kept on wriggling. Now there’s a distraction!
Coal skinks feed primarily on insects, centipedes, spiders, and worms. They live in moist woodlands near streams or ponds. Much like desert lizards, northern coal skinks lounge in the sun to raise their body temperature on cool days. On a field trip last fall with the Cornell Herpetological Society, several Land Trust members were treated to looks at seven adult and two juvenile northern coal skinks. The day was cool and drizzly, making the normally skittish reptiles sluggish, and far easier to see.
Elusive as they are, northern coal skinks aren’t endangered or even threatened in New York or Pennsylvania. They are on the endangered species list for Maryland, however, and are listed as rare in Virginia and threatened in Georgia.