A flick of a tail or a blur dash across a rock – was that a lizard? Are there lizards in New York?
Yes, New York is home to three native lizard species. Lizards are cold-blooded reptiles that spend most of their time on rocks, sunning themselves on flat open spots or hiding in crevices. They also crawl up on logs, stumps and sometimes even up the trunk of the tree. However, male lizards are known for defending their territory from other male lizards by doing push-ups followed by head bobs. If this does not work, the defending male lizard may attack and bite the intruding lizard.
Lizards are all very well camouflaged, but if you are really lucky you might spot one of these reptiles on one if you hike in the southern Hudson Valley or in Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.
Two of the three New York lizard species are considered rare in the state. Conservation measures are particularly important to maintain the populations of these vulnerable critters. State Parks works to protect habitat and educate park visitors about these seldom seen animals.
Two of these lizard types are called skinks. Skinks are a type of lizard with no visible neck, a long tail, and short legs. (Some skinks in other parts of the world have no legs at all!) Skinks have smooth scales, compared to other lizards which have keeled scales (scales that have a ridge down the middle). Smooth scales give the skink a shining gloss-like appearance whereas lizards with keeled scales have a dull matte-like appearance. (See below)
If a skink loses part of its tail to a predator or they release their tail to escape a predator, it will regrow (regenerate) a new tail. The new tail will not have the same shape as the old tail. Female skinks stay with their eggs after they lay them to guard the eggs until they are hatched.
The most common lizard in New York is the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). Juvenile five-lined skinks are quite striking with their uniform black body, yellow stripes, and bright blue tails. As these animals approach adult state, the blue color on their tails fades to gray. Adult females five-lined skinks have faded stripes on their heads, but their body stripes remain strong. Look for these lizards on the ground on rocky summits and sloping hillsides with mixed deciduous trees. They mostly scurry along the ground, only occasionally climbing shrubs and trees. On sunny days, you might see one soaking up the sun on a rock or log.
Five-lined skinks are between five and eight inches long, including their tails. They primarily eat insects and other invertebrates. Larger skinks also eat small shrews and other lizards. Skinks avoid being eaten by darting as fast as they can from an open area to a hiding spot. Look for these lizards from April through October in the some of the Hudson Valley State Parks such as Bear Mountain State Park and Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve.
One of our rare lizards is the coal skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) is found in central and western New York. Coal skinks are identified by the two wide black stripes, bordered by yellow stripes, that run along the length of the body on to the tail. Like the five-lined skinks, juvenile coal skinks have blue tails. Some people believe that the blue tail on a juvenile skink is very distasteful and acts as a warning to would-be predators. The main defense of most coal skinks is running quickly away from a threat or predator.
Coal skinks live in forested places, usually near a swamp or other wetland. You might see one on a rocky hillside near a wetland. Unlike five-lined skinks, they do not bask in the sun; they are commonly found under the leaf litter, or under loose flat rocks or moss. Their coloration helps them hid on the forest floor. If they get frightened, they run to water.
Coal skins are the smallest of our native lizards, measuring about seven inches long from nose to tail. Their diet consists of insects, including crickets, millipedes, and spiders.
Lastly, the northern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) is a state threatened lizard that lives in the southeastern park of the state. Their common name comes from their habit of basking in the sun on fence railings.
Male northern fence lizards have unpatterned grayish-brown back, bluish sides that are boarded by black and blue throats. Females, on the other hand, have a distinct pattern on their back of irregular wavy cross bands; their bellies are white and there is a patch of either red, yellow, or orange at the base of their tails. Fence lizards measure up to seven and a half inches long.
They prefer to live on dry, rocky hillsides in oak or oak-pine forests where they eat insects and spiders. They can be active both day and night, depending on the temperature.
If you are lucky, you might come upon a male fence lizard during mating season. If you do, stop to watch him defend his territory by standing stiff-legged and pushing out his head to show his blue throat.
Remember that these are wild lizards and should never be taken home as pets. Collection has caused the populations of our native lizards to decline in some areas.
Learn more about our New York lizards:
Fence lizards occur in a few locations in eastern NY, including in some of our state parks.
NYS Dept. of Conservation Lizards of New York
NY Falls Lizard Species of New York (Upstate)
Featured image, five-lined skink by Robert Escott