Tag Archives: reptile

Leapin’ Lizards

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)

Scales

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.

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Juvenile five-lined skink, note the blue tail. Photo by State Parks.

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.

male coal skink Jean Gawalt
Male coal skink. Artwork by Jean Gawalt; courtesy Conservationist magazine

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.

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Adult fence lizard, note the wavy coloration on the side of the body, photo courtesy of NY Natural Heritage Program.

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.

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Two of New York’s native reptiles, five-lined skink in lower right, timber rattlesnake in upper left, photo by State Parks.

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

The Hudson River’s “Tough Turtles”

During the summer months along the Hudson River south of Troy, New York, it’s easy to notice the tides rising and falling, herons wading in the shallow streams, and the giant cargo ships purposefully streaming up and down the river. Difficult to spot, however, are the river’s many turtles. Several varieties call the Hudson home, but the northern (also called common) map turtle is perhaps the most interesting and understudied.

Princess
Northern map turtle “Princess” hanging out while her tracker tag dries before her release. Scientists use these tags to locate the turtles for months after capture.

Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) are large river turtles that get their name from the intricate circling pattern on their shells, which resemble the elevation lines on a map. These turtles are relatively secretive. In urban areas they have to work especially hard to find what they need to survive. For one thing, turtles need good basking objects—places where they can come out of the water safely and sun themselves to warm up. Fallen trees or rocks make the best basking habitat, specifically ones that are farther out into the water so they can easily escape from potential predators. Because of the tides, many potentially good basking objects aren’t reachable as they are either too high up the bank or underwater at any given time.

Luna
Scientists quietly observe northern map turtle “Luna” nesting from a safe distance. This nest received protection from predators and likely hatched successfully months later.

Another problem is finding places to lay their eggs. All turtles lay eggs and the northern map turtle is no exception. Most turtles prefer loose, sandy soil with plenty of sunlight for the eggs to develop successfully. Temperature determines the gender of the tiny map turtle babies—eggs toward the cooler, bottom of the nest often become males, while those eggs toward the warmer top (that therefore get more sun and heat) will become females. But in this highly urban area, good places to nest are few and far between. Natural areas, like those found in some of the State Parks along the river, help provide habitat for them. These spots seem perfect for northern map turtles, but they do tend to have a couple of drawbacks: 1) road and foot traffic and 2) predators smelling the eggs and destroying the nests soon after they’ve been laid. In addition, well-meaning people who are simply curious about these turtles (and with good reason!) approach nesting females that may “spook” and stop laying. People should give nesting turtles some space and observe quietly from a distance.

Nest
Probable northern map turtle nest destroyed by a predator. Shells that appear twisted indicate some animal has eaten them, whereas more intact shells mean the nest has likely hatched successfully.

 

Because good turtle habitat is hard to find in an urbanized section of the river, researchers Dr. James Gibbs and Master of Science candidate Julia Vanaman from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are working to identify what habitats are most important to map turtles. Aquatic plants, basking objects, forest along the river banks, and shoreline development all likely play a role in where these turtles choose to spend their time. Once the researchers understand why a turtle likes an area, they can pass along that information to state and local park managers who can protect habitat and take measures to enhance it (e.g., by creating nesting habitat or increasing the number of available basking objects). With these habitat improvements, hopefully these fascinating turtles will stick around for many years to come.

Note: Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) occur across much of eastern North America from the Mississippi River, north to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, and east to small portions of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Hudson river systems. In New York State, the map turtle is considered vulnerable to decline and is recognized as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in the state’s wildlife action plan. For more information, please check out the following links:

New York State Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Rare Animal Status List

Common Map Turtle Distribution Map

Turtles of New York State

NatureServe northern map turtle

NatureServe Map

Post and photos by Julia Vanaman, Master of Science candidate, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Featured image attribution: By Dger [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons