Wild Ideas: Learning a lesson in species identification

Riparian workshop at SCBI, June 22

Many salamanders, such as the two mentioned in this article, inhabit riparian areas, the land bordering streams. On Saturday, June 22, the Virginia Working Landscapes program is holding a workshop at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) from 8:30 to 4 p.m. with lectures on watershed management, on-the-ground conservation programs and benefits of riparian restorations to local wildlife, followed by a panel discussion and farm tour in the afternoon.

The workshop is sponsored by SCBI and the Piedmont Environmental Council. The $25 registration fee includes lunch. Registration is limited, so register soon at pecva.org/events.

OK, I’m going to eat some crow now – not literally, as I like corvids and would be disinclined to consume any. Rather, I’m going to own up to making a mistake.

As I readily admit (repeatedly), I’m not an expert, although I do have some education in natural history and biology. Knowing this, I’m usually pretty cautious about identifying species, often relying on experts to help with the trickier ones. However, my eyes are apparently not as good as my intentions, and I identified a skink found on the property where I live as a southeastern five-lined skink. After enlisting the aid of real herpetological experts, I’ve found that I was wrong.

Although likely no one wants the have to admit they’re wrong, it’s much more important to me to find out the truth and to share that with my readers. I also realize that a scientific endeavor to determine the truth can be fraught with stumbles, twists and turns for experts and amateur enthusiasts alike. Ultimately, it’s the journey, not the end result, that is important to me.

I was prompted to check my identification by a reader who suggested I report my skink sighting to the Virginia Herpetological Society (virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com), since the species list for Rappahannock County on the VHS website, dated 2010, did not show that the southeastern five-lined species had been recorded as occurring here, although species maps generally show the range of the common, southeastern and broad-headed skinks as extending to Rappahannock.

It’s always best to check range maps and start the identification process by looking at the most common species that occur within that range, which I did. I changed my original assumption on the basis of a photograph I took hurriedly and that was not the best.

The bright orange-red coloring of the jowls of this mature male common five-lined skink indicates it’s in breeding mode. It was found among rocks lining a garden near Sperryville. This species is common throughout Virginia. The young in the genus sport bright blue tails that can detach and regenerate, a protection against predators. Photo by Pam Owen.
The bright orange-red coloring of the jowls of this mature male common five-lined skink indicates it’s in breeding mode. It was found among rocks lining a garden near Sperryville. This species is common throughout Virginia. The young in the genus sport bright blue tails that can detach and regenerate, a protection against predators. Photo by Pam Owen.

There are specific characteristics, some subtle, that can help in sorting out the various skink species in our area and one of those points it the size of scales on the underside of the tail. Only the common five-lined has one line of scales that’s a bit wider, and the scales in the photo I took looked the same to me. I usually concentrate on taking photos of any animal I’m trying to identify in case it escapes, as the skink in question did before I got the chance to more carefully examine this skink’s butt.

I contacted Dave Perry, VHS’s vice president, and sent him two photos I had of the skink – the best one of its top and the only one I had of its underside. He said he couldn’t identify the skink but linked me up with two other herp specialists with VHS that help with identification – John White and Paul Sattler. “After some adjustments in Photoshop I believe that I see an enlarged mid ventral row,” John wrote back. “The skink is a common five-lined skink.”

While I was in contact with Dave and his colleagues, I requested help with identifying two other skinks. I had photographed one found on the property where I live that was about seven inches long. A skink of similar size was found a few miles away at Ginger Hill Antiques. Both skinks were olive colored, had indistinct lines and jowls colored bright orange-red.

In the breeding season, the jowls of both common five-lined and broad-headed skinks turn the bright color, but the latter species is larger – the largest in Virginia, in fact, ranging from 6.5 to 12.8 inches. (The common five-lined is 5 to 8.5 inches long.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have photos of the undersides, but the VHS team said markings on the side of the head could help with identification, too.

This stout northern red salamander was found under a trashcan near Sperryville. This species’ spots are bright and distinct in young individuals, but dull and run together with age, indicating this individual is likely old. This common native species, found throughout most of Virginia, feeds on invertebrates and other salamanders. It lives under leaves in or near spring-fed brooks or in loose, moist soil nearby. Photo by Pam Owen.
This stout northern red salamander was found under a trashcan near Sperryville. This species’ spots are bright and distinct in young individuals, but dull and run together with age, indicating this individual is likely old. This common native species, found throughout most of Virginia, feeds on invertebrates and other salamanders. It lives under leaves in or near spring-fed brooks or in loose, moist soil nearby. Photo by Pam Owen.

I found the highest-resolution close-up shot of the side of the head of the skink I had photographed and sent that. After careful review, the team determined that skink was a common five-lined. The jury is still out on the other, since the owner of the antique shop, who had taken the photo with the camera on her phone, couldn’t get close enough to the skittish skink to capture more details.

Paul concurred with my identification of one of the salamanders I’d photographed as a northern red, and said the other was a seal salamander. Both are common to this area. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has more information on all these species on its website (dgif.virginia.gov).

While metaphorically eating crow, I gained a lot from my mistakes in trying to identify skinks. I now know much more about identification points on lizards and salamanders and how to better document occurrences of them. I also learned that VHS has a great, dedicated team of herp experts that will help anyone with identification. You can bet I’ll be taking advantage of that resource in the future, as well as sharing my sightings with them.

On the upside for VHS, my inquiry sparked John’s posting an updated species list for Rappahannock on the society’s website. It turns out that sightings of all three skink species mentioned in this article have indeed been recorded for Rappahannock. For more photos of the herps discussed in this column, go to wildideasintheblueridge.blogspot.com.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 286 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”