Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

Five-Lined Skink

Plestiodon fasciatus


The five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is a common lizard in eastern North America. It is a smooth-scaled lizard that typically grows to between 5 and 8.5 inches. Their color can vary as they age and between the sexes; but as the name implies, these lizards exhibit five parallel lines that extend from snout to tail.

Juvenile five-lined skink By:  Phillip Laxton
Juvenile five-lined skink
By: Phillip Laxton

The distinct line pattern can become diminished in males as they appear to be a more uniform color, but during breeding season they show bright orange-red coloration on the head that makes them easy to identify. Juveniles are the most colorful, with dark bodies, white to yellow stripes, and a bright blue tail. As they mature, they lose the blue color in their tails, and their bodies become a brown to olive color (females can sometimes retain small amounts of the blue coloration). Five-lined skinks can also be distinguished from other skink species by counting their labial scales: they only have four, whereas other species have five.

Diet/Feeding: Five-lined skinks feed on small invertebrates, including crickets, spiders, centipedes, and beetle larvae.

Habitat/Range: The five-lined skink can be found throughout the eastern United States and north into Ontario, Canada. These skinks are diurnal ectotherms and can commonly be spotted on the ground, on rocks, or in trees, basking in the sun. When they are not basking, they are found under logs, rocks, and other debris.

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Reproduction: Breeding season occurs in the spring months. Mating takes place in April and May, and the female will then lay eggs six weeks later, as late as mid-July. She finds a nest cavity in rotten logs, leaf litter, and other damp forest debris and lays approximately ten amniotic eggs, which increase in size during the incubation period as they absorb moisture from the soil. The female will guard this nest until the eggs hatch. If the eggs do not absorb enough water from their surroundings, the female will urinate on the eggs to keep them hydrated. Females will also bask in the sun, then immediately return to the nest to warm the eggs. Five-lined skink females often form communities for the purpose of nest-guarding. Once the eggs are hatched, all forms of parental care cease.

Herping Tips/Fun Facts: The bright blue coloring of this skink’s tail causes people to mistakenly believe they are a venomous lizard. They are sometimes referred to as “scorpions”, as people falsely think their tails can be used to sting predators.

Five-lined skinks exhibit caudal autotomy as a defense mechanism. They have a fracture zone between two vertebrae in the tail, and store fat in their tails. If they are facing capture by a predator, they can release their tail. The tail continues to move for some time, distracting the predator and providing it with a meal while the skink can escape to safety. Because of this, extreme care should be taking when herping for skinks if tail-dropping is to be avoided. Skinks will regrow a lost tail, but it is duller in appearance and lacks the full functionality of the original tail.

Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor, Hyla chrysoscelis)

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The gray treefrog is a commonly spotted frog in eastern North America. There are two species of gray treefrog: the Cope’s gray treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) and the eastern gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor). The two species appear identical, but can be distinguished by their calls or by quantifying their chromosomes (H. versicolor has twice the number of chromosomes as H. chrysoscelis). Gray treefrogs range in color, from green to gray to brown. They can be solid in color, or exhibit blotchy skin patterns to aid in camouflage with their surroundings. They are also able to change their color within seconds. All individuals have a small white spot beneath the eyes, and large toe pads for adhering to trees and foliage. Gray treefrogs have bright patches of yellow or orange along the insides of their hind legs that they flash as an anti-predatory mechanism. Whether these “flash colors” serve to startle potential predators or to falsely indicate the presence of toxins is unknown. These frogs are also known to utilize death feigning when captured or handled.

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Diet/Feeding: Gray treefrogs consume a variety of terrestrial and arboreal invertebrates, including earthworms, flies, beetles, roaches, crickets, and caterpillars. Although they are considered a sit-and-wait predator, they have frequently been observed to jump between branches to catch a prey item.
Habitat/Range: The collective range of both species of treefrog can be found all throughout the eastern United States, beginning in Texas and extending north to the Great Lakes. As their name suggests, treefrogs are primarily arboreal frogs. They typically inhabit deciduous forests and swamplands that are near to aquatic habitats for breeding.
Reproduction: The breeding season for these frogs begins in April and lasts until August. Males migrate to trees and other plants near ponds and swamps, where they begin their mating calls to attract females. Both sexes typically mate up to three times per mating season. The female deposits 30-40 packets of up to 60 eggs each on vegetation that is close to the surface. She can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a single breeding season. The eggs generally hatch in three weeks and the tadpoles remain in their aquatic environments until they metamorphose four weeks later.
Herping Tips: Gray tree frogs are nocturnal and spend most of the day resting in trees. Look closely, they are able to blend in with their environments to avoid predation.
Fun Fact: Gray tree frogs are one of only a few freeze-tolerant frog species, to a temperature of -7.2°C. They can freeze by accumulating glycerol in their muscles, which is then converted to glucose and circulated through the cells. The remaining liquids in the frog’s body freeze until winter is over and the frog thaws, recovering over 33% of its frozen water for use by the body.

Eastern Red-Spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

The Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) is a common species of newt found throughout eastern North America. Eastern newts are a member of the family Salamandridae, and one of only two genera endemic to North America.  Four varieties of N. viridescens are currently recognized in North America: the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens), the peninsula newt (Notophthalmus viridescens piaropicola), the central newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis), and the broken-striped newt (Notophthalmus viridescens dorsalis).  Although there are notable differences in size and appearance of the newts of these four groups, studies of their DNA have revealed that little genetic variation exists between them, so they are not considered true subspecies. This article will focus primarily on Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens.

The red-spotted newt is the largest of the four varieties. These newts have three specific life stages: aquatic larva, terrestrial juvenile, and adult. The aquatic larvae typically range from 7 to 9mm in length when they hatch, with gills and a laterally compressed tail that support survival in their aquatic environment. At approximately 3 to 5 months, they metamorphose into their terrestrial juvenile stage. Newts in this stage are referred to as “red efts”. These efts range in color from orange to bright red. They have two parallel rows of up to 21 red spots with black outlines. Their skin is dry and textured, they have resorbed their gills and caudal fin, and they have developed lungs, eyelids, and limbs to support their new terrestrial lives. After 2 to 3 years, the juveniles then metamorphose once more, this time into sexually mature adults. At this stage, a newt can grow up to 5.5” in length and are identified by their greenish- to yellow-ish brown dorsum with rows of orange to red spots running down both sides of their back. The ventral surface is yellow with small black spots that fleck the skin. The skin is moist, and most adults return to aquatic environments.

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Diet/Feeding: Red-spotted newts feed on small invertebrates, including worms, insects, small fish, amphibian eggs, etc.

Habitat/Range: The collective range of all four regional varieties extend from the Maritime Provinces of Canada to as far south as Florida, and west to Texas and the Great Lakes. Larval newts occupy small freshwater environments, such as ponds or small lakes. Efts move to moist terrestrial areas surrounding these bodies of water. While the majority of adults return to a fully aquatic stage, some adults can move back to land if dry conditions exist.

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Reproduction: Adult newts return to permanent or semi-permanent bodies of water for breeding, which  takes place in late winter and spring months. This migration is usually preceded by heavy, seasonal rains. Males are easily recognized by their enlarged hind limbs, nuptial excrescences, swollen cloaca, and crested caudal fin during the breeding season. The male lures the female by fanning his tail, then grasps the female and rubs his genial gland (found in the temporal region) along the female’s face. If the female is receptive, the male will deposit a sperm packet on the pond floor, which the female will then pick up via the cloaca. After they are fertilized, the female will singly lay between 200 and 400 eggs on vegetation in the water over a period of many days.

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Herping Tips: Red efts and terrestrial adults can be found under rocks and in leaf litter on the forest floor, typically within close proximity to a source of water. During the spring months, shallow ponds that lack the presence of large predatory fish can host an abundance of breeding adults. Because these adults must breathe air, they can often be observed swimming along the surface of the water. Many amphibians, including the red-spotted newt, will exhibit the unken reflex when startled. The unken reflex is the defensive posture pictured below, in which the newt arches its body to reveal its brightly colored ventral surface as a warning of toxicity to potential predators.

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Southern Two-Lined Salamander, Eurycea cirrigera

The Southern Two-Lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera) is a small species of salamander of the family Plethodontidae, typically growing to 2.4-4” in length. They can be identified by the two parallel black lines that run laterally down their tan to yellow dorsum to the end of the tail. Most individuals also exhibit black spots along the back, between the lateral lines. Their bodies are slender with 14 costal grooves. Mature males can be distinguished by enlarged jaw musculature, a mental gland beneath the chin for pheromone secretion, and cirri, which are presumed to aid in chemoreception.

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Diet/Feeding: These salamanders feed on invertebrate organisms found in or near the creeks and streams they inhabit, including earthworms, spiders, flies, ticks, millipedes, and various larvae. Plethodontids are unique among other salamanders due to their lack of lungs. Lack of this functional constraint has allowed for the specialization of certain elements to aid in feeding. A cartilaginous hyobranchial apparatus (tongue skeleton) folds during the extension of the tongue, allowing it to project from the mouth. A sticky pad at the tip of the tongue adheres to the prey item, which is then retracted into the mouth of the salamander. This modified feeding mechanism allows the salamander to catch a prey item at up to 80% of their body length in distance.

Habitat/Range: Southern Two-Lined Salamanders can be found throughout the Southeast United States, excluding the peninsular region of Florida. As members of the family Plethodontidae, they are lungless salamanders and rely on cutaneous respiration, requiring the skin to be kept moist. All individuals are at least semi-aquatic, with some adults remaining fully aquatic. They typically occupy shallow creeks and streams that are abundant with rocks, wood debris, and leaf litter for cover, although they have been observed both in much deeper waters as well as terrestrial forest environments during wet weather.

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Reproduction: Breeding begins with a mating ritual that involves the male repeatedly nudging the female to judge her receptiveness. Males possess elongated premaxillary teeth during breeding season (typically September through May) which are used to lacerate the skin of the females to facilitate delivery of the pheromones which are secreted through the mental gland, located on the male’s chin.  If the female is willing, she responds by following closely behind the male until he deposits a spermatophore (a gelatinous and conical structure topped with a sperm cap). The female picks up the spermatophore through the cloaca, where the spermatozoa are then released into the spermatheca and stored there until the female expels them to fertilize her eggs. The female deposits between 15 and 120 eggs in a single, clustered layer on the underside of rocks, logs, or other aquatic vegetation in a creek or stream. She will then remain with the eggs for the 4-10 weeks that the eggs require for hatching (dependent on water temperature). The newly hatched salamanders will metamorphose in 1-2 years. They will then become sexually mature at anywhere from 2-4 years of age.

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Herping Tips: Southern Two-Lined Salamanders can most often be found by flipping rocks and debris in shallow, flowing creeks and streams during spring and autumn months. They quickly try to escape beneath other debris or into the substrate, so act quickly! Grasp them at the middle of the body or towards the head, as they can drop their tails in an escape attempt.