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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Why lizard’s cousin, the commonly found skinks, are difficult to spot

The harmless, non-venomous ones saunter in indoors for heat on wintry evenings or when rains flood their tunnels

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
January 5, 2022 12:05:06 pm
Ranjit-Lal-SkinksSkinky Tails: Only the juveniles of the common garden skinks have a red-hot tail, which, like in lizards, are shed to startle a predator as the skinks escape at top speed. (Source: Ranjit Lal)

When I first sighted it on the dining room carpet that morning, I thought it was a highly anorexic lizard of some kind, whose limbs had stopped growing prematurely and whose sharp-ended tail had somehow got severely sunburnt or stuck in the toaster. The creature was long and very sinuous, the top of its back tan, with cream edging on either side, the entire body profusely spotted as if pins had been pricked into it. Or, was it a tiny (about 9 cm long) genetically mutant snake of some kind that was, perhaps, trying to morph into a lizard? My Man Friday declared it to be extremely venomous, that it moved lightning fast. At the moment it seemed dead.

“Okay, so we take it out into the garden,” I said. A duster was gently manoeuvred over it and it suddenly sprang to life, wriggling, writhing and slithering like a psychotic coil spring, making us all jump back in alarm (a tiny creature making grown men leap back with shouts of alarm!). But then the sharp-tipped tail looked like it had just come out of a volcano — and so, maybe, had its temper, too! It had two tiny pinpoint eyes and very small spindly looking legs. I photographed it and then we enveloped it in the duster again and let it out into the garden, where it wriggled off at warp speed and vanished into the foliage.

“It’s a common garden skink, non-venomous,” I was informed by Dr Faiyaz Khudsar of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, when I sent him the photograph. “It’s completely harmless!”

Well, if it was common, how come I hadn’t come across it before? I began checking up on the little guy — or girl — as it well might have been. Well, these skinks are quite a clan and, according to the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), just over 1,600 species are found worldwide, of which only 62 are found in India, 33 of which are exclusive to us. They are a kind of subset of lizards: while all skinks are lizards, all lizards are not skinks. They are found pretty much worldwide (except the Arctic and Antarctic regions), in a variety of ecosystems and nearly all are harmless to us. Most can’t even puncture human skin when they’re encouraged to bite us. They are easy to look after and make for calm, popular pets, and I can well imagine schoolboys trying to gross out, or, maybe, impress girls by taking them out of their pockets and offering them as gifts! Skinks prefer open spaces, school playgrounds, rocky areas, parks, garages, homes, and areas strewn with rocks and trees — where they can conceal themselves and are fond of tunneling and the underground life. Fossils of skink-like lizards date back to 140 million years, so they have been around for a while.

The one in the dining room, perhaps, found inside the house warmer than outside. In winter, these cold-blooded creatures can be found basking in the sun, warming up their muscles, on the tops of rocks, branches and walls. During the rains they may head indoors if their tunnels and crevices get flooded.

Skinks measure between 7.5 and 35 cm (the whopper being the Solomon Islands Skink who can grow up to 81 cm) and are active, lively hunters of insects — flies, cockroaches, beetles, ladybirds, etc., as well as small invertebrates and small spiders. One report mentioned they can also eat vegetables — provided they are cooked! (How skinks make say baingan ka bharta in the wild was not mentioned, so presumably this only applies to skinks kept by vegans as pets!) Another report, however, noted that raw vegetables are eaten, too. They will chase down their prey or wait in ambush beneath a rock or foliage and pounce on their victims, clamping down on them with their sharp little teeth. But they are, themselves on the menu of many birds, cats and small mammals, and so spend much of the time in hiding, even lying doggo semi-buried under leaves, rocks and topsoil (it’s called being semi-fossorial) — which, maybe, was why I hadn’t come across them so far. They need just one meal every four-five days. Gardeners love them, because they’re effective and selective pest-control agents and don’t need to be paid. Many skinks are well camouflaged and difficult to spot.

My common garden skink was apparently a youngster — as only the juveniles have the red-hot tail. Dots line up on its surface (which, my friend already had) and turn into line markings as the reptiles mature. Like most lizards they can drop their tail, and leave it wriggling and squirming, in the startled face of a predator: the tail continues to wriggle and writhe, distracting the hunter as the erstwhile owner makes off at top speed. Growing a new tail is an energy expensive proposition, but has to be done.

Not too much seems to be known about these enigmatic lizards, as they haven’t been researched enough (the ZSI has published a book on them, but it is phenomenally priced). My common garden skink was also known as “saamp-ki-mausi” (snake’s aunt!) in Hindi as well as the common dotted garden skink, the common snake skink, punctate supple skink, and spotted supple skink (try saying all these really fast together, without tripping over your tongue!). While most skinks lay eggs which hatch, some have live births. These babies are called skinklets — a truly charming moniker if there ever was one!

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