Mini Spotlight: Prehensile-Tailed Skink

They may not come to mind first

Rainforests are known for their colorful, unique, and surprising wildlife. When you think of those lush tree canopies, you probably picture beautiful macaws or interesting monkeys squawking and leaping around, or maybe even the startling sight of a jaguar. But in the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia, the humble Prehensile-Tailed Skink is also hiding in the rainforest. Hiding mostly from just those showy creatures, who’d love to eat her.  

They may be a little confusing

But what is a skink? Well, they’re often mistaken for “true lizards,” except their legs are a little short, and they don’t really have necks. And some of them don’t even HAVE legs, so they may be mistaken for some kind of chubby, short snake.  Does this make them some sort of unfinished accident of evolution? Not at all. They are lizards with their own unique anatomy and adaptations to help them live in many different areas – even in cities. There are several species of skink, and one of them, the Prehensile-Tailed Skink, is the newest animal resident at the Reid Park Zoo! You can find him in the Conservation Learning Center – and he’s learning too, learning to be handled (as the education staff members prepare to give the public a closer look at him.)

World’s trickiest tail

Earlier we described the skink as “humble,” but actually the Prehensile-Tailed Skink is the largest of all the world’s skinks, some even reaching lengths of 30 inches, including their tails. Also, it is the only skink with a prehensile, or grasping type of tail. Speaking of tails, like other lizards you’ve heard about, most skinks can “shed” their tails when trying to escape a predator with a paw or a beak on them. But skinks’ tails have the useful ability to wiggle about even when they’re no longer connected to their animal! This serves as a great distraction so that the tail-less skink can quickly escape. And of course, they can re-grow their tails later.

Perfect for the treetops

Prehensile-Tailed Skinks live in treetops, and are perfectly suited for their arboreal lives, since their tails, long toes, and hook-shaped claws are useful for expertly navigating tree branches. They’re crepuscular, which means they are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk. Scientists aren’t sure if they are active at night, since their homes in the trees in addition to their excellent camouflage make it difficult to observe them in the wild.  Prehensile-tailed skinks are completely herbivorous, feasting on plants, flowers, and fruits they can find in the tree canopies, and can easily digest plants that are toxic to other creatures.   

No big families

Prehensile-Tailed Skinks breed every other year, and have a really long gestation period for reptiles – 6 to 8 months! The females give birth to only one offspring, but it’s a live birth.  And a big one at that – the young can be born already 1/3 the length of their mothers! But the kindly Prehensile-Tailed Skink, unlike many reptiles, actually cares for and protects her young giant for about the first six months of his or her life.

They are protected (a little)

Prehensile-Tailed Skinks have not yet been evaluated by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), which means they don’t have a designation such as “threatened” or “vulnerable” yet. They are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, and there are laws against exporting them from the Solomon Islands. But nonetheless, we do know that they are threatened by the illegal pet trade, and removing them from the wild is particularly problematic, since their reproduction is so limited.    

You can meet one!

Maybe when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete and has a reptile house, the Prehensile-Tailed Skink may find a new home there!   But until then, please be sure to visit this amazing fellow in the Conservation Learning Center.

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