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Broad-Headed Skink

Ian McDowell, Greensboro, North Carolina
Broad-headed Skink
The broad-headed skink (Plestiodon laticeps) is the largest lizard of the family Scincidae (skinks) found in Alabama and the second largest lizard native to the southeastern United States. It is common in woodlands throughout the state, but has been reported in suburban and even very urban environments, where its semi-arboreal nature makes it one of Alabama's more frequently observed reptiles. Its genus name derives from the Greek for "many teeth," and its species name means "broad head" in Latin.
Unlike many other predominantly ground-dwelling southeastern Scincidae species, broad-headed skinks can often be seen sunning themselves high up on exposed tree branches. Juvenile members of the species prefer to keep to the cover of fallen trees and dislodged bark. Although broad-headed skinks occur in a variety of habitats, their preferred one is humid oak forests with abundant leaf litter.
Adult broad-headed skinks range in size from 6-13 inches (15-33 centimeters). They have short legs and a streamlined body, the background color of which is usually gray, brown or white. Juveniles and some females have five white or yellowish stripes, making them hard to distinguish from the Southeast's most common lizard, the five-lined skink, but the stripes on the broad-headed skink fade to a uniform grey or brown as they age. As with most skinks, juveniles have bright blue tails. In the May and early June breeding season, sexually mature males are unmistakable for their enlarged orange heads with prominent jaw muscles, which become larger and more colorful during this period as a signifier of their readiness to mate. Like many lizards, both young and mature individuals have an easily detached tail that serves as a defensive measure, allowing the animal to escape while the predator is distracted by the twitching appendage.
Broad-headed skinks are active hunters who track their prey by scent, which they sense by flicking their tongues. They typically eat insects, spiders, and snails, although large individuals can subdue and devour other lizards, small snakes, and even small mammals with their muscular jaws. They are not strictly carnivorous and will sometimes eat blackberries and native grapes. They use their tongues not only to detect prey hiding under logs or surface litter but also to detect predators and, in mating season, the opposite sex.
Broad-headed skinks mate once a year, typically from late May through June, after emerging from hibernation in March and spending April hunting for food and increasing their body weight. If competing males are closely matched in size, they may engage in prolonged and sometimes severely damaging fights, beginning with a ritual display of their prominent heads. In these fights, one combatant may tip his head, deliberately presenting the broadest possible expanse of his cranium so that the other lizard can attempt to seize it in a test of strength. A triumphant male may guard a female for as long as a week to make sure only he fertilizes her eggs. Females lay eggs in a protected space such as a hole in a tree stump or under the bark of a fallen log in moist detritus. The females are unusual among lizards in that they will guard their eggs until they hatch. They have even been known to retrieve them if they are moved, and they sleep coiled around them.
Possibly because of the bright blue tails of juvenile specimens, broad-headed skinks are sometimes called "scorpions" in rural areas of the southeastern United States. This folk nomenclature refers to the erroneous belief that they are venomous, a belief also based on the bright orange heads of breeding males. While these animals possess no venom or poison, some biologists speculate that they taste unpleasant to predators. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as being of low conservation concern, meaning they are not presently considered endangered or threatened.

Additional Resources

Conant, Roger, and Joseph Collins. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, Eastern and Central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Gibbons, Whit, Judy Greene, and Tony Mills. Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Mirarchi. Ralph E., ed. Alabama Wildlife. Vol. 1, A Checklist of Vertebrates and Selected Invertebrates: Aquatic Mollusks, Fishes, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Mount, Robert H. Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1975.
Published:  September 20, 2016   |   Last updated:  September 20, 2016