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3 Species of Skinks in California (Pictures)

Skinks are members of the Scincidae family and are the second-largest group of lizards. They can be found in various states across the US, including California. They live in several types of habitats, from forests and grasslands to more urban areas.

These reptiles can range in size from a few centimeters to more than a foot in length. They have long, slender bodies, and their scales are smooth rather than raised like other lizards. If you are lucky enough to see a skink, you might not be able to get a good look because they can be gone in a flash. These lizards can move very quickly.

In addition to being fast, skinks can drop their tails when threatened. The tails continue moving, distracting the predators so the skink can escape. The skink eventually regenerates its tail. Pretty cool, right? This defense mechanism is a last resort, though. Skinks usually try other means of escape before dropping their tails. 

In this context, it is essential to explore the different aspects of skink species that inhabit California, their behavior, and their importance in the ecosystem. This article discusses the three types of skinks found in California. 

Collage photo skinks in California

3 Skinks in California

A few skink species can be found in California, ranging from the desert to the coastal areas. Skinks play an important role in the ecosystem as predators of insects and other small invertebrates.

Despite their widespread distribution, many of these species face habitat loss, fragmentation, and climate change threats. Understanding the biology and ecology of skinks in California is crucial for their conservation and management.

1. Western skink aka Skilton’s skink

Western skink on the ground
Western skink on the ground | image by Connor Long via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientific Name: Plestiodon skiltonianus

Western skinks, also known as Skilton’s skinks, are recognizable by their long, slender bodies and bright blue tails. They use their colorful tails to distract predators so they can escape, dropping them as other skinks do. The bright blue color enhances this distraction further.

This bright blue tail does fade with age, with juvenile skinks having the brightest colored tails. Some adults retain a bit of the blue color, while others lose it completely.

The color of their bodies can range depending on their age, sex, and where they live, but typically, Western skinks are brown or tan with darker stripes or splotches on their sides and backs. These skinks grow to be between 3 and 12 inches long and have long, slender bodies and smooth scales.

It got the name Skilton from a man named Joseph W. Skilton, a naturalist and soldier who found and collected one in the 1870s. He found the skink during the Wheeler Survey, which was a government-funded trip to explore the western US between 1969 and 1879. The Skilton’s skink is found in California’s central and northern regions.

They are commonly found in grasslands, woodland areas, and chaparral, a hot, dry habitat with hardy, short shrubs and trees. Western skinks are active during the day, and like many other reptiles, they are known to bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature.

Western skinks are omnivorous and eat various invertebrates like spiders and insects, as well as berries and other fruit. While very common still, like other skinks, the Skilton’s skink is vulnerable to habitat loss because of urbanization, agriculture, and logging. Conservation efforts to protect this species and its habitat in California are critical to ensure its long-term survival.

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2. Great Basin Skink 

Great basin skink
Great basin skink | image by loganjlbradley via iNaturalist | CC BY 4.0

Scientific Name: Plestiodon skiltonianus utahensis

The Great Basin skink is a subspecies of the Western Skink found in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range and Great Basin region. These skinks have a distinct appearance, with a dark stripe running down their back and tail, a series of dark spots on their sides, and cream-colored bellies.

Fully grown Great Basin skinks are between 3.5 to 6 inches long. They prefer rocky and sandy habitats like rock outcrops, sagebrush flats, and canyon walls. They are very fast and quickly hide in crevices and cracks if threatened.

Their diet mainly consists of insects. The Great Basin skink breeds during the spring and summer months when the weather is warmer. The female lays her eggs under rocks, logs, or vegetation and leaves them to incubate and hatch on their own.

The parents do not provide parental care to the newly hatched skinks. Skink babies are fully independent and have to fend for themselves. 

3. Gilbert’s Skink

Gilbert’s skink
Gilbert’s skink Greg Schechter | image by via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Plestiodon gilberti

The Gilbert’s skink was named after a man named Charles H. Gilbert. He was a naturalist and ichthyologist, which is a scientist who studies fish. Gilbert was a professor of zoology at Stanford University and found what would be called the Gilbert’s skink in 1890.

Gilbert’s skink prefers dry, rocky habitats such as desert grasslands and shrublands. They have a light brown or grayish-brown coloration with dark stripes running down their backs and sides. Like other skinks, Gilbert’s Skink feeds on small invertebrates, including insects and spiders.

They are active during the day and will bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature. Gilbert’s Skink is at risk of habitat loss because of land development and other human activities. Efforts to conserve Gilbert’s skinks in California include monitoring their populations, protecting their habitat, and reducing human disturbance.