All of the lizards that make Northern Kentucky home have some similar characteristics. They are reptiles with dry, scaly skin and, like teenage bathing beauties, enjoy basking in the sun. They lay eggs and young are on their own just as soon as they hatch. They are insectivores, though lizards also make a good meal for a variety of wildlife including snakes, birds, raccoons and cats. Often time predators are rewarded with only a writhing tail. When a predator grabs a lizard by the tail, it breaks off and continues to wiggle after being disconnected, distracting the predator while the lizard escapes. The lizard then regenerates a new tail, though not quite as long and attractive as the original.
Our largest lizard is the Broad-headed Skink. Broad-headed Skinks are named for their wide jaws, giving the head a triangular appearance. They average 9 to 10-inches from head to tail and can get as large as 13-inches. Adults are a muted greenish color with the males having red heads that get even redder during mating season. Females are normally larger than males. “Broad-headed Skinks are a woodland species,” said Dr. John Ferner, Professor of Biology at Thomas More College and Adjunct Curator of Herpetology at the Cincinnati Museum Center. “They like large dead trees and logs with loose bark for them to hide under. They are our most arboreal lizards, often found high in trees.” Broad-headed skinks have been seen on the nature trails at Highland Cemetery, though the best place to see them locally is Dinsmore Woods or Middle Creek Park in Boone County.
Another skink likely found in Northern Kentucky is the Five-lined Skink. “These guys are more associated with wetlands, they’re swamp lovers,” said Dr. Ferner. “You’ll find pockets of Five-lined Skinks with Kirtland Snakes, most likely under a rock or log. They are very shy and move quickly. Locally you’re likely to find them in riparian woodlands, along streams with sandy habitat.” With a total body length of 5 to 8-inches, Five-lined Skinks look almost identical to immature Broad-headed Skinks. Both are black or brown with five light stripes and a striking blue tail. The bright blue tail in juveniles of both species is an anti-predator device. Predators are attracted to the blue tail which breaks off easily, allowing the skink to escape. “When they reach 7 to 8-inches, you can pretty well assume it’s a Five-lined and not an immature Broad-headed,” added Dr. Ferner.
Dr. Ferner’s favorite local lizard is the Eastern Fence Lizard. They are “the cutest lizard” and very rare in Northern Kentucky, as this is the most northern extent of their range. Severe winters are very hard on them. Being members of the Iguanidae family, they are our very own iguanas, reaching about 6 to 7-inches in length as adults. “Fence Lizards do well in dry conditions and are found on stumps, logs, wood fences and cedar glades,” said Dr. Ferner. “Males are colorful with blue lateral patches on the abdomen and chin. They are very territorial and will do push-ups with their front legs and bob their heads. This makes them visible to advertise territory to other males and to attract females.” Fence Lizards also have a different feeding strategy from skinks, which hunt insects down. “Fence Lizards sit and wait for food to come to them,” Dr. Ferner said. “They’ll sit on a rock or log near a flowering shrub, tree or herb which attracts insects and wait. When an insect lands, they nab it.” Fence Lizards are seldom found far from trees. When pursued they stay on the opposite side of the tree from the predator, in the same fashion as a squirrel.
The most easily seen lizards in Northern Kentucky are European Wall Lizards. A member of the Lazarus family originally brought them to Cincinnati’s Columbia-Tusculum area from Northern Italy (near Milan) in the early 1950’s. Wall lizards made their way across the mighty Ohio from Cincinnati in the early 1990’s, with a little help from their human friends. They have since thrived and spread throughout areas of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Populations exist in Ft. Thomas, Ft. Mitchell, Park Hills and West Covington. “They are an invasive species and do best in areas with human modification,” said Dr. Ferner. “They are very adaptive, with a high reproductive potential, and easily disperse along railroad beds and rock walls.” European Wall Lizards top out at about 9 to 10-inches. They often move off of rock walls into grassy areas to hunt, where the hunter often turns out to be the hunted. “We’ve found that wall lizards lose lots of tails to feral cats,” said Dr. Ferner.
Our Indian summer affords the perfect opportunity to go in search of lizards before winter settles in. “Lizards in our area are dormant in the winter,” said Dr. Ferner. “They need to have retreats that provide protection from freezing temperatures with some moisture. Crevices, burrows and rich loam under big logs may serve this purpose. In spite of this behavior, if temperatures remain warm we sometimes see wall lizards and skinks out on sunny days well into November.”
Sounds like a darn good excuse to get out there and do some exploring.