A weekly homage to endangered species large and small.
(Based on research by Benjamin Ikenson)
If you’re ever in central Florida and see a flash of electric blue dart under a rock or bury itself in the ground, count yourself luck. You’ve probably just encountered the highly elusive blue-tailed mole skink— a small lizard that grows to about 15 centimeters in length and is unique to the Central Ridge of peninsular Florida.
WHAT’S A MOLE SKINK?
Although they greatly resemble salamanders, mole skinks are reptiles which means they have scales, lay hard eggs and don’t undergo metamorphoses (like tadpoles changing into frogs). There are several subspecies of mole skink although they all share common characteristics. All have long tails, short feet, and slender cylindrical bodies. Their body shape allows them to maneuver effortlessly underground. An aptitude for burrowing is what earned these creatures the name “mole” skinks. They usually have shiny scales ranging from brown to pink in color.
Juvenile blue-tailed mole skinks have brown bodies with neon blue tails (hence their name) that turn pink as they mature. They hide under leaf litter, rocks and in sand pits to stay cool in the dry Florida brush lands. As a clever trick, mole skinks sometimes break off their colorful tails to distract potential predators. They then escape by quickly wiggling their bodies (“swimming”) through loose soil or sand.
The cunning and elusiveness of the blue-tailed mole skink has made it difficult to study, but scarcity might also be to blame. In 1987, the blue-tailed mole skink was added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species. A revised recovery plan published in 1999 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that sizeable breeding populations occurred in only 34 known locations.
Residential, commercial and agricultural development has destroyed extensive tracts of habitat where the blue-tailed mole skinks once lived. Even in ideal dry and sandy scrub brush habitats where the skink has plenty of spots to hide and plenty of insects to eat, it’s rarely seen.
WHAT GOOD ARE THEY?
These critters have a voracious appetite for crickets, roaches, spiders, and other arthropods. They help manage the insect population for the entire ecosystem. Research suggest there might even be a direct correlation between the skink’s decline and insect population explosions, which could prove detrimental for people and crops—specifically the state’s orange groves.
Most of the blue-tailed mole skinks range is on private land, although preserves on both public and private property have been established to combat the demise of the lizard and other upland wildlife. Unfortunately, the USFWS admits that there is uncertainty as to whether the existing conservation areas are adequate for the survival of the skink.
One thing’s for certain—protecting these animals will require that habitat destruction is stopped and that potentially suitable habitat is restored for these secretive sand swimmers.
If not, we may never know what big roles these little critters play or could play in our environment.