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Skinks in California

There are 2 different types of skinks in California. But while taxonomists agree there are 2 species, there is a lot of debate about the number of the subspecies.

The classification of Californian skinks is under revision. Beyond that, the differences between current subspecies are minute, so it is hard to tell them apart based on appearance alone.

Skinks are distributed widely in California. These often secretive lizards have smooth, streamlined bodies, and tails are as long (sometimes longer than) their bodies. Their limbs are small but functional.

Juvenile species in this state typically have brightly colored tails they can detach when threatened. This adaptation helps them escape predators who latch onto their tails.

If you love skinks or are simply curious about the species in this state, then this guide is for you. In this article, you will learn about the different types of skinks in California, along with key differences between them.

1. Western Skink

Western Skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus) rolled up in dirt at Sanborn County Park, Santa Clara County, California, USA
A Western Skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus) rolled up in dirt at Sanborn County Park, Santa Clara County, California, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Family: Scincidae
  • Scientific Name: Plestiodon skiltonianus
  • Other Names: Skilton’s Skink, Coronado Skink
  • Adult Size: 2 to 2.8 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 10 years
  • Average Price Range: N/A

Skilton’s skink (P. s. skiltonianus) and Coronado skink (P. s. interparietalis) refer to Western skink subspecies.

However, some scientists do not agree that these two skinks are different subspecies. That is because the subspecies are so similar, there is almost no observable difference between them.

Most people cannot tell the difference between them. One way you can do so is by looking closely at their heads. The Coronado skink has an interparietal scale enclosed by parietal scales. In Skilton’s skinks, this scale is not enclosed.

Often, you need details about where they were found to differentiate them. For example, Coronado skinks typically range in southern California, but Skilton’s skinks are more widely distributed in northern and central California.

The Western skink has an orange tail and throat, with alternating light and dark stripes on its dark brown or tan body. Its stripes extend well past its hind limbs to its tails.

Juveniles have blue or pink tails, but they lose this coloration with maturity. However, you can still find some adults with slightly blue tails. During breeding seasons, adult males of this species develop a reddish-orange head.

Western skinks love moist environments with adequate sunlight for basking. You can find them in forests, rocky areas, and hillsides near water.

These lizards are quite skittish and secretive, so it can be hard to find them even in their natural ranges. They spend most of their time traveling or resting under leaf litter, rocks, or debris to avoid being noticed by predators. When not doing this, you may occasionally find them basking in the sun.

You can feed these lizards with insects and arachnids. They also eat small invertebrates within their habitat, such as tiny snails.

There is a third Western skink subspecies, but it is native to Utah.

2. Gilbert’s Skink

Gilbert's Skink (Plestiodon gilberti) in some moist dirt near Coyote Pond Park, Newcastle, California,  USA
A Gilbert’s Skink (Plestiodon gilberti) in some moist dirt near Coyote Pond Park, Newcastle, California, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Family: Scincidae
  • Scientific Name: Plestiodon gilberti
  • Other Names: Greater Brown Skink, Northern Brown Skink, Western Red-tailed Skink, Variegated Skink
  • Adult Size:  2.5 to 4.5 inches
  • Lifespan: Over 6 years
  • Average Price Range: N/A

Gilbert’s skinks enjoy foraging through leaf litter and thick vegetation. Sometimes they also burrow into loose soil. They have tan or dark brown bodies. During breeding seasons, the males develop reddish-orange heads.

Juveniles of this species closely resemble Western skinks, so it can be hard to differentiate them. They have bright blue or pink tails and alternating light and dark stripe patterns.

You can differentiate juveniles by their stripe pattern, but this method is not foolproof. Unlike Western skinks, the stripes of these lizards rarely extend beyond the hind limb.

Gilbert’s skinks often do not retain their striped pattern in adulthood, so adults are easier to differentiate. Still, in ranges where Western and Gilbert’s skinks overlap, the differences between both species can blur.

There are four known Gilbert’s skink subspecies, but scientists are still evaluating the validity of this categorization.

These subspecies are Greater Brown Skink (P. g. gilberti), Northern Brown Skink (P. g. placerensis), Variegated Skink (P. g. cancellosus), and Western Red-tailed Skink (P. g. rubricaudatus).

This classification heavily relies on their geographical distribution. Other than this, adult Northern Brown Skinks retain some of their juvenile stripe patterns. Juvenile Western Red-tailed Skinks have pure pink tails, and juvenile Variegated Skinks have bluish pink tails. Greater Brown Skink juveniles have bright blue tails and represent Gilbert’s skinks.

Gilbert’s skinks are widely distributed in California but are more concentrated in the south. You are likely to find them in moist grasslands and rocky areas close to water, where they enjoy snacking on insects and other arthropods.

Many people assume juvenile skinks with brightly colored tails like this species are venomous, but this assumption is wrong. So if you have ever been fascinated by these colorful creatures from afar, you have nothing to fear.

Wrapping up

The number of skinks in California depends on whether you are counting species or subspecies. Species classification is more reliable because the subspecies are often too alike to tell apart. In addition, it is not certain if the current subspecies classifications are valid.

If you come across these skink species in the wild, you can differentiate them using stripe patterns, color, and location. Location is particularly important because both Western and Gilberti’s skinks show physical variations that sometimes make them visually indistinguishable.

Handle these skinks with care, or they may bite you. The bite is harmless, but this does not mean it will not hurt.

These lizards may also drop their tails in an attempt to escape from you, especially species in the wild. Growing back the tail takes a toll on the lizard, so it is best to leave handling it to more experienced collectors.

The skinks in California are not the most diverse, but both species in this state are visually stunning. We hope you enjoy your time observing these beautiful creatures when you go searching for them.

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