Thursday afternoon I developed a hankering for a lettuce sandwich so I headed for the garden. The bed of lettuce I sowed last October only now is coming into its own, a mixture of different kinds of yellow-green and purple-leafed lettuce, prettily luxurious and succulent. Passing through the gate I saw one of the cats next to the strawberry patch with its back arched and all four paws gathered beneath it as if trying to hold something down, and that cat had on its face its all-too-familiar I'm- not-doing-anything-awful look, so I figured I'd better take a look.
The cat ran away leaving stunned on the grass a 10- inch long, glossy, yellow-brown, longitudinally striped, orange-mouthed, yellow-pink-tailed Gilbert Skink, EUMECES GILBERTI. Except for the brightly colored tail, back in Mississippi I would have called it a Southeastern Five-lined Skink and not given it a second thought.
The cat was hanging around and the skink was just lying there so I needed to carry the creature to someplace safe. But when I reached for him he wiggled himself into the grass and hung on. I gave his tail a gentle tug... and then came a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I felt a sort of internal click inside the skink.
His tail had come off.
Of course ever since I caught my first skink when I was a little boy in Kentucky I've known that tails come off of certain skink species if you handle them, the idea being that predators are left gawking at the squirming tail while the rest of the animal slinks away. But it's been half a century since I tugged on a skink's tail, and I'd simply forgotten to pay attention to the matter.
That yellow-pink tail ("flesh-colored" if you happen to be Caucasian) did its job sickeningly well. It dropped into the grass bottom-up and wedged in that position, furiously wiggling like an upended snake, and the skink slinked away just as the script required. A good naturalist would have stayed to see how long the tail wiggled before it ran out of energy but I was too ashamed to face the evidence.
Well, I hope the poor skink found someplace the cats couldn't get to. Gilbert Skinks have a very limited distribution, mostly in California and, on the whole Earth, the subspecies found here, Eumeces gilberti ssp. placerensis, occurs only in a handful of counties in the Sierra Nevada foothills of north- central California. This subspecies is known as the Northern Brown Skink and many authorities insist it should be classified as a distinct species, in which case it would be even more of a narrowly endemic species. It's really special to get to see any wild creature so specialized that it's found only in a tiny geographical area.
Gilbert Skinks eat insects and spiders. They like open grassy areas just like what's around the strawberry patch. The female lays 8 or 9 eggs in spaces under rocks or below the ground. In other words, they are normal skinks, just that they happen to be endemic to such a limited area. You can see and read all about our Northern Brown subspecies at www.californiaherps.com/lizards/pages/e.g.placerensis.html