If you measure the success of a week at nature camp by the number of times kids shout in excitement about reptiles and amphibians, last week was a pretty good one:
“I found a skink!”
“Come and see this newt!”
“There’s a salamander over here!”
If you consider accuracy, though? Far less successful; we went zero for three. We did see both skinks and salamanders, but the kids were confused about which was which. These creatures do have a lot in common, but each is awesome in its own way.
Skinks and salamanders are herpetofauna–a category that includes all reptiles and amphibians. Their bodies look similar, which is the thing I think made it hard for the campers to tell them apart. There are several tell-tale features, though, all of which come down to one thing: salamanders are amphibians, while skinks are reptiles.
Salamanders have soft, slimy skin, like frogs do. Their skin is adapted to absorb oxygen directly out of their environment. It’s so effective that some salamanders don’t have lungs at all. They do all of their “breathing” through their skin. Because of that special skin, you’ll find salamanders hiding out in moist places. Many are fully aquatic, living in streams and ponds. Land-based species live in wet nooks and crannies, like under logs, in deep burrows, or in mountain rock crevices. All salamanders, though, go back to water to lay their eggs in the same sort of gooey blobs as frogs.
Skinks, on the other hand, are members of one particular family of lizards. They’re known for having long, streamlined bodies and super smooth scales. Because of their unusual scales, these critters can look shiny and slimy. If you get a close look, though, you’ll realize they aren’t. Skinks don’t have to worry about drying out the same way salamanders do, so they live in all sorts of habitats. In the southeastern U.S., they’re often seen skittering around in forest leaf litter or climbing trees and sun-warm buildings.
If you see a four-legged crawly creature out there, take a look at the skin for a clue about what it is. Then sit back and enjoy the experience! Whether you find a salamander, a skink, or some other kind of lizard, lots of these herps are both beautiful and fascinating to watch.