Run away! Run away!

Last weekend while out in the woods with my students, we went for an early morning hike.  Normally, when hiking and looking for birds, I keep my eyes and ears aimed up into the trees, but it can be useful to keep half an ear aimed at the ground, too.  The reason to pay attention to those sounds (whether with the whole ear or just half of it) is to listen for the sounds of smaller animals moving around on the ground- small things like lizards.  I’m not the most lizard-oriented person, but I’ve learned to appreciate them over the past few years.  Not that I ever had anything against them, but come on…they’re not birds.  Lizards, though, can be exciting because they are something that can be seen much more closely than a bird (generally speaking).

So, last weekend, we were spending the morning walking around Badin Lake.  There were a number of birds, but they were mostly up in the tops of the trees- Pine Warblers and Black-and-white Warblers and Titmice.  It was a shudder in the leaves that made me look down.  There aren’t many things that make the leaves move like that.  Thrashers, towhees and some thrushes will, so keeping an ear out for those sounds is helpful when looking for ground -feeding birds.  Lizards and toads will move leaves that way, too- especially if they’re trying to hide.  So anytime you hear that little shudder in the leaves, follow your ear to where it came from.  I traced to some leaves near a small rock.   On picking the rock up, I found a little Ground Skink.  Considering that the morning was still quite chilly, I was very surprised to see just how fast that little skink moved!  Funny enough, though, he didn’t have a whole lot in him.  After the first little dash to escape, the skink didn’t keep up the pace.  Sometimes I feel the same way on my morning runs.  My energy just poops out.

That skink ran for the rock before I was actually a threat to it.  In fact, had the skink not made the dash to cover, I may have walked right by it (because I had been looking up in the trees at that point).  So why did the skink run away so quickly?  Actually, that answer may go back to the fact that it was a chilly morning.  Since skinks are little ectotherms (they manage their own body temperatures using external sources), a chilly morning means that his little body was still cold and his muscles wouldn’t be quite as responsive.  One paper found that, as predicted by this little idea, skinks who are colder will make runs for cover sooner than skinks that are warmer.  The warmer they are, the longer they can wait to dash away.

Smith, D.G.  1997.  Ecological factors influencing the antipredator behaviors of the ground skink, Scincella lateralis.  Behavioral Ecology 8:  622-629

So this little guy was just trying to get a little head start on the escape plan.  The side benefit to him of drawing our attention was that we did end up picking him up and he got to pick up our body heat, so when released, he made a much better dash to cover.  

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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