Skink

My entry for the 2002 BBC Wildlife Magazine Nature Writing Awards. I was "Specially Commended."
2001- 2002, I spent six months in Tasmania on a solo expedition to look for the legendary Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger.
The experience changed my life - I quit bookselling and retrained as a biologist.

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1. Essay

Thwap-thwap-thwap!

Pause.

Thwap-thwap-thwap!

 

Investigating this strange noise in an otherwise quiet house in the Panama Forest, north eastern Tasmania, I discovered two little Delicate Skink lizards stuck to the glue of a self-seal envelope which had fallen to the floor.

Lampropholis delicata: there is not a square inch of north east Tasmania which is not home to these stylish, sleek, audacious little reptiles, dispassionately described as ‘plain’ in the wildlife guides.

Anything but plain, delicate skinks have wit and flair and trim good looks. Less than five inches long, they are coppery brown on top with a lighter underside and a neat black stripe along both sides.  Small, slim legs end in tiny, delicate toes and minute claws.

Although adapted to hunt insects amongst the leaf litter, houses without domestic pets are a much favoured habitat. There is access to a water source in the form of the kitchen sink and plenty of food due to the abundance of flies.

These diminutive skinks are superb hunters - leaping swift and agile along the windowsills; darting about the shelves and around the walls. Lacking the fringed feet of geckos, they cannot climb glass nor stick blithely to the ceiling but the rough, mudbrick interiors characteristic of Tasmanian dwellings are just a breeze! Tiny faces appear and disappear between jars and bottles or pop up suddenly as you are doing the dishes, to lean over the edge of the draining board and suck up droplets of water.

 

Rescue of these daredevil creatures is a common requirement as their audacity frequently gets the better of them, leading you often to encounter little faces gazing hopefully up at you from some overlooked container.

Many households routinely stack receptacles upside down and, if the house will be empty for a few days, leave rough sticks as escape routes in baths and basins.

 

That particular house: surrounded by wattle and gum forest vibrant with the ‘ko-sheek! ko-sheek!’ calls of parrots and the splashing of platypus in the nearby dam, was a skink haven.

 At about nine in the morning when the angle of the sun was just right, the woodblock floor between the sink and the table would become a skink breakfast bar.

Flies landed and lingered in this warm patch of sunlight and from all corners, with that swift, reptile shimmy, would come the hunters.

They plied their skills here in slow motion - allowing me to observe movements previously masked by speed.

Not a flickering tongue in evidence, they appeared to hunt by sight. Closing rapidly on their prey then slowing to creep - step…step…step - nearer. Once within range, they gently, gently, curled the base of the tail into a tight S-bend then released this stored energy in a sudden, explosive, forward pounce. Catch! Swallow.

On windowsills, the tail could launch its owner two body lengths vertically up the glass.

But what of the lizards who had lost their tails?

One such joined the breakfast party one morning and proved to have adequate stump for pouncing. Curiously, the other skinks ignored such courage in adversity and picked on him till they drove him away.

 

I retrieved the hapless two who were giving the phrase ‘pushing the envelope’ a whole new meaning and gently began to unstick them.

The bigger skink I managed to liberate with no trouble, sacrificing only the tip of his tail to the clinging glue but the smaller one - only half grown by the look of her - was well and truly stuck.

I dripped some water onto the glue, which softened it enough to free up her hind legs and tail but one filigree foreleg remained wrapped in a sticky wad which I could not remove without risk to the limb. I could only release her and hope it would come off when she next shed her skin.

The water had leached heat from her body, making her movements sluggish and feeble. I placed her on my palm to warm up, worried that cold and exhaustion had already taken their toll on such a small creature.

However, she began to perk up as she warmed and tried a few steps along my wrist; head proudly high and legs moving with synchronous grace despite the encumbrance. The touch of her claws barely registered on my skin: she was so slight and elegant an animal. So tiny and beautiful and perfect.

I was in Tasmania to search for that most uncommon of mammals, the supposedly extinct Thylacine, but there I was - entranced by the most common of reptiles.

What is it with us human beings? Always chasing horizons - so hungry for life’s mysteries that we dub small beauties ‘plain’ and ignore the daily dramas played out around our feet.

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