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Reiter column: Lizards and salamanders of Wisconsin

Three books from the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation that provide excellent information and identification of some of Wisconsin’s lesser known animals. Photo by Mike Reiter

After writing about snakes, turtles and frogs, I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on the topic of lizards and salamanders of Wisconsin. The lizards are reptiles and in the same class as snakes and turtles while the salamanders are amphibians and close relatives to the frogs.

Wisconsin is the home of four species of lizards. The western slender glass lizard is legless and is sometimes mistaken for a snake. Unlike snakes however, the lizards have external ear openings and moveable eyelids, allowing them to blink. Legged lizards also have toenails, allowing them to grasp slippery surfaces. The prairie racerunner is the fastest of the lizards and can travel on hard surfaces at 18 mph. The five-lined skink reaches a length of 8 inches and has five yellow striped lines down the length of its body. Our most common lizard, and the one I have seen the most in our area, is the northern prairie skink. This lizard has wide tan stripes running down its back with thin and thick black lines ending in a blackish tail. They lay leathery-shelled eggs which hatch in moist surroundings. While lizards will eat just about anything, most of their preferred food is insects. If a predator attacks them, they can lose and later regenerate their tails. Once the tail is separated from the body, it will continue to wiggle keeping the predator distracted while the lizard makes its escape. All Wisconsin's lizards are endangered, restricted in range, uncommon and declining.

While frogs are the better known amphibians, there are seven species of animals that make up the salamander side of that grouping. These include the blue-spotted salamander, the spotted salamander and the eastern tiger salamander which are included in the mole salamander family. The central newt is the only member of the newt family in Wisconsin, while the lungless salamander family has the four-toed salamander and the red-backed salamander. The mudpuppy — also known as a waterdog — makes up the last Wisconsin salamander grouping. The mudpuppy is the largest and only totally aquatic salamander. I can remember as a kid, fishing the Chippewa River and occasionally hooking into a mudpuppy. I would cut the line before having to handle the slippery creature and remove the hook. While entirely harmless, they do look intimidating.

The lizards and salamanders in Wisconsin are very secretive and seldom seen but they do make up a vital part of the animals of Wisconsin. They need to be protected and the habitat they require needs to be maintained and expanded. These are just a few of the unique animals that call Wisconsin home.

The Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, a subdivision of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, provides three excellent reference books on snakes, amphibians, turtles and lizards at very reasonable prices. I strongly urge you to search for them and check out these outstanding offerings.