Michigan has a diverse fauna and no shortage of wildlife-watching spots. The state is perhaps best known for its white-tailed deer. This is the largest, most numerous, and also the designated state animal in Michigan. But The Great Lake State has so much more to offer! Luckily for reptile enthusiasts, Michigan has its unique lizard species as well.
That’s right! Michigan’s warm and humid climate makes it a hospitable home for reptiles, even in the East North Central region. There are native lizard populations and stable introduced species waiting to be discovered! So, keep reading to learn more about Michigan’s fascinating wildlife!
4 Lizards Species in Michigan
Michigan has a couple of native lizards. However, several exotic species have also established themselves locally after being introduced. We’ll look at four of Michigan’s most notable lizards below. Note that the following lizards span three different families and genera, showing there’s much diversity even within this small sample.
- Other common names: American five-lined skink, Blue-tailed skink, Red-headed skink
- Scientific name: Plestiodon fasciatus
- Family: Scincidae
- Genus: Plestiodon
- Origin: East of North-American continent, from Northern Ontario to Eastern Texas
- Habitat: Humid hardwood forests close to rivers and streams and around rocky areas
- Size: 4.9-8.5 inches
- Lifespan: 5-10 years
The five-lined skink is among the most common lizards throughout the eastern US. It’s widely seen in Michigan and eastern New York, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas.
This species is easy to identify thanks to its distinct appearance. Five-lined skinks are medium-sized reptiles with long slender bodies and tails. The claws are short and curved. Juvenile specimens are black or dark brown. Their bodies are covered in five thin, vertical stripes. These range in color from yellow to white on the upper body. The tail is bright blue.
As the skink juveniles develop, the body fades to a paler color. The lines might also disappear in some specimens. Adult males are typically light brown and have pale blue tails. Females maintain their intense blue tail pigments, a sign of sexual dimorphism in the species.
This is a diurnal and terrestrial lizard. It thrives in warm and high-humidity environments and can often be seen basking in the sun throughout the day. It spends most of its time hunting for insects in its natural habitat. Five-lined skinks are notorious for being territorial and aggressive around other lizards, especially males. Even as pets, it’s not uncommon for them to bite and cause a stir.
Eastern Fence Lizards
- Other common names: Northern fence lizard, Pine lizard, Prairie lizard, Gray lizard, Horn-billed lizard
- Scientific name: Sceloporus undulatus
- Family: Phrynosomatidae
- Genus: Sceloporus
- Origin: Central to Eastern US; as far west as Arizona, spanning to New York and northern Florida
- Habitat: Open woodlands and along forest edges and rocky environments
- Size: 4-7.5 inches
- Lifespan: 2-5 years
The eastern fence lizard spans a vast range of territories, being naturally present in over 20 states. This species is not native to northern regions. However, small stable populations can now be found in Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan thanks to accidental introduction.
Researchers have already observed several biological adaptations in this species, which explain its survival in the northern continental climate. Northern specimens produce fewer clutches but have larger eggs, shorter incubation periods, and more efficient development. These adaptations result in equal reproduction success in continental and subtropical climates.
Eastern fence lizards have stout, medium-length bodies and long tails. They’re either grey or brown and have a rough skin texture thanks to their keeled scales. Males have brown dorsal sides, bright blue or turquoise belly margins, and blue throats. Females have duller colorations; they’re typically grey with white bellies.
Eastern fence lizards are mainly insectivores and ambush predators. One unique thing about this species is its relationship to fire ants. More precisely, fire ants and fence lizards are arch enemies. The ants prey on the lizard’s eggs, compete for nesting territories, and attack juvenile and adult lizards.
Fire ants can kill lizards in minutes with their venomous sting. Fence lizards have developed unique escape strategies to protect themselves. When under attack, lizards start twitching their bodies rapidly. This helps them throw off the ants before they get a chance to bite.
Northern Prairie Skinks
- Scientific name: Plestiodon septentrionalis septentrionalis
- Family: Scincidae
- Genus: Plestiodon
- Origin: Eastern North Dakota to central Kansas; Southwest Manitoba, Canada
- Habitat: Bracken grasslands, pine barrens, open sandy banks along streams and rivers
- Size: 4-8 inches
- Lifespan: Around 7 years
The Northern prairie skink is a subspecies of Plestiodon septentrionalis. It naturally occurs in the Midwest US, typically in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. However, specimens have also been spotted further eastward, including in Wisconsin and Michigan, so its range appears to be expanding.
This is a medium-sized lizard. It has a slender body and a long tail. Specimens can be either tan or greenish brown. The dorsal side is covered in several vertical lines ranging in width, color, and intensity. Males sometimes have bright orange or red snouts and throats. This typically happens during the breeding season.
Prairie skinks are very reserved lizards. They prefer grassy habitats with flat rocks for sun basking and refuge. They’re a diurnal species but are rarely seen out during daylight. They spend a lot of time hiding among rocks and in burrows. They only come out to bask, mate, or hunt for food. This insectivore lizard feeds primarily on spiders, grasshoppers, and crickets.
- Scientific name: Aspidoscelis sexlineatus
- Family: Teiidae
- Genus: Aspidoscelis
- Origin: Southeastern to South-central US; small populations in the north, including in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin
- Habitat: Woodlands, grasslands, rocky outcrops, floodplains
- Size: 6-9.5 inches
- Lifespan: Around 6 years
The six-lined racerunner is a native species commonly found throughout the Central and Southeastern US. However, small populations also exist in the north. In Michigan, these lizards are primarily found in Tuscola County. The six-lined racerunner is listed as a species of concern in Michigan because of the small natural population.
By the way, there are three documented subspecies of six-lined racerunners. The earliest subspecies, Aspidoscelis sexlineatus sexlineatus (Eastern six-lined racerunner), was described in 1766! The Prairie racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineatus viridis) and Texas yellow-headed racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineatus stephensae) were described later in the 20th century.
All subspecies look similar. Six-lined racerunners are medium-sized lizards with long, thin tails and slender bodies. They’re typically block green, brown, or black. Females have white bellies. Males’ underside is generally light blue. The dorsal side is covered in six yellow or greenish-yellow vertical lines.
Six-lined racerunners belong to the family Teiidae, along with other whiptail lizards. This means they have a few unique characteristics. These include forked tongues, strong teeth, and powerful limbs. They’re fully carnivorous insectivores. Their strong limbs allow them to move quickly, reaching speeds up to 18 mph. Aggressive behavior and biting are very common in this species.
Can You Keep Wild Lizards as Pets in Michigan?
Michigan has strict regulations regarding the ownership of exotic or dangerous pets. But what about wild lizards? The local wild species aren’t exotic or dangerous. Unfortunately, you still can’t legally keep or care for wild lizards in Michigan.
State law strictly prohibits you from keeping any local species of wild birds, mammals, or reptiles without a state permit. Only someone with a wildlife rehabilitation license may possess and care for local wildlife.
The importation of non-local wild reptiles is also subject to regulations. You’ll need an interstate certification of veterinary inspection, at the very least, to bring wild lizards into the state. These strict measures are necessary for protecting the state’s wildlife. Only two lizard species are native to Michigan, and their populations are already threatened.
Where do Lizards Go in Winter in Michigan?
Lizards are nowhere to be seen in winter, but why? Reptiles aren’t known for exhibiting migratory behavior. But they’re also not adapted to survive in the cold. Lizards are endothermic creatures. They need a constant stream of high temperatures to maintain their body heat and function. Prolonged exposure to low temperatures is a death sentence for them.
But lizards can still survive the cold season, even in Michigan’s inhospitable winter climate. This is possible thanks to a process called brumation. As winter approaches, lizards and other reptiles start slowing down. Their body temperature drops, as do their metabolism, heart rate, and energy levels. The lizards start seeking refuge against the cold.
Depending on their natural habitat in Michigan, they might hide in several ways. Some lizards dig deep burrows in the ground. Others hide in logs, tree trunks, or among loose-fitting rocks. The hiding spot protects the lizard against the cold and keeps it safe from other predators during the brumation period.
The fauna in Michigan is diverse and fascinating. The state is home to several native and imported lizard species. The Five-lined skink and the Six-lined racerunner both hail from the Great Lake State. Other lizard species have been introduced, such as the Eastern fence lizard and the Northern prairie skink.
These species also have established, albeit small populations. Unfortunately, Michigan’s reptiles aren’t doing too well. The wild populations are steadily decreasing. The Six-lined racerunner, for example, is currently listed as a species of concern in the state. In an effort to protect its wildlife, Michigan has made it illegal to keep wild reptiles without a wildlife rehabilitation license.