The Skinks of Tintamarre

Skinks are small, shiny lizards. With their sleek bodies and small legs they look like they want to be snakes, and maybe could be in a million years or so. For most of history, the skinks of the eastern Caribbean were all lumped into one species.

Herpetologists—scientists who study reptiles and amphibians—knew that these skinks were probably different from island to island. Even in 1862, the famous scientist E.D. Cope mentioned that American skinks were “in a state of some confusion.” But it took 150 years for someone to take a closer look. In 2012, a groundbreaking paper by Blair Hedges and Caitlin Conn described 24 new skink species from Caribbean islands.

The St. Martin Skink, Spondylurus martinae, was one of these new species. It was described from museum specimens, including ones collected by Dr. Hendrik van Rijgersma in the 1860s. Sadly, it had not been seen for a long time. The mongoose in was introduced 1888 and may have eaten them to extinction.

A few years ago, skinks were seen on Tintamarre, living in the stone walls left over from D.C. van Romondt’s farming days there in the early 20th century. Were they St. Martin Skinks? Could they be the last survivors of a species that was wiped out on St. Martin?

Stone walls, the final refuge of the skinks of Tintamarre.

In fact, further research revealed that they were actually a very similar species, the Anguilla Bank Skink, Spondylurus powelli. This is the species that also lives on Anguilla and St. Barts. This wasn’t a complete surprise. Tintamarre is closest to St. Martin, but the ground lizards there are the variety found on Anguilla and St. Barts, not the variety on St. Martin.

Discoveries like this show that the evolutionary history on St. Martin is very complicated. We share many species with Anguilla and St. Barts because our islands were connected during the last ice age. Yet there are also species found only on St. Martin. Finding out why could tell us more about how evolution works in general.

So close, yet so far! St. Martin seen from Tintamarre.

And what about our St. Martin Skinks? It seems that the last specimen was collected in Little Bay around 1963. Perhaps they have died out since then. Perhaps, like on Tintamarre, a few have survived unseen. Keep your eyes open for them!

Have you ever seen a skink on St. Martin? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected].

Learn more about the skinks of Tintamarre at Caribbean Herpetology.

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