Choosing a Blue-Tongued Skink
An extraordinarily versatile and diverse family of lizards, skinks make good, easy to keep pets that can live up to 20 years. They come in a great range of colors: gray, red, brown, spotted, striped, banded, and blotched. What they have in common is a striking deep blue tongue that looks as if they’ve been eating berries, and (for a lizard) a winningly docile personality.
Skinks live throughout the world’s tropics as well as in temperate North America. Most of the more than 1,200 species live in Southeast Asia and Australia, in climates ranging from alpine mountaintops to deserts, from savannahs to tropical rainforests. Although they are small, rarely more than two feet long, they have muscular broad bodies that enable them to burrow in brush or under the ground. Several species have been bred in captivity for many years.
There are four commonly seen skinks:
- Northern blue-tongued skink – Tiliqua scincoides intermedia of tropical Australia.
- Eastern blue-tongued skink – T. s. scincoides of temperate Australia.
- New Guinean blue-tongued skink – T. gigas of New Guinea.
- Blotched blue-tongued skink – T. nigrolutea of temperate southeastern Australia.
Many blue-tongues are farmed and imported from New Guinea. Others are collected from the wild, and many are bred domestically in the United States.
Baby blue-tongues of several types are generally available in the pet trade. Body-color varies by species. If the lizard is startled or frightened the mouth is opened and the deep blue tongue is flattened and lolled out in defensive display. These are among the most distinctive of skinks.
The northern and the eastern blue-tongues are quite similar. They are grayish lizards with darker bars crossing the back and varying amounts of pink or orange on each side. The eastern blue-tongue has a very prominent dark eye bar; the northern blue-tongue lacks this.
The New Guinean blue tongue tends to have an olive back and black legs. The blotched blue-tongue has elongate, paired, pale to bright orange blotches on its back.
All are heavy-bodied, big-headed and short-legged. The tail is relatively short and heavy and does not regenerate well if broken.
Blue-tongued skinks of all sizes, from hours-old babies to old adults, can be very antagonistic towards cagemates. Babies are often more belligerent than the adults and may actually tear the legs off of each other. Therefore, it is best to keep babies separately. If you intend to keep them communally, the cage should be large and contain many visual barriers.
Of the four rather readily available forms, the northern and the New Guinean blue-tongues are the most quarrelsome and the blotched blue-tongue usually the least.
All of the commonly seen blue-tongued skinks are primarily terrestrial. They are creatures of grasslands, rocky flats, deserts, and mountain fastnesses. None swim well, but all will occasionally enter shallow pans of water to drink and soak. These skinks have strong jaws and can bite painfully. However, if properly handled they seldom do.
Baby blue-tongues are the best choice for pets. With persistent gentle handling many become quite tame, some extremely so.
Captive blue-tongues are often fed a diet heavy in small rodents. On this they soon become unnaturally obese and lethargic. This is probably no healthier for them than it would be for a human.
Blue-tongues are opportunistic feeders that are adapted to an omnivorous diet. Fruits, some vegetables, insects, and other low fat animal protein, are all eaten.
A more appropriate diet for your skink includes berries, kiwi-fruit, some banana and melons, grated carrots, grated broccoli, crickets, roaches, grasshoppers, king mealworms, low fat canned cat or dog foods, commercial lizard diet, and a very occasional small mouse.
A sizable shallow container of fresh drinking water should always be present.
Fast growing babies and ovulating female blue-tongued skinks utilize a comparatively great amount of calcium. These should be given a D3-calcium supplement twice weekly. For adult males, provide vitamin-mineral supplements at least once every two weeks.
Blue-tongues are alert lizards, but they are not at all fast in their escape attempts. When hard-pressed, these lizards rely more on serpentine (snake-like) undulations to slide to safety than their legs. If frightened they can, and will, bite. Do not grasp your skink by the tail. This can break free and does not regenerate well.
Like most lizards, blue-tongues are usually more wary of fast movements and of approach from above than of slow motions and approach from the side. These lizards can be easily trained to crawl into your hand to accept a morsel of their favorite food. Lift a blue-tongue by encircling its body near the forelegs gently with your fingers. Support its body with your free hand.
Baby blue-tongued skinks grow very rapidly. A life span of 20 or more years is possible. Almost all now available in the pet trade are captive bed or farmed rather than wild-collected.
Although a 4 or 5-inch long baby blue-tongue can be kept in a 15 gallon terrarium, within a few months they will have outgrown this. One or two adult blue-tongues should be provided with floor space equivalent to that of a 75 gallon terrarium (1.5 by 4 feet) or larger.
Immovable rocks or logs are suggested visual barriers, and a hidebox(es) and a water dish are needed.
Illuminate and warm one end of the cage to 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature for the blotched blue-tongue can be about 5 degrees less) with a full-spectrum UV-B-heat bulb. The terrarium’s ambient daytime temperature should be about 78 to 85F. Nighttime temperatures can drop by a few degrees. A substrate of mulch (of some non-aromatic form) can provide ease of cleaning. Be prepared to change this as necessary.
Common Diseases and Disorders
- Fast growing baby blue-tongued skinks will develop metabolic bone disease (MBD) unless calcium is properly metabolized. This usually manifests itself in a weakened backbone, resulting in a kinked back.
- Blue-tongued skinks often fight with cagemates. This tendency is well developed at birth. Cage these lizards individually whenever possible.
- Limb and/or tail loss is the frequent result of fighting. Tail loss is the less serious of the two and may require no treatment. Leg loss can be more serious.