Think Skink

Although they may be less popular than some other lizards, blue-tongued skinks have numerous qualities that make them wonderful pets.


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One of the most common questions I am asked is, “What lizards make good pets for kids?” My first answer is always, “Depends on what the kid loves.” The child should be 100 percent enthralled by the selection—better no pet at all than something that feels like a compromise.

That said, the list of lizards that are attractive, hardy, handleable and durable tends to be short and includes the most popular lizards in the trade: bearded dragons, leopard geckos and crested geckos. But at least equal, and in some ways better, as pets are blue-tongued skinks.

Blue tongues are members of the Tiliqua genus (I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard refer to them as “tequila skinks”) and range through Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia. They are thick bodied, short legged, smooth scaled and graced with large, triangular heads and bright blue tongues. I find them fairly easy to sex. Males tend to have bigger, broader heads and tails that “square off” on the undersides, whereas females tend to have rounded tails. 

Their coloring consists of shiny, intricate blotches of tan, grey, brown and black. Best of all, their eyelids are usually a beautiful shade of lavender, as if they are wearing eyeshadow. How chic! There are six species, but only three are at all common to the trade: T. scincoides (Northern Blue Tongue), T. multifasciata (Centralian) and T. gigas (Indonesian).

Why do they make good pets? They are typically docile (though the gigas can be squirrelly as babies, they tend to calm down with handling), beautiful, impressively large (usually around 10-15 inches) without being so big as to require expansive caging and, well, just charming.

So, why aren’t they more common in the trade? For one thing, all the Australian species are illegal to export from their homeland, so—excepting the Indonesians—the only ones on the market are captive produced. While the same is true of the ubiquitous bearded dragon, dragons are prolific (35 eggs to a clutch is typical) and easy to breed. Blue tongues, on the other hand, present a myriad of breeding hurdles, including finding a pair that will tolerate each other. While they are sweet toward us, they tend to be complete Bickersons with each other. Blue tongues also produce relatively small clutches: typically 5-12 babies at a time. So, they tend to be less common and more expensive than other lizards for beginners, but that does not inhibit me from recommending them. They are wonderful pets.

For one thing, they have a diet that is more flexible than that of other lizards. They are omnivores, as happy to eat crickets and baby rats as they are to enjoy a salad or mashed fruits. They are thrilled to eat snails, shell and all, and even respond well to canned snails, such as Zoo Med’s Can O’ Snails, one of our most popular canned reptile foods. If one runs out of these options, the skinks will even relish a small plate of canned cat food. Everything should be dusted in vitamins and calcium, of course. The fact that the pet owner has so many feeding options makes life easier when compared to caring for all other lizards.

Blue tongues are generally happy in about a 20-inch-long cage or tank. I like to keep them on orchid bark or cypress mulch with plenty of hide spaces. Temperatures should range from the high 70s to low 90s. These skinks are potentially subject to a condition called “swayback” in which their spine becomes soft. However, I find it to be more alarming than injurious, and proper vitaminization coupled with a strong UVB light tends to prevent the problem. Some breeders feel that a strong UVA source is also important for better behavior in breeding.

So…why the blue tongue? These lizards will tongue flick the air every few seconds when stimulated by handling or food, so they display the tongue quite often. Like snakes, their very best sense is their sense of smell. But that still doesn’t answer the question of the color.

In the wild, blue tongues tend toward dense brush, but will come into open spaces to forage. If they encounter a predator, they whip around, gape their mouths as wide as possible, and literally wag the tongue around like a bright blue flag. Animals tend to be surprised to see such a color in that context, and they do a double take. That split second is enough time for the blue tongue to turn and scurry back into the dense underbrush.

This explanation invariably leads to the next question: If they survive by being able to turn and run, why the stunted little legs? Again, the dense underbrush is the answer. Imagine yourself trying to crawl through a tunnel with a circumference not much bigger than your own torso. What gets in your way? Your own arms and legs, of course. What gives you speed and range of motion in the open actually inhibits your movement in close quarters. Blue tongues have adapted to their habitat by having reduced limbs, which gives them greater speed and flexibility.

This same phenomenon, by the way, leads to the explanation of how snakes evolved from their lizard ancestors. The original snakes adapted to lives in dense leaf litter and underground warrens. Eventually, they radiated out into incredibly diverse environments, but the origin of their limblessness lies beneath our feet.

Like snakes, blue tongues tend to shed all at once, though not in one piece. Because of this, they do best if given the option of a moss box or similar humidity chamber. The worst aspect of an improper shed is that the shed tends to remain attached to their feet and toes. As the old shed dries, it can constrict and prevent circulation to the toes, which may whither and die. I have seen otherwise healthy skinks walking around on four stubs, but this obviously is easy to prevent and should be monitored. (This advice applies equally well to ground geckos like the leopards and fat tails.)

The truth is, the vast majority of your clientele will be perfectly happy with a pet leopard gecko or bearded dragon. Within the scope of our hobby, they are what the overwhelming majority of families with pet lizards choose. Blue tongues offer a few things those animals don’t: flexible diets, more durable handling and the feel of holding a small dog or human baby. That instantly hooks a lot of kids. Having more options for your customers, especially options that are as lovely, amenable and intrinsically interesting as a blue-tongued skink, can’t hurt. It’s basic business: a broader range of choices, with a broader range of price points, puts you at an advantage over your competitors.



Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

 

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