My husband moved excitedly from room to room gathering everything he needed to set up the new cage: a 10 gallon glass tank, a hooded light, an under tank heat pad, substrate and hide containers. He tried to control his giddiness. Through the years, we’ve had many different snakes and lizards that I’ve always tolerated. This cage was going to house our 4-year old son’s first reptile.
After everything was ready, my husband left to go get the new addition. I didn’t realize then how much it would change my life. He returned with a little brown bag containing a baby blue-tongued skink. I remember saying, “What is it? Can I hold it now? The next few weeks were joyfully spent caring for our new skink. Our son would help hold it, giggle, watch it eat and then giggle some more.
Eventually, toys would call him away, while snakes would lure my husband away, and I found myself watching TV and holding Rex. That was the start of my interest in the blue-tongued skink. The information in this article addresses the most commonly available blue tongues of the genus Tiliqua.
Blue-tongued skinks come from Australia and many of the neighboring islands that make up New Guinea, Tasmania, and Indonesia. They live in a wide range of habitats from lowland grasslands, montane forests, woodlands and coastal areas. Tiliqua can be found from semi-humid to dry climates.
Adult blue tongues average 15 to 27 inches in total length. They are omnivorous and have large, triangular heads with long, fat bodies. Their legs are little compared to their bodies, and they have stocky tails. They are diurnal and terrestrial in nature, and give birth to live young (viviparous).
When exploring something new, being handled and out of their enclosure, they use their namesake blue tongues to “look around.” Blue tongues have an average life span of 15 to 20 years.
Commonly Available Types
The blue tongues typically as captives are the northern (Tiliqua scincoides intermededia), eastern (T.s.scincoides), Irian Jaya (T. scincoides ssp), Tanimbar (T.s.chimearea), and Indonesian (T.g.gigas).
Northerns are the largest of the group, ranging in size from 18 to 27 inches. They are a creamy tan to golden with alternating light and dark bars across their backs that run down to orange-and-black barred sides. Their heads and forelimbs are a light grey-tan color. They lack a temporal streak, which runs down the back of the eye to the ear opening on other blue tongues.
Easterns are smaller than northerns at around 16 to 20 inches. Their color pattern can be quite variable, banded and streaked in colors of brown, ochre, orange, gray and black. Their forelimbs are more pale and patternless. Easterns typically have a dark temporal streak.
Tanimbars are the smallest at 15 to 17 inches in total length. They are usually banded in silvery gray to golden brown with patternless forelimbs. Like the northerns, they lack the temporal streak.
Irian Jaya blue tongues are only slightly smaller than northerns, with the sizes of 18 to 22 inches. Coloring is varied, and they can display different head colors, some with the dark temporal streak and others without it. Irian Jayas are boldly banded lizards. Several color morphs are known to exist, including silver gray, tan, brown and chocolate brown.
Indonesian blue tongues range in size, averaging 17 to 19 inches. Their colors range from light silver gray to golden brown. There are a few distinct differences between this blue tongue and the others: These have thin bands on their backs, as well as black limbs and a single black stripe on the top of their heads.
BUYING BLUE TONGUES
Captive-bred blue tongues are recommended over imports; they acclimate much easier and normally make better pets. When you are ready to purchase a blue tongue, obtaining a healthy specimen should be your top priority. There are several sources for blue tongues, including pet shops, private breeders, reptile shows and classified ads in magazines and on the Internet. If possible, visually inspect and handle a blue tongue before purchasing it.
There are a few simple, specific things to look for in a healthy blue tongue. Healthy specimens are generally active and alert. Their tongues flick in and out frequently as they smell their surroundings. Avoid skinks that appear lethargic, drowsy or unresponsive; even the tamest ones exhibit tongue movement and look around. The eyes should be clear and the nostrils free of any discharge.
If you are buying online and can’t personally inspect your prospective pet, ask to see pictures and inquire about general temperament, diet, age and any other questions you may have. Many breeders offer ongoing support, care and feeding advice, and a health guarantee.
HOUSING YOUR SKINK
Adult and juvenile blue tongues are solitary animals; they are not known to live in groups in the wild. They can be quite territorial, so house them separately unless you can provide a very large cage with multiple hot spots and hide areas.
There are many commercially available enclosures that work well for blue tongues. Caging can be made of wood (melamine or wood protected against moisture), plastic, glass or a combination of these.
Because blue tongues are terrestrial, priority should be given to floor space over cage height. Single adults can be kept in 30- to 40-gallon long aquariums. A standard 10-gallon works well for hatchlings and juveniles. Blue tongues grow incredibly fast and will need to be transferred to larger cages by the time they are a year old. Blue tongue enclosures should have secure lids to prevent escapes and to keep other animals out.
I use two different types or setups: a plastic-and-glass display cage for our pet blue tongue and a custom rack setup for my adult breeders. The display cage houses one adult Irian Jaya and has 4 square feet of floor space. Each of the nine tubs within the rack setup measures approximately 2 by 3 feet; they are arranged in three rows of three tubs. Each contains a single adult northern blue tongue.
Basic cage furnishings include substrate, a hide area and sturdy water and food dishes. Most blue tongues enjoy burrowing, so substrates that allow for these are preferable. These types of substrates are also easy to spot clean and require less frequent bedding changes. Choices include cypress mulch, CareFRESH, aspen bedding, pine shavings, compressed newspaper pellets and reptile bark. Artificial turf can be used, but it is more labor intensive to keep clean; have a precleaned same-size piece available for swapping out.
I prefer aspen bedding and reptile bark. Both are very absorbent, good for burrowing, easy to keep clean, inexpensive and blue tongues like them. Some hobbyists use prepared sand and dirt substrates with various organic materials added.
Provide hide areas in both the warm and cool zones (see “Heating and Lighting”) to offer your skink a choice of secure places to hide and thermoregulate. Most adults adapt well without hides but some won’t, so be aware of each individual skink’s needs and adjust accordingly. I have used various commercially made hides, lidded Rubbermaid containers with entrance holes cut in the lids, various sizes of PVC pipes as well as crumpled newspaper. Commercially available hides are nice for display cages. Plastic containers are inexpensive, easy to clean and can be partially filled with a moist substrate to supply a humid area.
Additional cage furnishings include plants, rocks and driftwood. Plastic plants offer added variety and color without the worries of upkeep or danger if your skink ingests them. Artificial plants are also very easy to clean. If you add rocks, place them firmly on the bottom of the cage so that they can’t be moved and possibly end up crushing your skink. Logs or driftwood supply hide areas and exercise opportunities for blue tongues.
Any cage furnishings you use should be easy to remove and clean. Besides spot cleaning (removing feces, shed skin and leftover food), change bedding and clean and sterilize all cage furnishings every four to eight weeks.
HEATING AND LIGHTING
Reptiles have no internal heating process, so they must regulate their temperature with their environment. They accomplish this by moving from one temperature zone to another, which is called thermoregulation. Ambient air temperature, digestion, pregnancy, shed cycles and illness are factors that influence thermoregulation. You should provide both hot and cool ends in your skink’s enclosure.
Blue tongues thrive at normal room temperature of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit if given access to a hot spot at one end of the enclosure that’s between 90 and 100 degrees. This hot spot should be available for at least 12 hours a day. Do not let the cooler end drop below 65 degrees or rise above 85 degrees for long periods of time. Blue-tongues skinks provided with the correct temperature range will shuttle back and forth between the zones according to their comfort needs.
There are several heating devices and bulbs on the market. One of the simplest and least expensive ways to provide heat is to use regular incandescent light bulb with a hood or reflector. This can be placed on top of or attached (many dome reflectors come with clamps) to one end of the enclosure. To avoid potential burns, make sure the skink is unable to come in direct contact with the fixture (also be mindful of other pets and curious small children that also might come in contact with it).
You may also use undertank heating, either alone or in combination with ambient heat as described previously. Undertank heaters come in several sizes and types with one available to fit most applications. Avoid heat rocks, however, as they often have areas that might get hot enough to burn your skink.
Cage temperature readings should be taken close to where your blue tongue’s body will be, not to high above. If you use incandescent or spot lights, you may need to lower or raise the bulb wattage depending on the size of the cage and the time of year to maintain the correct temperature range. Thermostats can be used for most of these heating devices and are highly recommended; they provide easy and more efficient control over cage temperatures.
If you use an incandescent light bulb to heat the cage, additional lighting is not a must. Good lighting improves cage aesthetics, however, and is thought to improve the well-being of most lizards. UVB/UVA lights help reptiles to produce vitamin D3 if your skink does not receive natural sunlight.
Remember that if you add additional lighting to the cage, it may raise the overall temperature . You may need to readjust heating devices to maintain the optimum temperature range. Lights should be on a 12-hour day cycle in summer and eight to 10 hours in the winter. Temperatures can drop at night, but not below 65 degrees.
The factors that determine cage humidity are temperature , humidity level in your home, ventilation and the amount of moisture you introduce into the cage. Proper humidity is important to any blue-tongued skink’s health. The most obvious sign that humidity levels might be to low is if a skink experiences difficulty shedding.
There are several ways to introduce humidity, including water dishes. cage spraying or containers filled with a moist substrate and placed in the cage. A combination of these, along with manipulating cage ventilation, can provide the desired humidity level. Water dishes with a larger surface area increase humidity; keep these dishes at the cool end. Daily misting of the skink or a portion of the substrate also does the trick. Spray lightly – heavy spraying breeds bacteria.
Plastic hide boxes filled with 2 to 3 inches of moist sphagnum moss also works well. These containers need to be remoistened periodically. Cages remaining moist all the time are unhealthy because bacteria can flourish. Depending on where you live, the cage setup and other factors, you may naturally have the right humidity level. It’s healthier for the cage to be too dry rather than to moist; if needed, you can slowly make humidity adjustments if your skink experiences shedding problems.
BLUE TONGUE FOOD
Blue tongues’ simple feeding requirements are another plus to owning one of these reptiles. Being omnivorous, they eat both animal and plant matter. In nature they typically consume fruits and flowers and slow-moving animals that wander into their territory. Their captive diet should consist of food from animal (protein) and vegetable sources, and some fruits and grains. I recommend a varied diet.
Animal sources may include cooked lean red meat, turkey, lean hamburger, boiled chicken, cooked eggs (scrambled, hard boiled, etc.) and premium canned cat food (not dog food). For additional variety, you can also offer an occasional live fuzzy mouse (live weaned or adult mice can inflict serious wounds), superworms, mealworms and crickets. These live food items are not required, but can be used as alternate food choices.
The following vegetables are good choices: green beans, carrots, corn, broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, spinach, romaine lettuce and chopped mustard and collard greens. You can also offer blue tongues pesticide-free flowers; I feed mine roses, carnations and dandelions.
Fruits and grains to consider are grated or sliced apples, grapes, melons, peaches, strawberries, figs, kiwi, plums and bananas. Bran, oats and soaked muesli mixtures can also be offered. Any of these can be from frozen/thawed, fresh or canned sources.
Meals can be a 50-50 mix of animal and vegetable matter, or 40-40 animal and vegetable matter, and 10 percent each of fruit and grains. For example, you might provide some cooked ground hamburger and/or a sliced hard boiled egg, and mix that with an equal amount of vegetables. Add a smaller amount of fruit and/or grain, maybe a small piece of banana and a bit of oatmeal. Mix this together thoroughly and sprinkle a vitamin/mineral supplement on top.
The ratios can vary, but variety is the key to a healthy skink. You can also mix larger amounts together and freeze for future feedings. It’s not necessary to use the four food groups at every feeding, but try to include as many different types in each feeding as possible.
Feed baby blue tongues every day for the first three months and then every other day until they are 1 year old. Adults should be fed two to three times per week. I lightly dust each feeding with a phosphorus-free calcium supplement with vitamin D3. Once a week, I also lightly sprinkle on a multivitamin supplement. Feed your skink anytime from morning to midafternoon. Blue tongues need temperatures of at least 80 to 85 degrees to digest their food; if they are fed too late in the day, after their heat source is turned down or off, the food can remain undigested in their guts.
Clean drinking water should be provided at all times in a bowl located on the cool end of the enclosure.
Baby blue tongues are born ready to take on the world and can survive independently from adults. They are small, cute and quite hardy. They have very few, if any, special requirements, but I do recommend housing babies separately.
Start out with a simple substrate, such as newspaper, paper towels, artificial turf or old, clean towels, shirts, etc. This eliminates the risk of babies ingesting any substrate. Provide a hot spot of 100 degrees (babies like it a little hotter than adults) and a cool end of 75 to 80 degrees. They require hide areas; I use folded magazine pages, PVC pipes and paper towel rolls.
Baby blue tongues can be offered the same diet as adults, only more regularly and with the food minced instead of chopped. Don’t offer fuzzy mice until babies are a year old. Don’t forget to add the calcium supplement to every meal; blue tongues grow rapidly and can quickly become calcium deficient. Always provide clean water in a dish at the cool end.
GENERAL HEALTH CONCERNS
When their basic needs are met, blue tongues are very hardy with few health problems. Even so, having a local herp veterinarian if a problem should occur is always beneficial.
Blue tongues can experience poor sheds and may need some help removing stuck skin. I soak my blue tongues in lukewarm water a few days into their shed cycle. Use enough water to cover their bodies only. I start them with a 10- to 15-minute soak, and then rub their limbs, heads, tail tips and especially their toes.
Also, blue tongues’ nails can quite long and need to be trimmed periodically (usually due to a lack of rough surfaces in captivity). Using a small pair of scissors or nail clippers, trim just the tip of the nail following the angle. If you see a small amount of blood, dab with a disinfectant. Start trimming your skink’s nails while it is still a baby; this makes easier to trim its nails when it becomes an adult.
Blue-tongued skinks are one of the easiest lizards to care for in captivity. They are able to withstand the mistakes sometimes made by new hobbyists, making them an excellent choice for beginners. They are long-lived, extremely hardy and can tolerate a lot of handling. Their simple “grocery store” diet also adds much to their appeal. They are a good size-not too large, not too small. Additionally, most are very intelligent and have curious and interesting personalities.
After caring for many blue tongues, I am still delighted and entertained with their different personalities and the funny things they do. If you’re looking for a somewhat large-ish lizard that can tolerate a lot of handling, responds to human interaction and is easy to care for, then the blue-tongued skink is the pet for you!