Australian Blue-Tongued Skink (Tiliqua scincoides)
Table of Contents
- Defense mechanisms
- Can live 15 - 20 years with proper care
- Tail autotomy - need to be handled with care
- Are calm pets that enjoy being scratched beneath the chin
- Blue tongue skink tank size
Feeding & Diet
- Omnivorous eaters
- crickets, superworms, and waxworms
- peas, squash, and carrots
- Common malnourishment symptoms
- Daily Spot Cleaning
- Monthly Cleanings
Blue tongue skinks have really interesting traits, beginning with the famed blue tongue. And between all of these traits, and habitat necessities, these tips and instructions will make it simpler to put together your Blue Tongue Skink care schedule. In the wild, skinks have many predators. To protect themselves, they have developed an impressive array of anatomical and behavioral features that help to frighten away determined attackers.
Their tiny legs and body coloration cause them to resemble the Death Adder. They can expand their ribcage to look larger and puff up much like and American Gila monster (unlike a Gila Monster, however, they are non-venomous and of generally docile disposition). In fact, some of the species resemble Gila Monsters more than they resemble poisonous snakes.
Ripping Off Their Tails for A Defense Mechanism
When coloration and size do not deter a potential predator, an impressive display of hissing and lashing outward with a very blue tongue surrounded by a neon red mouth can be extremely startling (to owners as well as predators). And if this doesn’t work, this reptile will actually bite off its own tail, and leave it wriggling in the dirt as a diversion tactic while beating a hasty retreat to safety. How’s that for a survival tool box?
There are 8 species of blue-tongued skinks, all but one occurring in Australia. The popular Northern blue-tongued is the largest of the eight species, achieving a total length between 18 and 24 inches. With proper management, blue-tongued skinks can live for 15 to 20 years. This species is considered by some to be the hardiest and make the best pets.
Regardless of which species you choose, when selecting your pet, choose him/her from a reputable source. Active lizards with bright, open eyes are a good bet. Also examine the head for open ear canals and the feet for clean toes with no sign of retained shed skin.
Once acclimated to their new home, these lizards are friendly and actually enjoy limited human contact. Handling up to 30 minutes per day should not stress these lizards, who seem to enjoy a scratch under the chin. When handling, do be careful of the tail, as they are subject to autotomy (tail release).
Blue Tongue Skink Habitat Design
Young and adult blue-tongues should be housed individually. You may try housing females together, or a male and female pair, but observe them very closely. If they fight, and they probably will, they will need separate cages. Most keepers don't recommend grouping this species together because they create hostile environments. The only exception is when they're trying to breed. But even then, close supervision is necessary.
An adult blue-tongued skink requires a tank size, at minimum, of 36 inches long by 18 inches wide by 10 inches tall. This species will use every inch of ground space you provide. Many keepers have had excellent results with Exo-Terra Large-Low terrariums or the T3 and/or T8 terrestrial enclosures from Animal Plastics (APcages.com) for permanent adult housing. These animals like to move and groove, so provide plenty of horizontal space for that to happen.
Remember, blue-tongued skinks are terrestrial and prefer floor space over climbing area. Although they do not climb easily, and do not need vertical furniture such as upright branches, they do like to scramble across recumbent objects, such as driftwood, a basking rock, or a cork wood log.
Moist Hides Not Necessary
They do not require a moist hide, but will need a dry hide large enough for their entire body to fit into, which means as your skink grows, you will need to provide larger and larger hides. Do not clutter up the bottom of the tank with too many objects, however, because skinks really like a fairly open habitat to traverse. One small, rough log to assist with shedding, a hide, a water bowl, and possibly a small plant (anchored somehow because this lizard loves to move things around) are all some skinks really need. Their natural habitat of grasslands is often devoid of rocks and branches, so bear this in mind when planning the habitat and its features.
Be sure to provide your skink with a bowl that is large enough for the lizard to fit itself into, and is small enough that he or she can easily get out of the bowl. Your pet can and will drown if a bowl is dangerously deep and the sides slick and sheer.
Aspen, recycled paper substrates, fir bark, or cypress mulch (as long as it's kept dry) can all be used safely with blue-tongued skinks. Cedar chips, clay cat litter, sand and walnut shells should never be used, as these substrates may lead to toxicity, impaction, or respiratory issues. Whichever substrate you choose, be sure your skink does not ingest it. Accidental ingestion can be deterred by using a feeding dish. Blue-tongues spend their time on the ground, so keep the substrate clean and maintained. The depth should be no less than 4 inches, 6 inches for a really large adult northern skink, as they do enjoy burrowing.
Blue- tongues are diurnal, which is great if you have children, because they can keep the lizards in their rooms at night and not be awakened by the rustlings of a nocturnal pet. Blue-tongues require a natural cool-down and darkness period, and therefor do not need supplemental heat and light around the clock. They will certainly need supplemental light during the daytime hours. Many keepers recommend the Arcadia 8 watt MINI UV light Kit 2.4% UVB. This is an extremely low-level source of UVB and is safe for even very shallow tanks. The light should be on a timer, so that the light automatically shuts off after 12-14 hours. Be cautious about permitting sunlight to shine directly on the tank. Given other sources of heat, the temperatures inside the tank can quickly climb to 110 degrees F, which can kill your skink.
Blue-tongued skink enclosures should be provided with a warm and a cool side. The cooler end should have ambient temperatures ranging from 75 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be allowed to drop to 70 at night. The warm end should be toasty 90 to 100 degrees. An under-tank heat mat can provide the necessary warmth. No heating is required on the cooler side, unless the ambient room temperature of the house or apartment is kept cooler than 65 degrees. Depending upon the size of the tank, some supplementary heat may be needed for a chilly household. If you are using an Animal Plastics or similar type enclosure, use a low wattage ceramic heat emitter instead of an under tank heat element as the direct heat may harm the plastic.
A good digital thermometer with a temperature probe is crucial for managing the heating regime. Better still; acquire a digital laser thermometer. It is a worthy investment and for less than $20, a keeper can take readings from all over the habitat with the push of a button. Especially after first setting up the habitat, be sure to take readings from more than one spot so as not to overlook hot spots and overly cool spots. Readings should therefore be taken at bottom of the habitat, in the center, at the top and in any areas your skink seems to hang out in quite frequently. Keepers need to remember that the ambient temperature of the room can affect that of the enclosure, so frequent readings are strongly recommended. Hot spots can be damaging to your skinks internal organs and cool spots can aggravate any respiratory issues, so check frequently. An ounce of prevention and all of that.
Maintain a humidity level between 20% and 45% by keeping a water bowl in the habitat and misting your skink from time to time, especially if they seem to be beginning to shed their skin. You will know this is about to occur if the normally glossy skins looks dull and faded. Then misting twice a day is recommended. If you are frequently away from home during the day, a potted plant can help with maintaining humidity levels. A water bowl, required anyway, will also help with this. An improper shed can cause health problems later, so don’t guess, install a hygrometer so that you can alter the humidity as needed. This may help prevent toe and ear issues caused by an incomplete shed.
Skinks tend to have the annoying habit of fouling their water bowl as soon as it’s changed, so keep an eye on your skink’s water bowl/toilet. A good rule of thumb is to check it every few hours to refill it twice a day.
Blue Tongue Skink Diet
In the wild, they are quite omnivorous. A blue tongue skink's diet can consist of dragonflies, beetles, snails, slugs, nematodes, fruit, berries and flowers. In captivity they enjoy earth worms, crickets, super worms, waxworms, silkworms, hornworms, roaches, night crawlers, and pinkies. Because the best diet for a blue-tongue is a varied one, these menu items should be alternated every two weeks, with flowers such as hibiscus and dandelion (pesticide free) added for an occasional treat. But if it's hard keeping track of these edible options, then this blue tongue skink food chart should offer some quick clarity.
One of the nice things about blue-tongues is that they will eat out of a food dish eagerly. This means that live prey is unnecessary. A high quality, low sodium canned dog food will supply them with the protein they need to survive. Choose one with vegetables included AND add vegetables to the menu such as peas, squash or carrots (mashed or very finely chopped). Avoid citrus, avocado, eggplant, tomatoes, and rhubarb. The ratio of vegetable to protein content of meals should be approximately 2:1 (i.e. more veggies).
As with feeding any reptile or amphibian, thought must be given to nutritional supplements. Calcium supplementation should be added to the food daily and a multivitamin supplement once per week. Regular dusting of prey items with a supplement such a ReptiCal is most important for young, fast growing skinks - older animals that are closer to adult size need supplements less frequently. Instead of dusting, many keepers gut load their prey items. “Gut loading” means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your Blue Tongue. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores is easily available and affordable. The convenience of a dry gut load diet, purchased from a pet supply house, is undeniable. However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate, so for the really persnickety keeper (and you know you should be) the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets or roaches is suggested.
- 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising)
- 8 pbw calcium carbonate with vitamin D3
- 4 pbw brewer's yeast (Not baker's yeast).
- 3 pbw soy powder
- 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)
The ‘pbw’ stands for parts by weight, whatever that weight may be. Think of this formula as a table of ratios. For instance, if you begin with 24 tablespoons of whole wheat, you would add 8 tablespoons of calcium carbonate and so forth. So for every unit of whole wheat flour, you would add 1/3 as much of the same unit of calcium powder and so forth. Place your feeder insects onto this feed for 24 hours at least and then release the needed amount into your Blue Tongue’s habitat.
Common Malnourishment Symptoms
Improper feeding can be basis for a number of physical ailments. One of the most common problems for these and other captive reptiles is metabolic bone disease or ‘MBD’. Although this can occur from multiple causes, vitamin D3 deficiency is the most common culprit, preventing reptiles absorbing calcium from their food. This can cause muscle weakness and softening of the bones. The blue-tongue skink will show signs of nutritional deficiency quite quickly, as a wave or dipping of the spine, followed by changes to the shape of the jaw. This can be prevented by providing your pet with a UVB light source as mentioned above, and/or making sure that calcium supplements provided contain sufficient vitamin D3. Also, choose a calcium supplement low in phosphorus, with a minimum Ca:P ratio of 2:1.
Another common deficiency is lack of sufficient Vitamin A. This deficiency manifests as puss and swelling around the eyes and jaw area. A skink suffering from hypovitaminosis (too few vitamins) will have serious difficulties with the mucous membranes lining the eyelids. This can become so severe that the animal will be unable to open its eyes at all. Do not permit your pet to get to this extreme, for this is just the first sign of a progressive condition. The next stage may involve the pancreas, liver, and kidneys. Once the stage of the involvement of these organs is reached, recovery is unlikely. Proper supplementation, lighting, and feeding of dark, leafy green vegetables (not iceberg lettuce, which is utterly useless for any form of nutrition) will help prevent a vitamin A shortage.
Water is a very important nutrient for your BTS. Tap water contains harmful chemicals, such as chlorine and chloramine, so water straight from a tap should be avoided. However, if that is all you have access to, leave a container of it on a counter top or other well ventilated space without a lid. Allow 24 hours for the chlorine to dissipate sufficiently for your pet’s safety. If for some reason that is impractical, some reptile hobby companies make solutions to add to tap water that neutralizes harmful chemicals immediately. One such product is "Reptisafe" drops made by ZooMed. Well water, spring water, or rainwater are also excellent options.
Daily spot cleaning is highly, highly recommended since this animal’s droppings are quite wet. Pick up the poop with a paper towel, and if you soil your fingers in this process, be sure to wash your hands afterward for these, and many birds and reptiles such as skinks can carry Salmonella. Salmonella infections can result from having contact with reptile or amphibian environments, not just the animal itself or feces. Children under 5 years of age are more likely to develop severe illness. If the skink is housed with very young folks, it is important the parents or guardians perform cleaning diligently. Some health authorities even recommend that children under 5 years old not be allowed to handle reptiles and amphibians at all.
Monthly cleaning is highly recommended as prevention for illnesses and ectoparasites (tiny critters such as mites that live on the skink’s skin). Place your skink in the temporary housing you always have set aside for cleanings. A large Rubbermaid type container with paper towels on the bottom, a hide, and a sensibly warm spot for the duration will do better than asking a friend or family member to hold your pet for 2 hours, which is too long for their comfort.
Clean with Bleach Or Use the Dishwasher
Scoop out the substrate and discard. Remove all furniture, water and food bowls, and any live plants. Either soak the furniture and bowls in a solution of 10% bleach for 30 minutes or (my favorite) throw it all in a NSF approved dishwasher and hit the pot scrubber cycle. The National Sanitation Foundation offers a list of dishwashers that they can certify as capable of providing the sterilization needed.
While the furniture is washing, do the house itself. Spray the sides and bottom (paying special attention to corners), with a bleach solution recommended for hospital use. Do not use scented bleach of any kind. Let the habitat sit for 30 minutes, wipe it down, and let it air out for another hour. Replace the substrate and furnishings and allow the habitat to come back up to correct temperature and humidity. Wipe down the leaves of any plants thoroughly, including the underside, and place back inside the habitat.
While you have your skink out of his home for cleaning, do a little skink maintenance. Use this opportunity to inspect him/her thoroughly for any unshed skin on head or toes. Unshed skin on the head usually comes off with gentle hand rubbing. Toes can be trickier. Moisten the dead skin first with a damp cotton ball and gently roll the toes between your fingers. Not too much rolling or pulling can be tolerated by these tiny digits, so extreme care is advised. Tweezers are not recommended unless the old skin has contracted so much that there is a danger of toe loss due to restricted circulation. Try to accomplish all of this in less than 1 hour to limit stress on your skink.
Once you are assured that the creature’s skin is clear and healthy over the entire body, it’s time for a manicure. Many skinks seem to have a tremendous rate of nail growth. In the wild this would not be a problem, as their constant travel over sometimes rough strata keeps the nails trimmed naturally. In captivity, such opportunities are not provided by most desirable substrates used in artificial habitats. The result is that the nails can and will grow unhindered, to the point of curling under and into the ball of the foot. Using a pair of typical nail cutters, take a tiny nip off the tip of each nail. Performed monthly, this will insure that nail growth does not get ahead of you and create problems later in the form of deformed feet or even puncture wounds that may provide entrance for bacterial infections. It can also keep you from getting scratched.
A potential route for bacterial infection can be autotomy if the habitat is foul and the substrate filthy. Autotomy is a fancy word for tail drop. It is intended as a predator escape mechanism. The result is a raw stump at the fracture line that needs to be kept clean so that it can grow back safely without any complications from infection. The tail will seal itself within days of loss as the radial glia jump into action after separation has occurred. No interference with this process is necessary, but excellent sanitation is.
Blue-tongued skinks are not terribly difficult animals to manage in a terrarium and once it is set up and your feeding schedule established, then common sense sanitation, handling, nutrition and environmental management should be all that’s needed for your pet to live their full life span.