Australia's favourite lizards

There are dozens of species of lizards and skinks in Australia, but two of the most common are the Blue Tongue Lizard, or Blue-Tongued Lizard and the Shingleback Skink, also known as the Shingleback Lizard, Sleepy Lizard or Stumpy Lizard. 

Both are similar in shape and both are often confused; with good reason.  The Shingleback Skink and the Blue Tongue both have blue tongues and are both members of the family of Blue-Tongued Lizards.  In some areas of Australia, Shinglebacks are referred to as Blue Tongues because they have blue tongues.  In most areas though, the Shingleback will be called Sleepy or Stumpy and the Blue Tongue will be called Blue Tongue.

Are you confused yet?

Anyway, when side by side the differences in the two species are quite obvious.  The Shingleback is generally stockier and a much darker colour.  Its skin consists of hundreds of small bumps.  It has a large, wedge shaped head and its tail is a similar shape to its head.  It has the ability to drop its tail if a predator grabs it and a new tail will then grow.  This is why the tail is a similar shape to the head; in the hope that the predator will take hold of the tail and not its head.

Shingleback LizardCredit: Steven Pike

It is very large for a skink, and can reach lengths of over 30cm (12in).  It is very slow moving, but is prone to very short bursts of speed.  It is found right across the country and often turns up in backyards, where it will quite happily stay if it finds a regular food source.  Snails and slugs are at the top of its menu.

The Blue Tongue Lizard grows to a similar size as the Shingleback, but is generally thinner and lighter in colour.  Its skin is smooth, without the bumps.  It too has a wedge shaped head and can also drop its tail if necessary.  The Blue Tongue is a little more mobile than the Shingleback, but still would not be classed as a sprinter.  It too manages to find its way into backyards across the country.

There are a few different sub-species of the Blue Tongue, with the Western and Northern species not as common as their cousins in the south and east.

The behaviour of both the Blue Tongue and the Shingleback is almost identical.  They share similar habitats, eat the same food and occur in the same areas.  The Blue Tongue appears to be more elusive than the Shingleback.  Indeed, in warm weather Shinglebacks are often found sunning themselves on roads and highways right across the country. 

Blue Tongue Lizard(52806)Credit: Steven Pike

When disturbed, both species flatten themselves out to appear larger and open their mouths, exposing their pink mouths and large blue tongue.  They also make a horrible hissing noise.  They will bite and tend not to let go in a hurry.  There is a myth here that says the only way a Shingleback or Blue Tongue will let go of your hand or finger is if you cut its head off.  Whilst they are reluctant to let go if they get a hold of you, they will eventually, but you will be left with a nasty bruise or graze; and it hurts.

They make excellent pets and will survive for years either in a backyard enclosure or an appropriate aquarium.  If keeping them in the backyard, make sure you have plenty of logs, rocks and leaf litter; somewhere with plenty of nooks and crannies for them to hide and hunt prey.  The only problem with keeping them outdoors is that they will hibernate in the winter, only emerging occasionally to sun themselves, so you may not see much of them.

Food wise, they love snails and slugs.  They will also eat crickets, worms, mice and insects.

Don’t take them on as a pet if you are not prepared to look after them.  They can live for as long as 20 years in captivity.

Both the Blue Tongue and the Shingleback are almost Australian icons and it would certainly be a shame to lose either.  Fortunately their numbers do not appear to be declining.  Lets hope that continues to be the case.