Are Bluetongue Skinks Tame?

Is it Tame? Or Will it Rip My Hand Off!?


Is it tame? This is probably the most common question that I get in regards to the bluetongue skinks that I have for sale. Most of this information applies to captive born animals, specifically Northern and Eastern bluetongues — Tiliqua scincoides. Imports from Indonesia can be more susceptible to stress and more adverse to handling.

In the wild, bluetongues are vulnerable to being attacked and eaten by birds, snakes, monitor lizards, and dingoes to mention a few of the potential predators. Introduced species such as cats and foxes are also a major threat to small animals such bluetongue skinks.

In many areas of Australia, the feral cat is one of the most destructive animals preying on Australia’s native species of birds, mammals and reptiles. (The best method of controlling feral cats, ironically, is for the Australian government and ranchers to stop killing and persecuting dingoes — as they are highly adept at preying on feral cats.)

When bluetongue skinks grow larger and stronger, they become less vulnerable to many predators. As babies and youngsters, the threats are greater that they will be gobbled up by something larger than themselves. Evolution, naturally, has selected for young skinks that are visually alert to large ‘objects’ suddenly zooming in on them. In captivity, when a giant hand drops down on them from above, the babies show an instinctual reaction, recoiling and often opening their mouths to hiss and flash their tongues at the threat. This can be a little intimidating for novice keepers who then view their young skink as not only NOT tame — but borderline ferocious.

However, if you pick the skink up during one of these displays, they will often calm down and cease from defensive behavior. Resting on your hand does not seem as terrifying as seeing your hand swooping down like a hungry kookaburra. In order to pick them up during a defensive frenzy, you can drop a paper towel or a wash cloth over them so they can’t see you. And then scoop them up from below with your hand. They almost always calm down when you have them in hand. Remember to support them with both hands and don’t let them leap or fall from a serious height onto a hard surface as this can injure them. Be careful not to yank their tails as they will break off with enough force. The tail partly regenerates but never as nice as the original.

Some new owners are concerned about picking up the skinks too often as they fear this may stress the lizard. In reality, this is rarely a concern. Despite minor stress, it is very difficult to discourage a healthy bluetongue skink from eating and thriving. I recommend picking up a young skink often, handling it several times a week, in order to tame them.

Most adult bluetongues get used to being picked up, and some even seem to enjoy getting out of their terrarium and interacting with people. The time my adults are most likely to panic is when you try to pick them up at night while they’re sleeping. Even turning on the lights when they’re sleeping can cause panic and flight behavior. During sleep, they feel vulnerable to predators and for that reason, I rarely bother them once they close their eyes in the evening.

Bluetongues are diurnal although I have observed Northern bluetongues, near Darwin, Australia, wandering around at night . Typically, this was during a monsoonal rain, and it’s possible they were flooded out and seeking higher ground.

The Long Trip — Arrival at the New Home


When the skinks are shipped out to their new homes, they will experience a long and unpleasant trip in a small box. Lots of shaking, strange sounds, and bouncing around in planes and trucks. Not to mention the cramped seating, poor inflight service, and lack of toilet facilities. Not surprisingly, they may feel agitated on arrival. After arrival, they will be placed in an unknown terrarium, a stark new environment that will NOT feel like home. They may fear vulnerability to predators since this is terra incognita for them.

Do they recognize people? I have noticed the skinks, on occasion, react with more nervousness to strangers looming over them or handling them than they do to me. New faces may add some additional stress when they arrive at their forever home. Nonetheless, the main stress will be from a new environment and the ominous prospect that it contains new threats and unknown predators. Sometimes they find a secretive spot in their new terrarium and go into hiding. If there’s several inches of substrate, they may bury themselves out of sight and refuse to move around, emerge to eat, or engage with their new surroundings. It seems that a safety first paranoia has set in.

Don’t indulge them in this sort of reclusive paranoia. In the wild, paranoia and secretivity may keep a lizard alive long to reproduce, which allows them to pass on their genes. Gravid females — at least in T.s. intermedia — often go into hiding and sometimes even refuse to eat. This may be a sensible way to keep the mother and offspring safe until birth; I leave the gravid females alone except to offer them food every few days.

In captivity, secretivity is counterproductive; there are no survival benefits. I recommend encouraging them to feed, engage with people, and explore their new terrarium ASAP. Regular gentle handling is the best way to tame them. Bluetongues will also generally become more tame as they grow larger and feel more confident with people. There are a couple of exceptions to note: males during breeding season can be quite irascible, not just toward other male skinks, but towards their owners, sometimes even threatening to bite; tame females in late stages of ‘pregnancy’ may become agressive toward meddling fingers. While giving birth and for many hours afterwards, females can bequite defensive. This can include biting you if you mess with their babies!

The only Northern bluetongue skink that I owned that I would describe as “mean” was one I purchased as a young adult male. He had not been handled by his former owners, and he never tamed down for me. He ALWAYS tried to bite me when I put my hands near him. Fortunately, this hostile behavoir is a rarity. The offspring from this male grew up to be totally tame — with handling, none to them took after their psycho Dad.



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