Saturday, 21 February 2015

Local 'blueys"

Rather freakishly, I'd almost completed this post on blue-tongues when I noticed that just the day before a good friend of mine and fellow blogger here in Canberra had posted similarly on these lizards (see here). What would be the chances? Oh well - having put the effort in I'll just post mine as well anyway...

Canberra seems to have experienced somewhat of an influx of blue-tongued lizards this year (aka blue-tongues or just 'blueys'). Strictly I suppose it was an increase in numbers following good breeding success and survival, rather than an influx which suggests they'd come from elsewhere. Maybe I could claim I mean an influx to Canberra's suburbs from the various nature reserves that surround and ramify through this "Bush Capital" city.

Whatever, there have been a lot more of them around, with lots of reports of them from friends and in the media, and very sadly, several seen squashed on our roads. I don't know the reasons for this increase, other than the likelihood that it is simply the result of several years of good rainfall, leading to easier conditions for them.

But certainly, it has been wonderful to see them around, particularly as a few have ventured into our garden on occasion, though the preponderance of cats in our neighbourhood means they haven't stayed around for more than a day or two. We've had them show up in previous years, but there have been more this season. 

Eastern blue-tongue on the paving outside our front door in Canberra (Nov 2011). 

After being disturbed, it did it's huff and bluff routine before disappearing into the azaleas.

It brings back happy childhood memories as a young kid in Sydney's Northern Beaches suburb of Elanora Heights, when we had wild blueys living in the storm-water drains and rockeries in the backyard, but I also had several of them as pets in a huge 'blue-tongue pit' we'd dug in a corner of the garden. Completely ethically and legally bankrupt by today's standards, these had been caught in bushland as I walked a rather round-about way home from school. I can't recall all their names, but the first was predictably "Bluey", and there was a "Lizzie", as well as Shad and Grunk named after the neanderthalesque couple from a kid's TV show called "It's about Time".

Bluey must have been pregnant when I found her, because not much later she gave birth to five incredibly cute miniature replicas, each about 10 cm long (unusual for reptiles, blue-tongues have live young rather than laying eggs). 

I used to feed them on minced meat,egg, snails, banana and dandelions. Even today, when a bluey ventures into the garden and I bother to catch it, I'll give it a bit of banana in gratitude. And despite their huff and puff of disapproval at being picked up, they always hoe into the peace offering. 

The Canberra blue-tongues are generally much more yellow-brown than the silver-grey of the ones I knew in Sydney.

Eastern blue-tongue in the rocks beside the pool at our home in Kambah, Canberra (Oct 2013).

This eastern blue-tongue was at the eastern end of The Coorong in South Australia (Oct 2008).

So far, this has all been about the 'eastern blue-tongue', more formally known these days as the Eastern Blue-tongued Skink Tiliqua scincoides. The name clearly indicates it is a skink (i.e. in the reptile Family Scincidae), albeit a very large and robust one compared to most other family members. But this is just one of six species of the genus that occur in Australia, and there are another two in Indonesia/West Irian. A further two of Australia's six also occur in the ACT - T. nigrolutea, the Blotched Blue-tongued Skink, and T. rugosa, the Shingleback (also known variously and regionally as either stumpy-tail or stump-tailed lizard or skink, bobtail, sleepy lizard, and pinecone lizard).

The Blotched blue-tongue inhabits the higher ranges of the ACT and is not uncommonly seen basking on roads in the mountains on sunny days. They are much more attractive than the name suggests, with tones of silver-white and pink-orange amongst the dark greys and browns, especially during the breeding season. I reckon some of the patterning is reminiscent of the pattern and colour of the granite outcrops that characterise much of the Brindabellas and high peaks of the ACT. 

Blotched blue-tongue on the road in Orroral Valley, ACT (Oct 2008).

Blotched blue-tongue on Corin Road, ACT (Feb 2015).

This one had much brighter colours than the Orroral Valley one.

When removed from the road and placed amongst the gravel and roadside grasses the camouflaging colour scheme came into its own.

And it remained extraordinarily placid throughout, even when picked up.

No blue-tongue is particularly agile or fast on its (relatively tiny) feet. I guess they have little need to evade predators, which they tend to try to deter more with their huff and bluff display, and flashing blue tongue. But honestly, the blotched blue-tongue takes indifference to extremes. I've always been able to walk straight up to them and pick them up off the road (as much to keep them from being a casualty to passing cars as to "commune" with them briefly) without even a flinch on their part. And on release they just sit there, no flurry of escape, just a resumption of apparent lethargy and apathy. 

The Shingleback, on the other hand, is relatively feisty and is restricted to lower elevations. It is at the edge of its extensive (southern and inland eastern Australian) range in the woodlands of Canberra's north-eastern fringes, and is most commonly seen in woodland reserves like Campbell Park and Mulligans Flat. 

Surprisingly, I couldn't find any photos that I'd taken of Shinglebacks in the ACT so I'll have to use some from further afield. But these highlight the differences in colour and pattern that also occur in this species. In my experience, they seem in general to be darker in the east and lighter and more patterned as you head west. The species is divided into four subspecies but I don't think there is necessarily a strong correlation with overall outward appearance (T. r. aspera is the 'eastern shingleback', rugosa is the 'common shingleback', and there are two geographically restricted subspecies in Western Australia, T. r. konowi on Rottnest Island and T. r. palarra around Shark Bay).

Shingleback threatening me as I went to remove it from its risky position in the middle of the road.
Allena, central-west NSW, Oct 2014. (see earlier post)

All-dark Shingleback near Ivanhoe, western NSW (Sep 2008).

They're very charismatic creatures in a dull, sedate kind of way.

This and the following photo are of a pair of Shinglebacks in Kinchega National Park, western NSW (Oct 2008).

The patterning of yellow ventral scales is only slightly different on this one, and the tail is more pointed.

This Shingleback, at the eastern end of The Coorong in South Australia, is more highly patterned, and in this particular sandy situation, is better camouflaged. (Oct 2008).

And this Shingleback from near Manypeaks in south-western Western Australia (Sep 2004) shows the slight banding pattern characteristic of the western populations of the species.

I always love coming across blue-tongues when out travelling. Great lizards.


  1. The more you blog the more you will encounter this zeitgeist effect of several people writing about the same thing at the same time. It's because you are all reading much the same stuff, interested in the same stuff and it is also literally seasonal -- food bloggers experience it especially if they are in the same hemisphere because they are cooking with the same ingredients. In yours and Ian's case I'll bet you both had blueys on the mind because you'd noticed them around in the garden more. Kathy and John have them in the garden too. They've got a pic of a pair mating in their garden I think.

  2. We've had a couple in our garden in suburban Melbourne this year too.

    1. How common are they normally in suburban Melbourne?