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How to Care for Your Blue Tongue Skink

How to Care for Your Blue Tongue Skink

Introduction

Blue tongue skinks (Tiliqua spp.) are large, diurnal, terrestrial lizards that can be found all over Australia and Indonesia. Depending on species, they can be found in scrublands, grasslands, mediterranean and temperate forests, tropical rainforests, and even deserts. Adults are typically 18-24” long, and they can live up to 30 years with good care — possibly longer!

Blue tongue skinks’ pattern and coloration can vary widely from species to species. Northern Australian, Eastern Australian, and Indonesian blue tongue skinks are the most commonly available in the United States, and generally look fairly similar. All have smooth scales, an elongated triangular head, a long, sausage-like body, a medium-length tail, and stubby but strong limbs with five short digits each.

Blue tongue skinks are among the most popular pet lizards in the US due to their curious, personable nature, docile temperament, and general hardiness. They are a good choice for people looking for a larger pet lizard that tolerates regular human interaction well.

What types of blue tongue skinks are there?

Australian

  • Blotched (Tiliqua nigrolutea): Found around the southeastern tip of Australia and Tasmania. Preferred habitat is sclerophyll forest, montane woodland, and coastal heath. Identifiable by a black base color with yellow/orange/red blotches, and mottled limbs.
  • Centralian (Tiliqua multifasciata): Found around northwestern, northern, and central Australia. Preferred habitat is stony hills and sandy desert. Identifiable by a light base color with yellow/orange/red/brown banding down the body and large black markings behind each eye. Tail is short.
  • Eastern (Tiliqua scincoides scincoides): Found around southeastern and eastern Australia. Preferred habitat includes coastal heath, forest, woodland, and grassland. Identifiable by a gray to brown base color, dark banding, patternless limbs, and dark markings behind each eye.
  • Northern (Tiliqua scincoides intermedia): Found around northern Australia. Preferred habitat includes coastal heath, forest, and grassland. Identifiable by a gray to tan base color, with darker banding, yellow/orange blotches along the sides, patternless limbs, and no dark marking behind the eyes.
  • Pygmy (Tiliqua adelaidensis): Found around Mt. Lofty in South Australia. Preferred habitat is grassland, often occupying spider burrows. Identifiable by a gray to tan base color with darker spotting or blotching. More slender in build than other blue tongue skinks, with a short tail. Not found in the pet trade due to endangered status.
  • Shingleback (Tiliqua rugosa): Found around southeastern, southern, and western Australia. Preferred habitat is coastal heath, dry sclerophyll forest, shrubland, plains, and sandy desert. Identifiable by bumpy scale texture, dark tongue, and short plump tail.
  • Western (Tiliqua occipitalis): Found around southern and western Australia. Preferred habitat is stony hills and sandy desert. Identifiable by a tan base color, large black markings behind each eye, and thick dark bands down the body and tail. Body is especially stout, with a short tail.

Indonesian

  • Classic Indonesian (Tiliqua gigas gigas): Found on Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands. Preferred habitat is tropical forest. Identifiable by earthy yellow-green color with thin dark markings on the head, narrow dark bands and speckling on the body and tail. Limbs are dark and solid-colored.
  • Halmahera (Tiliqua gigas gigas ‘Halmahera’): Found on Halmahera Island in Indonesia. Preferred habitat is tropical forest. Identifiable by reddish-brown color interrupted by black banding. Limbs solid in color, with thin black markings on the head. Belly is patterned. 
  • Irian Jaya (Tiliqua sp.): Found around Western New Guinea. Preferred habitat is tropical forest. Appearance is highly variable, but they generally have a brownish base color with brown, auburn, orange, or gray banding.
  • Kei Island (Tiliqua gigas keyensis): Found on the Kei Islands of Indonesia. Preferred habitat is tropical forest. Identifiable by the freckled pattern all over their body.
  • Merauke (Tiliqua gigas evanescens): Found around Merauke, New Guinea. Preferred habitat is tropical forest. Identifiable by gray or tan base color with darker banding, and a patternless salmon-colored belly.
  • Tanimbar (Tiliqua scincoides chimaera): Found around Tanimbar Island, Indonesia. Preferred habitat is tropical forest. Identifiable by gray to yellow base color, darker banding, patternless legs and head, and shiny scales.

Enclosure

How much space do blue tongue skinks need?

A single blue tongue skink should be housed in no smaller than a 48” x 24” x 24” enclosure, a 120 gallon tank. Many sources recommend 40 gallons, but these recommendations are based on outdated standards and should not be used. Blue tongue skinks are large, curious, and fairly active lizards, so if you can provide a larger enclosure, do it!

Is it safe to house multiple blue tongue skinks together?

Cohabitation (keeping multiple blue tongue skinks in the same terrarium) is not recommended, and may result in fighting and severe injuries if attempted. 

One exception to this is shingleback blue tongue skinks, which are the only truly social species. However, shinglebacks are extremely rare in the US pet trade.

Blue tongue skink quarantine procedure

It’s best practice to quarantine your blue tongue skink first, whether yours is captive bred or wild caught. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease. 

Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the blue tongue skink might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3-6 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the lizard in long-term, or you can do this with a tall, lidless plastic tub. As long as it is set up appropriately, a large tub can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.

Some rules for successful blue tongue skink quarantine:

  • Keep the skink in a separate room from other reptiles.
  • Do not use the same equipment for the new skink as for your other reptiles.
  • Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
  • Get the skink checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
  • Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.

A blue tongue skink should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.

Lighting

Do blue tongue skinks need UVB?

Blue tongue skinks are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. 

  • Indonesian blue tongue skinks should get 11.5 hours of light during winter, and 12.5 hours during summer. 
  • Northern/Eastern blue tongue skinks should get 11 hours of light during winter and 13 hours of light during summer. 

This simulates natural seasonal changes in day length and encourages healthier hormonal rhythms.

Blue tongue skinks can technically survive without UVB lighting, but they can’t thrive without it. Aside from helping provide a day/night cycle and supplying an infinite supply of vitamin D, UVB is also good for your skink’s overall health. So, it’s best to provide appropriate UVB lighting as part of its enclosure. The best UVB bulbs for blue tongue skinks housed in a 48” x 24” x 24” enclosure are:

  • Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 10.0, 22”
  • Arcadia Desert 12%, 22”

If the UVB is mounted over mesh, place the basking area 7-11” below the lamp. If the UVB is mounted inside the enclosure, place the basking area 12-18” below the lamp. The UVB bulb should be housed in a reflective fixture and placed on the basking side along with the heat lamp. Also note that UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so you can’t give your skink UVB by placing its terrarium in front of an open window. Also make sure that the fixture your UVB bulb is in does not have a clear plastic bulb cover.

How to measure UVB for a blue tongue skink

UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically near the basking surface at the height of the skink’s back, the device should read between 3.0-4.0.

Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.

Other lighting needs for blue tongue skinks

In addition to UVB, since blue tongue skinks are day-active lizards, it’s beneficial to provide an additional daylight-spectrum lamp to make sure the enclosure is brightly illuminated. Use a strong ~6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent plant grow light for best results, long enough to span most of the enclosure’s length.

Heating

What basking temperatures do blue tongue skinks need?

  • Northern/Eastern blue tongue skinks should have a basking surface temperature of 105-115°F
  • Indonesian blue tongue skinks should have a slightly cooler basking surface temperature of 100-105°F

For best results, the basking surface itself should be a large, flat piece of rock. There should be a cooler area on the opposite side of the enclosure that stays between 70-80°F. The heat source should be turned off at night to allow things to cool down.

How to heat your blue tongue skink

Provide heat for your skink by imitating the sun with a cluster of two halogen flood heat lamps placed on one side of the enclosure. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), heat mats, red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.

How to measure temperature

To measure your basking temperature, use a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. To measure cool side temperature, use another thermometer with the probe placed on the other side of the enclosure. This will allow you to monitor the temperature gradient.

Do not use analog or stick-on thermometers, as you will not be able to get accurate readings.

Humidity

What humidity levels do blue tongue skinks need?

Humidity is one of the biggest differences between caring for a Northern/Eastern blue tongue skink and caring for an Indonesian blue tongue skink.

  • Northern and Eastern blue tongue skinks need average humidity levels between 40-60%.
  • Indonesian blue tongue skinks generally need average humidity levels between 60-80%.
  • Halmahera Indonesian blue tongue skinks need average humidity levels between 80-100%.

Humidity should be measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe in the middle of the terrarium. Providing a humid hideout in the middle or cool end of the enclosure is also beneficial, regardless of what type of blue tongue you have.

How to increase and maintain humidity in an Indonesian blue tongue skink terrarium

Misting your skink’s enclosure with a sprayer first thing in the morning and again at night (if needed) will help create the right humidity levels. Moisten the substrate by mixing water into it as needed can also help stabilize humidity levels.

It’s also a good idea to run a cool mist fogger/humidifier at night, because humidity levels are naturally higher at night in the wild. Connect the fogger to a humidistat to maintain nighttime humidity levels no lower than 80%.

Although Indonesian blue tongue skinks need plenty of humidity, keep in mind that the enclosure needs a humidity cycle, not stagnation. If there isn’t enough ventilation to allow the enclosure to dry out at least a bit during the day, then your skink is more likely to get sick due to increased pathogen growth.

How to make a humid hide

Keeping a humid retreat available for your skink available at all times is important to keeping them well-hydrated. The humid hide in your enclosure will function as a burrow would in the wild, offering a cozy, secure spot for your pet to hang out while minimizing the risk of dehydration. It is especially essential for a skink preparing to shed its skin.

It’s easy to create a humid hide. The easiest way to do this is to line the intended hide with moistened substrate or sphagnum moss, and replace every 2-4 weeks to prevent mold.

Will humidity give Australian blue tongue skinks a respiratory infection?

Northern and Eastern blue tongue skinks may not be as dependent on ambient humidity as their Indonesian counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they should be kept in bone-dry conditions. In fact, this is a good way to make your pet severely dehydrated! 

Only being exposed to consistently wet conditions with poor hygiene, poor ventilation, and/or low temperatures is likely to cause a respiratory infection in blue tongue skinks because this increases pathogen concentration and weakens their immune system. 

Substrate

What substrate is good for blue tongue skinks?

Substrate covers the floor of your skink’s terrarium and helps make the enclosure more attractive, but it also helps maintain higher humidity levels and provides something for your skink to dig in. 

It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates the “substrate” that the reptile naturally lives on in the wild. For blue tongue skinks, that means it should resemble soil. It should have small particles, hold moisture well, and be loose enough to dig in.

We recommend the following substrates for blue tongue skinks:

Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can help with humidity as well as add enrichment value. This is especially the case for Indonesian species!

Substrate should be at least 4-6” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.

How to clean a blue tongue skink enclosure

When you replace your blue tongue skink’s substrate, this is also a good opportunity to completely clean out the entire enclosure:

  1. Remove your skink from the enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. 
  2. Remove all substrate and decor.
  3. Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
  4. Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
  5. Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other decor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
  6. If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
  7. Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
  8. Arrange decor.
  9. Reintroduce your skink to the clean setup.

F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.

Can blue tongue skinks have a bioactive setup?

Yes! 

Whether your skink is native to a semi-arid, temperate, or tropical environment, blue tongue skinks are definitely compatible with bioactive when it’s done properly. Bioactive setups can work great with blue tongue skinks because it gives them plenty of substrate to dig in, and helps stabilize humidity levels. Plus, bioactive eliminates the need for routine total cleanouts, tends to have a fresh, earthy smell; and is generally very attractive to look at.

On the other hand, bioactive setups can be inconvenient with blue tongue skinks because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the lizard, live plants may get trampled to death, and larger CUC critters are likely to get routinely eaten. Setting up a bioactive enclosure is also usually more expensive than other options, and it’s best practice to partially replace the substrate on a regular basis to help reduce pathogen concentration and keep the soil healthy.

To create a bioactive setup for your blue tongue skink, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:

  • bioactive-ready desert or tropical substrate mix
  • clean leaf litter
  • sphagnum moss
  • live, nontoxic plants
  • semi-arid or tropical CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms to maintain the soil

If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive vivarium, it’s best to use a commercial bioactive substrate mix, such as Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs, rather than mixing your own, as this reduces your likelihood of error. Appropriate CUC for a blue tongue skink vivarium include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, mealworms, and superworms.

Décor

What décor can you use in a blue tongue skink terrarium?

Blue tongue skinks are highly intelligent and curious, so it’s terribly boring for them to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate and food/water bowls. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with. 

At bare minimum, you will need at least one “cave” for the skink to hide in. However, it’s best to include other items, such as:

What live plants can be used with blue tongue skinks?

Blue tongue skinks are quite heavy-bodied, so any live plants you decide to use in the enclosure must be large and sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling, or at least tall enough to stay out of the way. They must also be nontoxic, in case of nibbling.

Here are a few options that work well for Australian blue tongue skinks:

  • Aloe
  • Carex grass
  • Echeveria
  • Elephant feed
  • Festuca grass
  • Gasteria
  • Haworthia
  • Jade plant
  • Mexican feather grass
  • Opuntia (spineless variety)
  • Sansevieria
  • Sempervivum

Here are a few options that work well for Indonesian blue tongue skinks:

  • Dracaena 
  • Ficus
  • Peperomia
  • Philodendron
  • Pothos
  • Schefflera
  • Spider plant

Note that larger plants are usually sturdier, which is one argument for using a taller enclosure or even an open-top pen where feasible.

Are blue tongue skinks good climbers?

Blue tongue skinks are not particularly skilled climbers, and falling from heights is dangerous for them, given their heavy bodies. However, they do benefit from having access to wide, sturdy objects for low-level climbing. Appropriate climbing objects may include large logs and stacked flagstone, as well as mounds of substrate.

Food

What do blue tongue skinks eat?

Blue tongue skinks are omnivores, which means that they need to eat both plant- and animal-based foods in order to get the nutrition that their bodies need. How often they need to eat depends on age:

  • Feed babies (up to 3 months) daily.  
  • Feed juveniles (3-8 months) 3 times weekly.  
  • Feed subadults and adults (8+ months) 1-2 times weekly.  

One meal should be roughly the same size as your skink’s skull.

The key to providing a healthy, balanced diet for your skink is VARIETY.

Protein options for blue tongue skinks

For skinks younger than 12 months, high-protein foods should make up 70-80% of their diet. For skinks older than 12 months, high-protein foods should only be 40-50% of their diet. 

Here are some ways you can meet your skink’s protein needs:

  • high-quality canned dog food
  • high-quality canned cat food (no fish)
  • chicken hearts
  • chicken gizzards
  • eggs
  • mice
  • dubias
  • discoids
  • grasshoppers
  • snails
  • hornworms
  • silkworms
  • earthworms 

Vegetable options for blue tongue skinks

The rest of your blue tongue skink’s diet should be leafy greens and other vegetables. Here are some good options:

  • collard greens
  • cactus pads
  • spring mix
  • arugula
  • kale
  • pea shoots
  • alfalfa
  • bok choy
  • carrot greens
  • spinach 
  • dandelion greens/flowers
  • hibiscus leaves/flowers 
  • bell pepper
  • carrots
  • celery
  • cilantro
  • green beans
  • mint leaves
  • squash
  • sweet potato
  • wheat grass
  • zucchini

If your skink seems to avoid eating greens, try mixing them in with the tastier proteins rather than serving them separately.

Treats for blue tongue skinks

Treats should be given in small quantities and only occasionally, as too many treats can lead to obesity and/or dental decay. 

Fruit treat options for blue tongue skinks:

  • apple
  • banana
  • blackberry
  • blueberry
  • cherry
  • fig
  • grape
  • mango
  • papaya
  • peach
  • pear
  • raspberry
  • strawberry

Protein treat options for blue tongue skinks:

  • butterworms
  • wax worms
  • pinky mice
  • pinky rats
  • button quail
  • eggs

Do blue tongue skinks need dietary supplements?

You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your skink from developing a deficiency. The simplest solution is to use an all-in-one supplement like Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on dog/cat food and all feeder insects.

How to provide drinking water for your blue tongue skinks

Of course, don’t forget a large water bowl for your skink to drink from! Your pet should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.

Handling

Do blue tongue skinks like to be handled?

Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but blue tongue skinks tend to tolerate it well, especially individuals that were bred in captivity. Don’t grab the lizard from above — instead, approach from the side and scoop from below. Support as much of its body as possible. Start with very short handling sessions in the beginning, then gradually make them longer as your pet becomes more accustomed to you.

How to tame your blue tongue skink

Taming a blue tongue skink means teaching it to trust and feel comfortable around you. This requires consistent positive interactions to build the trust relationship. While a negative experience or two won’t ruin your taming efforts, it can slow them down, so it’s best to be consistent. It’s best to encourage the skink to come out of the enclosure and climb onto you on its own, rather than forcibly grabbing it. Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.

Using treats, or tong-feeding, is a great way to bribe your pet into interacting with you and learning to trust you!

Enrichment ideas for blue tongue skinks

Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that reptiles are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Reptiles, including blue tongue skinks, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in appropriate ways for a terrestrial lizard.

Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your skink is likely to enjoy:

  • Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your pet’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
  • Puzzle feeders. Try putting a bug in a puzzle ball or putting canned pet food in a puzzle food dish.
  • Scatter feeding. Rather than offering all of their food in one bowl, try putting it in various places around the enclosure.
  • Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the skink out of, and be particularly careful if you want to take them outside. For outdoor excursions, it’s best to use a pen to prevent them from running off. Leashes generally don’t work with blue tongue skinks since their legs are so short.

Health

Signs you need to take your blue tongue skink to the vet

Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including blue tongue skinks. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.

  • Noisy breathing
  • Mucus discharge from the mouth/nose/eyes
  • Persistent lethargy
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent lack of appetite
  • Straining/inability to defecate
  • Large patches of missing scales
  • Open wounds
  • Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Sudden, unusually aggressive behavior

Blue tongue skinks should be taken to the vet shortly after you bring them home, and then at least 1x/year for a general checkup and parasite check.

Outside of that, if you are concerned about your pet’s health due to a change in their appearance or behavior, don’t go to the internet for medical advice — book an appointment with a professional! You can find an experienced reptile veterinarian near you at ARAV.org.

Blue Tongue Skink Resources

*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species. Here are some suggestions for further reading:

  • The ReptiFiles Blue Tongue Skink Care Guide
  • ReptileMountain.TV
  • Blue Tongue Skink Enthusiasts
  • “Blue-Tongued Skinks: Contributions to the Knowledge of Tiliqua and Cyclodomorphus” by Robert Hitz
  • Previous article How to Care for Mourning Geckos