The Northern Blue Tongued Skink (Tiliqua scincoides intermedia), is a diurnal terrestrial lizard found in the northern regions of Australia. Northerns tend to reach a size of around 18 to 24 inches and mature at around 18-24 months of age. These amazing lizards can live an upwards of 20 to 25 years if properly cared for. With proper handling and patience these lizards can make wonderful pets, even learning to recognize caregivers. Each animal has a slightly different personality, I have yet to see two exactly alike and this is what has drawn me to these animals. Some enjoy handling and adventure while others prefer a more relaxed lifestyle of sleeping and eating.
The most noticeable feature of the northern blue tongued skink is well....its tongue of course. These animals have a large blue tongue that they use to intimate predators or potential danger. if threatened they will stick out the entire tongue and flatten into a spade like shape, often including hissing or lunging for the added effect. While juveniles and adults rarely put on a defensive show, new babies are quick to show off how tough they can be.
Babies and small juveniles can be kept easily in 20 gallon tanks or similar sized enclosures until they are large enough to move to a more permanent sized enclosure. Putting small skinks in large enclosures can lead to stress, aggression, and constant hiding and we suggest starting small and moving up in size with age. An adult northern will need a minimum enclosure size of 40 gallons, with a 4x2x2 enclosure being the most ideal. Rack systems can also be used but will require special care and supplementing to ensure animal health and well-being.
Cage decor and furniture are somewhat optional but should at least include an appropriate sized hide or tunnel and a large water dish. As blue tongues are burrowing animals they may or may not utilize cage decor, every animal is different and some enjoy climbing and adventuring around more than others. A basking site should be provided and should include a rock or tile to ensure the animal is receiving proper belly heat as well as overhead lighting.
Northerns are burrowing reptiles and will require substrate that allows the animal to engage in digging and tunneling behaviors. Bedding should allow for digging without being too fine or dusty, avoid sand or anything with pine or cedar (pine and cedar are toxic to reptiles). Ideal bedding can include soil mixes, wood chips, aspen shavings, cypress mulch, and shredded paper products (such as care fresh). Humidity should be maintained at around 30-50% and this should be taken into account when choosing bedding. Choose higher humidity bedding such as soils and cypress in regions with lower humidity and choose drier bedding if your location is very wet. We are located near many swamps and bogs and this means we rarely reach humidity levels under 50% so we use aspen shavings with great success. Strive to give your animal at least 5-6 inches of bedding to ensure they can dig and burrow properly.
Watch how your northern is shedding, large patches are healthy while dry flaky scales tend to mean low humidity. If your skinks is having problems shedding you might consider switching to a more humid bedding such as cypress, soil, or wood chips.
Lighting and Heat
Northerns do well with overhead UVB lighting, tube lights are very common and work well in many different style enclosures. Some keepers choose not to use UVB and have had wonderful success in doing so. But whether you choose to use UVB or not please remember that your skink will still need to be supplemented properly to ensure health.
The cooler side of the enclosure should be maintained around 74-80º F with the basking spot reaching 95-105º F. You will need to setup a basking site which can include hides, rocks, or tiles located underneath the heat light that will provide essential belly heat for proper digestion. Bulb wattage will be dependent on you enclosure and the height of your fixtures, please test your heating prior to buying your animal so everything is ready to go. Lowes and Home Depot carry infrared temperature guns for around $20-30 that display accurate readings and help keepers monitor temps quickly. Flood lights can also be utilized instead of more expensive reptile specific lights, just be aware you may have to experiment with different wattages given your needs.
Northern blue tongue skinks are omnivorous lizards, meaning they eat a variety of things in the wild. They have been known to scavenge carrion and have even been observed eating feces. Adults should be fed at least once per week to avoid obesity and maintain a healthy feeding response. Babies and younger juveniles should be fed every other day, typically they will start out eating about 1-2 tablespoons of wet chicken/turkey cat food and once they are around 5-6 months old can be moved to an adult diet.
In captivity many keepers have had great success with canned grain free dog foods, while other foods can be added and supplemented as well, i recommend a good quality dog food as a staple in their diet. I avoid canned diets with rice, grains, fish, and potatoes and instead focus on turkey, chicken, and kangaroo proteins with added vegetables and fruits such as carrots, sweet potatoes, lentils, and blueberries. Some keepers choose to make their own diets and I suggest heavy research to ensure your proteins and fibers are balanced, organ tissue as well as bone meal will be necessary for proper meal prep.
Whole food items such as f/t mice or snails can be offered occasionally and are typically relished by all ages. Look for frozen snail meat in your local Asian market. Vegetables, eggs, and fruit can be added to diets or dog food as well, very often we mix in added treats or veggies and the skinks are none the wiser.
Regardless of what diet you choose you will need to supplement your skink with vitamins and calcium,m with D/3. Here at LFGH we provide a multi-vitamin powder with calcium/D3 weekly and dust with reptile probiotics monthly to aid in digestion. There are a variety of brands but we have had success with Repashy, Miner-All, and Bene-Bac.
Sexing blue tongued skinks can be very difficult, often you will hear breeders say the only way to tell is to breed them. Sometimes you can observe a male evert his hemipenes during a bowel movement or sperm plugs can be observed in the enclosure. Some males will never evert their organs or leave behind sperm plugs, and females can be even more difficult.
There are some physical cues that may help with an educated guess, often females are more plump and rounded in the abdomen and have a smaller head. Wile males shoulders taper down to their hips being more narrow, they also typically have a larger and wider head. This can be difficult to observe in some animals and can sometimes be plain wrong, so physical characteristics can never be 100%.
NEVER pop a skink, this can damage the delicate hemipenes as well a cause pain and potential damage to the surrounding tissues. Ultrasound has not yet been effective but new techniques are being developed that show some promise as well as possible DNA testing in the near future.