Do you have a bluey in your Canberra backyard?

Ian Fraser 10 March 2021 29
Blotched blue-tongue lizard.

This lovely blotched blue-tongue lizard was by the road in the snow gums in Namadgi National Park. Photo: Ian Fraser.

Every year The Guardian runs a readers’ poll for bird of the year, which is effectively a vote for Australia’s favourite bird – a significant poll indeed. Sadly no-one has yet taken on the daunting task of organising Australia to vote for its favourite reptile, although I live in hope.

If it were to happen, I’m confident the laidback eastern blue-tongue lizard would put in a very strong showing, at least in eastern Australia.

I reckon it would be a shoo-in here in the bush capital.

Blue-tongues, or ‘blueys’, are big enough to be obvious, are easygoing, and not at all averse to letting humans share their yards, although they like us to keep our cats and dogs away from them.

Eastern blue-tongue lizard.

This eastern blue-tongue has turned itself side-on and puffed itself up to look bigger and scarier. Photo: Ian Fraser.

They are actually skinks, most of which are very small and dart across the ground and over fallen logs. Blueys are close to being the largest of that huge cosmopolitan family, and a big one can be more than 50cm long and 30 years old. Unsurprisingly, they are pretty leisurely in their movements.

Many Canberra backyards host a bluey, which generally live quietly under rocks or the house slab or behind the bins, coming out to play a big part in keeping the snail and slug population under control.

They don’t mind the odd strawberry, either, but that can be managed with some judicious fencing. On the other hand, I know gardeners who leave the odd strawberry or grape outside the bluey’s residence, offerings which are gratefully accepted. A shallow dish of water is a valuable contribution to their wellbeing, too.

Many cold country small skinks – such as those which live in the mountains – give birth to live young. The eggs hatch internally to avoid them having to be buried in frozen ground.

All seven blue-tongue species also give birth to live young, even those that live in the tropics of northern Australia. The unborn young are nourished by a mammal-like placenta connecting them internally to their mother, a most unusual scenario among reptiles.

In Canberra, the mother gives birth to a dozen or more babies in summer so currently there will be lots of small blue-tongues making their way in a dangerous world.

Blue-tongue lizard sticking out blue tongue.

The blue tongue is truly blue and is intended to frighten us. Photo: Ian Fraser.

The wonderfully blue fleshy tongue is part of their defence mechanism, which is nearly all bluff. When threatened, blue-tongue lizards will hiss and flatten their body to look bigger, and poke that surprising blue tongue out towards their tormentor.

Their wedge-shaped head is mostly due to powerful jaw muscles which enable them to efficiently crush hard snail shells and beetle carapaces. The head also gives a slightly snake-like impression, which can add to the scary display. More than one human resident in Canberra has had a nasty fright due to this resemblance, before reality reasserts itself.

Blue-tongues don’t need sharp teeth to munch snails or strawberries so they are small and blunt. The only way to get bitten by one is to put your finger in their mouth, which I hope is evidently a bad idea. Should you do so, bluey will probably not break the skin, but can leave a notable bruise.

Shingleback lizard.

A shingleback, which is black to absorb maximum warmth from the sun, at Mulligans Flat. Photo: Ian Fraser.

Two other blue-tongue species also live in the ACT. At higher elevations, such as in the mountains and around Wamboin, the eastern blue-tongue is replaced by the truly beautiful blotched blue-tongue with marbled sides and pink-orange blotches on a dark back. Watch for them crossing the road in the Brindabellas when you’re out for a drive in the snow gums.

The other blue-tongue lizard is often not recognised as one, although it’s familiar enough. The shingleback – also known as a bobtail, stumpy tail, bog-eye or sleepy lizard, the latter is what I called them when growing up – is essentially a lizard of the hot inland. It just comes into the northern warmer end of the ACT. Mulligans Flat and Mount Majura are good places to see them.

The shingleback is like a pine cone with a head, legs and stubby tail. To make the most of the sun, which is relatively weak here most of the time, ACT shinglebacks are jet black. Unusually among reptiles, they mate for life and seek out their mates each spring after coming out of winter torpor. Unlike other blue-tongues, shinglebacks give birth to only two young each year.

But it’s the familiar eastern bluey you’ll be seeing for another month or so around Canberra, and even in your yard if you’re lucky. Enjoy them, and maybe leave a treat out for them.

Ian Fraser is a Canberra naturalist, conservationist and author. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT government on biodiversity, and published multiple guides to the region’s flora and fauna.


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29 Responses to Do you have a bluey in your Canberra backyard?
Jackie White Jackie White 9:20 am 04 Mar 21

There's always one or two hanging around my place each year, but without fail, they wander into the neighbour's yard and her dogs (golden retrievers) kill them. Every. Single. Time.

Maria O'Halloran Maria O'Halloran 10:12 am 03 Mar 21

I have one that shows itself every now and again over the past 5 years.

scottc scottc 9:16 am 01 Mar 21

Had one which scared me and the dogs. Thought it was a snake and ended up beheading it.

    jwinston jwinston 4:54 pm 04 Mar 21

    Lizards = legs
    Snakes = no legs

    You killing protected species = no brains.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 7:59 am 01 Mar 21

In our O’Connor chook pen, gulping eggs, they’re definitely blue-tongues. We send them back to join the rabbit plague at Bruce Ridge. The Ridge also has plenty of dragons evident.

Maya123 Maya123 11:11 pm 28 Feb 21

I had one until the hail storm. I found it a few days later at death’s door with a broken back ?.

There is a situation vacancy now.

Karolina Firman Karolina Firman 10:17 pm 28 Feb 21

We have one in our backyard, her name is Ethel Bethel

Jane Skillicorn Jane Skillicorn 10:05 pm 28 Feb 21

He comes and goes....

Leanne K Pascoe Leanne K Pascoe 9:55 pm 28 Feb 21

I used to have two in my front yard rockery

Pat Legge Pat Legge 7:56 pm 28 Feb 21

And they love cherry tomatoes ripe they eat pop we could not work out what was eating them then we saw our him come out off the shed and eat them so pop started putting on the floor for them and they love the them

Coralee Flood Coralee Flood 6:55 pm 28 Feb 21

Yes a resident 30-40cm and found two more new babies today.

Katy Grimes Katy Grimes 6:53 pm 28 Feb 21

Yes but the stupid neighbourhood cat carried one off a couple of weeks ago.

Dot Bryan Dot Bryan 6:28 pm 28 Feb 21

I can’t find the photo of philbert.

Kathleen Marie Kathleen Marie 5:55 pm 28 Feb 21

Yes! We found a baby blue tongue this weekend.

bikhet bikhet 3:50 pm 28 Feb 21

Nah. Got common grass skinks and marbled geckos though. Got another type of gecko too but haven’t been able to identify it.

Lisa Black Lisa Black 3:23 pm 28 Feb 21

Yes. There was two. We don't see them often cause we have dogs now, so they stay more hidden and only come out occasionally. We had two shinglebacks as well until they got hit by passing cars.

Kim Gower Kim Gower 3:11 pm 28 Feb 21

We have three!

DJA DJA 2:49 pm 28 Feb 21

Don’t see any blueys in the backyard, but do see dragons (I think they are jacky dragons) and cunningham skinks.

Tracy Dennis Tracy Dennis 2:05 pm 28 Feb 21

Manuela Mastromatteo thought of you...!

    Manuela Mastromatteo Manuela Mastromatteo 2:42 pm 28 Feb 21

    Tracy Dennis hahahaha they’re everywhere!

Mark Rowland Mark Rowland 2:00 pm 28 Feb 21

Yes, baby one

Natasha Fregona Natasha Fregona 1:50 pm 28 Feb 21

Michael Tunnah I’m still not making friends with it 😅

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