A great resource on reptile husbandry is Reptfiles. We reached out to the author of Retifiles.com, Mariah Healey, to see if she would be willing to help contribute to our blog "Ask the Reptile Experts". Mariah was very gracious and willing to contribute on two topics, blue tongue skinks and reptile nutrition. Below is a brief bio on Mariah and her expert insights on blue tongue skinks.
Author: Mariah Healey
Experience – Qualifications:I am the author and head researcher at ReptiFiles.com, an educational website where pet reptile owners can access comprehensive, species-specific, and correct reptile care guides for free. ReptiFiles currently boasts 14 different care guides, but that number is constantly growing! I am also a reptile husbandry consultant, in which I offer a variety of services to help prospective, new, and more experienced reptile owners take better care of their pets.
Brief bio:My career as a reptile educator didn’t start until early 2015, but I’ve been interested in reptiles and animal research since early childhood. When I was about 4, my pediatrician was a friend of the family, and we visited her home often. Her house was better than a zoo—dogs, turtles, and an African lungfish named Louie, among other things. But my favorite was their sandfish skink. His name was Wink, and my most vivid memories of him are of my pediatrician poking the sand with a pencil to make Wink jump out of the sand to “say hi.” Since then I have had direct experience with many different species, including bearded dragons, blue tongue skinks, red-eared slider turtles, Argentine tegus, crested geckos, ball pythons, boa constrictors, and others.
Facebook Link: https://www.facebook.com/reptifiles/
What about this species makes it special to you?
I love blue tongue skinks because they’re big personalities in a sausage-shaped body. They’re intelligent, inquisitive, fairly easy to care for, and tend to take more interest in humans than what is average for reptiles, which can make them something close to companion animals.
What makes it a great pet?
They’re large and sturdy enough to survive being handled by children, tolerate handling well in general, can “play” with food toys, and have quirky personalities that can make them fun to watch as well. They also live as long or longer than dogs, and many become beloved family pets.
What are some key considerations a person should have before adding this species to their reptile family?
There are several different species, or kinds, of blue tongue skinks, and availability and care varies depending on what kind you want to get. The most common blue tongue skinks in the US are:
- Indonesian (Tiliqua gigas gigas)
- Halmahera (Tiliqua gigas gigas Halmahera)
- Merauke (Tiliqua gigas evanescens)
- Irian Jaya (Tiliqua ssp.)
- Northern Australian (Tiliqua scincoides intermedia)
Blue tongue skinks are active, so they need a big enclosure. You will need enough space to accommodate a 4’x2’x2’ enclosure or larger.
You will need to mix your own food for your skink. There is no “kibble” or canned food on the market that will be able to keep your blue tongue skink perfectly healthy. However, high-quality, grain-free dog food with minimal additives mixed in a ratio of about 60% dog food to 40% vegetables is perfect. For best results, use a variety of different brands and flavors.
As reptiles, blue tongue skinks need UVB lighting. Some people say this is not necessary, but there is increasingly mounting evidence that it is beneficial and required for long-term care.
What is the most misunderstood aspect of keeping this species as a pet?
There’s this common misunderstanding that pet reptiles are cheap, low-maintenance animals that can be used as “disposable pets” for young children. This could not be further from the truth. Your initial investment for a blue tongue skink is likely going to be at least $400-500, and that’s not counting the cost of the skink itself ($250-$400). They’re worthwhile pets, but be prepared for the initial outlay, vet bills, and extensive research on how to care for them properly.
ReptiFiles makes the research and supply shopping parts easier with our Blue Tongue Skink Care Guide.
For adults of this species, what are the enclosure requirements?
Height, width, depth?
No smaller than 8 sq ft of floor space, or 48”x24”x24”. Larger is always better! The enclosure should be front-opening, adequately ventilated, and featuring a 6-8” barrier in the front to facilitate a deep substrate layer.
Best terrarium materials?
PVC or well-sealed wood. Wood works best for lower humidity species like the Northern blue tongue skink, but PVC is all but an absolute must for higher humidity species like Indonesians, and particularly Halmaheras.
- Basking surface temperature: 95-104°F
- Cool zone surface temperature: 70-80°F
- No night heating is needed.
Blue tongue skinks require an overhead heating source (ie: heat lamp). Since reptiles can see UVA wavelengths of light, it is speculated that they use this vision to detect optimal basking spots. For this reason, I recommend using a reptile-specific heat bulb that generates UVA as well as heat. I prefer the Zoo Med Repti Basking Spot bulb. Necessary wattage will vary depending on how close the basking spot is to the bulb and the temperature of the room that the enclosure is in, but try starting with a 100w bulb first and then adjust higher or lower as needed.
The heat bulb should be housed in a domed fixture with a ceramic socket for safety. To create an optimal temperature gradient from warm to cool, the heat lamp should be placed on the left or right side of the enclosure, not in the middle.
In the wild, blue tongue skinks prefer to bask on surfaces that absorb the most heat, namely stone and stone-like surfaces like concrete and asphalt. To recreate this effect in your enclosure and have a happy skink, place a large, flat piece of stone tile, slate, or flagstone directly under the heat lamp.
The best way to keep track of your enclosure temps is with an infrared thermometer, aka temperature gun. I like the Etekcity 774. Unlike temperature gauges and digital probe thermometers, these measure surface temperature instead of air temperature, and will give you a more accurate idea of the temperatures that your skink is experiencing.
Heat pads/heat mats are not recommended for blue tongue skinks because they are not strong enough for the heat to penetrate through the deep substrate without becoming a fire hazard.
Optimal humidity levels depend on what species of blue tongue skink you have but addressing the most common species in the US, you want 40-60% humidity for Northerns, 60-80% for Indonesians and Meraukes, and 80%+ for Halmaheras.
My preferred method of boosting and maintaining humidity is by mixing water directly into the substrate 2-4x/month as needed. When done with deep, moisture-retentive substrate, this does wonders for maintaining consistently high humidity levels. Keep in mind, however, that the enclosure must be allowed to dry out to minimum humidity levels before you add more water. This helps prevent mold growth and keeps your skink healthier, too.
Keep track of humidity levels with a digital hygrometer like the Zilla Digital Thermometer/Hygrometer. For the most accurate results, place the probe on the cool end of the enclosure, as this is where it will be most humid.
Blue tongue skinks like to dig, so they need 4-6” of substrate to be happy. (Substrate = bedding) These are the substrates I have found work best with blue tongue skinks:
- DIY mix: 1/3 organic topsoil + 1/3 peat moss + 1/3 play sand
- The BioDude Terra Firma
- Lugarti Natural Reptile Bedding
- Cypress mulch
- DIY mix: 1/3 organic topsoil + 1/3 peat moss + 1/3 sphagnum moss
- The BioDude Terra Fauna
Spot clean for poo, urates, and discarded food at least weekly. Replace substrate completely every 6 months.
Reptiles need regular veterinary care, too. Find an ARAV-certified reptile veterinarian near you at ARAV.org, and make sure to schedule annual wellness checks — same as you would for a cat or dog. Blue tongue skinks can also get sick from time to time, so be prepared to take your skink to the vet as needed. Wellness checks cost about $75 on average, and prescription medications or special treatments/tests for a sick skink can cost upwards of $100-200.
Links you would like to share for more information or research?