Northern Care Guide
Tiliqua (Blue Tongue Skinks) are terrestrial animals, meaning they live almost exclusively on the ground. Their bodies are designed to move quickly and efficiently through the first layer of strata making them almost fossorial in nature. Therefore, they need surface area rather than height when considering housing.
The U.S. hobby-wide rule of thumb is a MINIMUM 40 gallon breeder (36in. long X 18in. wide) per adult, or at MINIMUM 4.5+ sq.ft. floor space.
Height should be an absolute MINIMUM of 10 inches but need not be more than 18 inches. There are several commercially available reptile enclosures available at this size. Exo-Terra makes a nice front opening glass terrarium called a "Large-Low" which is 36L X 18w X 12h and perfect for most adult Tiliqua.
Many keepers choose to keep their animals in larger enclosures such as 48l X 24w X 18h with great success. Tiliqua will use every inch of ground space you provide.
I recommend either the Exo-Terra Large-Low terrarium or the 4 x 2 x 2 PVC enclosure from Kages Custom Reptile Enclosures (ReptileKages.com) for permanent adult housing. There are many other custom enclosures available that are excellent as well. I use Exo-Terra terrariums and custom built rack I construct myself.
Please keep in mind that each animal is an individual with individual growth, terminal size, behaviors, and predispositions. Therefore, some animals may need larger enclosures and some may need smaller or less “open-view” enclosures to thrive. Part of reptile keeping is learning the balance between the biology/science and the art of adapting to “what works” for the individual animal. Flexibility and observation are the most important keys aspects to keeping any animal.
IMPORTANT: Northern Blue-Tongues should NEVER be housed together! They are extremely territorial, defensive, and even aggressive toward other skinks. They should only be placed together for breeding purposes under DIRECT supervision for short periods of time.
Feeding & Diet
In the wild blue-tongue skinks eat mostly land snails, carrion, insects, wild veggies, berries, fruits, and plant materials. They are not cunning predators but rather general omnivorous opportunists. Babies are more carnivorous/insectivorous for their first season/year of life.
Due to the omnivorous ingredients in many cat and dog foods a majority of breeders and keepers feed their animals cat or dog food as a staple (aka over 50% of the diet). I feed my blue tongues a variety of dog foods, cat foods, Bluey Buffet by Repashy and Omni Gold by Arcadia. I also supplement adult dog foods with 50% Healthy Herp Veggies or fresh diced greens and veggies.
Below is the feeding schedule I use, I ROTATE dog food with Omni Gold and Bluey Buffet for adults and wet cat food for babies. For example over 5 weeks:
Week 1: Dog Food Brand #1 w/veg
Week 2: Dog Food Brand #2 w/veg
Week 3: Omni Gold
Week 4: Dog Food Brand #3
Week 5: Bluey Buffet
Adults (1 yr +/ 500g+)
Wet DOG food with veg/ Bluey Buffet/ Omni Gold
1 x per week
Sub-Adults (6mo – 1yr /400g+)
Wet DOG food/ Bluey Buffet (once a month)
2-3 x per week
Juveniles (2-6mo/ 200g-400g)
Wet CAT food/ Bluey Buffet (once a month max)
Every other day
Babies (0-2mo/ 15-200g)
Wet CAT food/ Bluey Buffet (once a month max)
I give them a serving the size of their head or a bit bigger as a rule of thumb.
High Animal Protein content
Variety of Fruits and Veggies (little to none for babies)
Turnip greens, Mustard greens, Summer/Spaghetti Squash
Keep fresh (freeze if needed)
Calcium (Calcium carbonate or tricalcium phosphate)
Vitamin D3 Supplement
Adult Foods I Feed (1 yr +)
Whole Earth Farms Grain Free Hearty Turkey and Chicken Recipe Wet Dog food
Nature's Logic Wet Turkey/Chicken Formulas Dog foods
Ziganture Wet Turkey Dog Food
Arcadia Omni Gold Earth Pro Series
Repashy’s Bluey Buffet
Variety of Greens and Veggies (Turnip & Mustard Greens, Butternut & Spaghetti Squash etc.)
Blueberries/Edamame/Banana/ Pinky Mice (pre-killed) all on OCCASION as TREATS
Fish (including fish oils)
Starchy fillers (potatoes)
Chunky or Large bite sizes
Spinach (a little is okay)
Baby Foods I feed (0-11mo)
Halo Gluten Free Natural Wet Cat Food, Indoor Turkey & Quail Recipe Wet Cat food
Nature's Logic Wet Turkey/Rabbit Formula Cat Foods
Wellness CORE Grain-Free Turkey, and Duck formulas Cat foods
Wellness Grain-Free Turkey Pate Cat Food
Most blue tongues do well with 12-14 hours of light per day for overall health. Ultraviolet Light Wavelength - B (UVB) has been linked to psychological welfare in many vertebrates and can be provided artificially for potential mental wellness in skinks. I must note that I am unaware of any behavioral studies regarding the impact of UVB on mental health in blue tongues skinks to date. Thus, providing UVB for psychological health is purely conjecture. Despite the lack of evidence I choose to provide a low level UVB to most of my skinks.
Most importantly, UVB also plays a vital role in Vitamin D3 synthesis in a majority of terrestrial vertebrates including blue tongue skinks. Without vitamin D3 the lizards CANNOT absorb calcium and thus their bones will not grow strong but rather horribly weak and can eventually develop metabolic bone disease (MBD) which is horribly painful and can be fatal if unaddressed. Getting Vitamin D3 into an animal's system can occur through two avenues;
1) appropriate UVB lighting
2) dietary provision.
Both ways, if provided correctly, can be very successful in achieving healthy strong animals. I keep most skinks with UVB and some with dietary supplementation. Both sets of animals are thriving.
Important note about UVB bulbs: The coil bulbs put out very limited amount of quality UVB and only certain brands with certain watts put out enough UVB waves to aid in D3 synthesis in BTS. If you intend to use UVB for D3 BE CERTAIN to get a Solarmeter 6.5 to measure the amount of UV coming from your bulbs so that you are not just “trusting” the labels on the box which have often been proven to be misleading. Some bulbs can put out unsafe levels while other put out almost nothing.
Is UVB right for you?
UVB bulbs, if used, require changing about every 6 months or less (unless stated on the package). There is a special dust inside these bulbs that allows for the production of UVB that breaks down over time and thus one must replace the bulbs semi-annually regardless if they are still emitting light. There are different kinds of UVB light bulbs provided to the hobby because there are animals that have different basking behaviors and UVB requirements for psychological and physiological uses. Some animals, such as bearded dragons, require high levels of UVB because of the way the live in the wild (basking all day in the high noon sun). Some animals such as, blue tongue skinks, use moderate to lower levels of UVB because they bask in the early morning and afternoon/evenings when the UVB output from the sun is less. Using the right UVB product will ensure the best outcome for your skink.
I recommend the 10.0 T5 HO tube versions of UVB if used above a screen or glass if you intend to use the light for D3 synthesis purposes. It is important to know that UVB bulbs only project UVB a specified distance from the bulb’s surface to they often need to be within 18” and not closer than 6" from of the animal’s skin to be their most effective. I use the ZooMed ReptiSun Mini 5.0 13w bulb for some of my adult animals in the custom rack system (this particular amount of UVB is only good for psychological health NOT Vitamin D3 synthesis). If you chose to go with UVB as your source of D3 I recommend still providing a dietary supplement of the Vitamin D3 once a month or a lower D3 percentage calcium product routinely.
I have seen far more animals develop MBD due to incorrect UV use than with incorrect dietary supplementation.
Is Dietary Supplementation right for you?
There are many breeders and keepers that have kept their blue tongues for over 30 years without UVB light with great success. Such animals have bred and are thriving without UV light. HOWEVER, these animals were supplemented with calcium and vitamin D3 through their diet so as to ensure they were healthy.
Proper supplements do allow for blue tongues to be kept indoors without UV. Most of the dog and cat foods that I feed contain a certain amount of Vitamin D3 already in the food which is great. Even so, because reptiles rely so heavily on this D3 I recommend some additional calcium with D3 to the animal’s diet to ensure they are getting enough.
How much is enough? Many advocates of UVB often claim that because there is not exact formula for supplementation that it is unsafe or wrong. This simply isn’t true. Although there is no exact formula, providing enough without overdosing is very possible. Let’s use the human food pyramid for an example. It shows the “suggested servings” for certain food groups for a healthy diet. However, it is not exact. And even those who follow it to a “T” may or may not be as healthy as someone who just eats as they please. Diet is and is not a perfect science nor is supplementation. I usually put a good dusting on the wet food serving to make up about 1-1.5% of the food offered with the Calcium Vitamin D3 powder. I do this every other feeding with great success and healthy, THRIVING animals.
Can I just do both to be safe?
Yes and no, animals under UVB lighting involuntarily produce the D3 themselves naturally in their skink (Pre-D3/D3 synthesis) and their body will involuntarily stop producing it once they’ve reached a certain level of the compound in their blood. Dietary supplementation cannot be regulated by the animal naturally. So if one provides UVB and very small amounts of dietary D3 they will likely be okay (such as once a month or a lower percentage D3 product). However, overdosing can occur if the animal produced D3 throughout the week and then is given a large dose through their diet as well. Because D3 does not break down but rather is stored in fat cells it can become overdosed if given too much of both.
Proper Supplementation: Just because animals can be overdosed with D3 doesn’t mean we need to skimp or worry however. Most of the foods I feed already contain some vitamin D3 but not enough since it’s for dogs that have different needs than skinks. To ensure enough D3 is provided but not too much I simply rotate calcium with D3 products with each feeding. I rotate my Calcium with D3 products. I use a product with 25,000 IU/lb of D3 and then a product with 100,000 IU/lb the next feeding (for animals under a year old I give calcium every other feeding). I also add a multivitamin once a month. This has proven to allow for very healthy animals. When I provide calcium I give a light dusting of the product over the wet food, similar to a powdered doughnut.
Heating & Temperatures
Tiliqua are ectothermic (cold blooded) and need to use their environment to regulate their body temperatures for digestion and overall healthy body functions. In captivity it is the keeper's responsibility to provide the correct environment. The key here is to provide a thermal gradient that allows the animal to move back and forth from warm to cool so as to get the right temperature they need. In order to do this having one end of the cage approx 1/3 of the space warm/hot and the opposite end cool/warm is idea.
The ideal temperature gradient for Tiliqua scincoides intermedia is 96F-98F on the warm end and 75-79F on the cooler end with a basking spot of 100F-102F.
I have not found that a night temperature drop is required. If a night temp drop does occur (intentionally or not) I have found that ensuring a night warm area of 80-90F is provided and not allowing the cool area to drop below 70F is important for respiratory health.
Reaching the appropriate temperature has multiple variables including but not limited to room temperature, house hold humidity, room air flow, cage material, cage size, location of cage to others, and type of thermal element used to provide heat. Finding a good heat gradient is where the real “herpetoculture artist” within the keeper is tested. You may have to “play with or fiddle with” your elements until you get the right temperature range. This can be done by increasing/decreasing your settings on thermostats, changing bulbs/CHE (Ceramic Heat Emitter) to higher or lower wattages, increasing or decreasing the distance the bulb/CHE is from the basking surface and much more. For this reason the purchase of a temperature gun to get fast accurate surface temp readings is essential. On this site under the “Resources” tab you will find a link to supplies I use/ recommend including the temp gun.
Important HEAT NOTE: I recommend using a halogen PAR floodlight bulb that is on a light dimmer for an over head basking area/heat source. The key words here are “halogen” and “floodlight.” This is crucial as halogen bulbs produce the proper light waves to penetrate your animal’s torso with heat. Other forms of bulb or emitter DO NOT DO THIS and only heat the animal’s skin surface which is insufficient. Also, floodlights typically have a glass that refracts the light to disperse evenly over a broader space so as to maximize the amount of physiological heat penetration.
Tiliqua need a constant fresh water source which can easily be provided by giving them a heavy shallow water dish that holds 4-8 ounces of water. A bowl that is between 1-2 inches tall is best. The bowl should be heavy or at least difficult to spill as Tiliqua will tip over any lightweight or unstable water bowls. Blue-tongues will get bedding in their water and new fresh water should be provided often.
The Australian species do not need high humidity. They do very well with 30%-50% relative humidity. They can handle up into the high 80 percentages as long as there is good ventilation. Keeping them too wet or too dry can cause health issues. Most typical U.S. indoor environments have good humidity without needing anything extra. Sometimes in the very dry winter months animals will get dry belly scales. If your animals are kept on cypress mulch a simple fix is to spray down the bedding lightly once a day to prevent dry scales. Another option is to use a humid hide which is a 6-15 quart plastic shoe box with a hole cut into the side big enough for the animal to fit through. Inside the box place damp sphagnum moss and place the lid on securely. The moss will hold the moisture for at least a week and the animal can climb inside like a mini “sauna” to gain moisture as needed.
NOTE: Blue-Tongues are not swimmers. They can swim but out of pure survival and need. They do not need to nor should they be placed in water deeper than one-half (1/2) inch. With proper husbandry these animals should never need to be "soaked" like a snake. Even with a stuck shed a good humid hide is all that should be required.
I keep my Northerns on one of two things, pure organic cypress mulch (ZooMed's Forest Floor) or coconut husk chips (ReptiChip/ProCoco) as a substrate. Many keepers have found that cypress, coconut husk chips, orchid bark (ReptiBark by ZooMed), and aspen shavings all work well for Northern Blue Tongues. I use cypress/coco husk chips because it can be misted and hold humidity as needed. I elected to use coco husk chips primarily because it is less expensive and in Colorado the air is so dry that I needed to have a substrate that can hold some humidity which is not the case with Aspen style beddings.
All reptiles need a place to feel secure and completely out of sight in order to maintain peak psychological wellness. Providing a “hide” or place to be completely out of sight is essential to caring for any reptile including skinks. I provide hides in a couple of ways. One way is to use timothy hay/ straw piled up whereby the animal can bury themselves out of sight. Another option is to use commercially available plastic or wood hides. I use corrugated plastic tubing “T-connectors” from the hardware store and modify them with a drill and zip-ties
Reptiles in the wild are not designed to cohabitate with humans or other predatory type animals such as cats and dogs. Constant presence of such animals in view of a skink can cause unhealthy levels of stress. For example, a cat sitting outside the enclosure all day long or an enclosure low to the floor in a high traffic area where lots of fast movement is observed can cause serious stress that accumulates. Sometimes even a well-adjusted animal can slowly (over a period of weeks/months) become overcome by stress and develop other health issues from a compromised immune system.
Keeping other pets away from view as often as possible and keeping enclosures out of high traffic areas can help ensure your reptile’s long term well being.
Reptiles, even blue tongue skinks, are not “snuggle buddies” in the sense that human interaction and touch is something that contributes positively to their emotional health which is unlike social animals such as dogs. That being said some individual skinks will respond well to human interaction and exhibit the appearance of enjoyment when exploring their world and those in it, including people. It is important to think like a skink and not for a skink in these situations.
Ensuring that interactions with people are positive includes looking for calm breathing, smooth inquisitive movements, and steady calm tongue flicks, etc. It is important when handling or interacting with any reptile that time be a consideration as well. Most reptiles are not “marathon” type athletes and rather they need to rest frequently to recover from activities, and blue tongue skinks are no different. Allowing interaction/explore time to be limited to 10-30 minutes a day is appropriate.
Also, observations of rapid breathing, frantic movements, consistent frequent or rapid tongue flicks, or seeking cover are signs the animal is experiencing distress and needs to be returned to their enclosure and left alone for 24 hours minimum.
While holding your skink do not hold them by the tail or squeeze their body as this can cause harm or even tail break (caudal autotomy). They do not do well when restrained in general and it is not necessary for handling, I have given my skinks injections of mediation without requiring restraint. They need to be able to loosely move through your hands. It is important to support their torso and if possible allow their feet (at least 2 at a time) to have support so they are not dangling. Once they feel comfortable they may relax and allow their feet to hang off you.
Flighty babies and juveniles need to be held over something soft and not too high in case they leap or jolt and end up falling. Serious injury can occur from a fall. I know of a few keepers who have had skinks break their jaws from accidental falls.