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Australia has five families of lizards, totalling 642 species. They range in size from only a few centimetres long, up to two metres.

The families are: geckos, legless lizards, dragon lizards, goannas (monitor lizards) and skinks. Some of these species are found in suburban areas throughout Australia. In fact there are more Lizards in Australia than anywhere else in the world.

Some lizards have a dangerous or venomous bite. There are no venomous lizards in Australia.

Some lizards are easy for a lay person to identify, eg a Shingleback Skink (also known as a Sleepy Lizard or Bobtail) but many of the smaller skinks are a job even for the experts.

The following list gives some clues to distinguish between each of the families:

Geckos have small well developed limbs, soft-bodied and broad flat fleshy tongue. Ear openings and eyes lidless with vertical pupils. The tail readily breaks off.

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Legless Lizards have Snake-like body with no forelimbs and hind limbs as scaly flaps. The tail is longer than the head and body. The tail redily breaks off. Their eyes are lidless. They have ear openings in some but not all species.

Dragons have strong limbs front and back. The skin is often rough or spiny with scales arranged side by side. The tail does not readily break off. Their tongue is broad, flat and fleshy.

Goannas (sometime called Monitor) is a predatory Australian Lizard that have powerful limbs, sharp teeth and strong claws. Their skin is tough (baggy). They have small fragmented scales on their head. Their eyes have well developed, movable lids. The tongue is deeply forked.

Goannas grow large, the Perentie, can reach 2 metres (6 ft) from nose to tail tip. They got their name in the time when people first landed in Australia and saw them. They thought they were related to iguanas - but they're not. They're a kind of Monitor lizard.

Normally they wander around with all four feet on the ground, flicking their tongue in and out to taste the air in their hunt for food. They enjoy eating smaller lizards, eggs, insects, mice and other small mammals and will also eat carrion (dead animals) too. You often find them looking to see what they can find around camping grounds.

When frightened, they will rear up, puff out the flaps of skin around their throats and let out a loud hissing noise. If this doesn't work they will get up on their hind legs and run fast. They live in burrows, which they dig out but if these are not nearby they will climb a tree and try to remain on the side away from the potential attacker. They are also good swimmers.

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You can find Goannas almost anywhere in Australia except for Tasmania., particularly in scrubland, woods or grassland where the soil is sandy and they can dig up their food and create their burrows.

They lay eggs like most Lizards usually in a nest or a burrow. Unlike most other Lizards, the Goannas cannot regrow tails or limbs.

Sometimes female Goannas will dig holes in termite mounds and lay their eggs inside. The termites then seal the mound up again and keep the eggs at a constant temperature. When the little ones hatch, they can dig their way out but when their mother thinks it's about hatching time they often return and break the termite nest open again to help their offspring escape.

If you corner a goanna and it can't see a way of escape, it will rear up and could do you a lot damage with its claws along with hefty blows from its tail.

Aboriginal people like to cook them in a pit and eat them.

Skinks have small legs but not alway at front and the legs are absent in some species. They have overlapping scales on top of the head, large and regular. Their tongue is short and fleshy.

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All of Australia's capital cities have representatives of the five families of lizards, except Hobart which has only dragons and skinks.

The lizards likely to be seen in backyards are the dragons and skinks, as they are most active during warm days in the summer.

There are more than 300 species of skinks in Australia and there are one or more species found in the region of all capitals.

Bluetongue Skinks (Tiliqua) are the largest members of the skink family (Scincidae). Skink lizards have overlapping scales which are usually smooth and contain little plates of bone. Due to their large size (250 - 300 mm body length) and adaptability to an urban environment, they are well known to most people. All Bluetongues or Sleepy Lizard eat plants, fruits, flowers, leaves and invertebrates (eg insects, snails, beetles, slugs, spiders), while a few have also been seen eating carrion.

It is no wonder that in a backyard, which has the required cover to protect them, some lizards, like the Eastern Bluetongue (Tiliqua Scincoides), are so common. It is silvery-grey with broad dark brown or blackish bands across its back and tail. Individuals on the coast usually have a black stripe between the eye and the ear which may extend along the side of the neck.

The blotched blue-tongue is dark chocolate brown to black with large pink, cream or yellow blotches on the back and a tail banded in the same colours.

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If you coincidentally have piles of bricks, timber, a rock retaining wall or feature, thick vegetation or groundcovers, a quiet corner inside a shed or garage or a little visited part of the property, with abundant food (sometimes scavenged from the dog bowl), then there is a good chance Bluetongues will take up your invitation. They will also seek refuge in down-pipes from the house or sometimes access such pipes from the street gutter.

The Blue Tongues occur over a range of habitats from deserts to woodlands and from suburban areas right through to tropical regions. They are carrion eaters that also eat insects, spiders, snails, slugs and other small animals. They also eat plants.

When Blue Tongues are trying to scare away something they see as a threat they open their mouth wide and stick out their tongue. They can latch onto you if you're not careful and they have strong jaws so it sn't easy to get them to let go once they're latched on.

Blue Tongues can grow up to 60cms (2ft) depending on the species.

Some of the other most common larger lizards in urban areas are the dragon lizards, especially Bearded Dragons and Water Dragons. Eastern Water Dragons (Physignathus lesuerii) are common from Melbourne up the East Coast to Brisbane. The Bearded Dragon (Pogona barbata), ranges from Canberra to Brisbane and is also found in the vicinity of Adelaide.

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Water Dragons, as their name suggests, live in the vicinity of water bodies and will readily plunge into a creek or river from an overhead branch when disturbed. On the other hand, Bearded Dragons prefer woodlands and associated cleared areas or grasslands on the outskirts of cities within their range. They can sometimes be observed (if you look carefully) sunning themselves on a fence post or branch. More often Bearded Dragons are seen basking on the roads, where they come to grief from passing vehicles.

The Frilled or Frill-necked Lizard, got it's name because of the large frill of skin which is usually folded back against its head and neck. When the lizard is frightened it opens its mouth and flares out the frill if that dosen't work they start to run on all four legs, then they speed up onto only their back legs. They can grow up to a metre in length. Male Frill-necks are considerably larger than females.

Water Dragons grow to a total length of up to a metre whereas Bearded Dragons are only half that size. Both lizard species are known to be omnivores, feeding on various small animals and plant matter.

Records for lizard longevity is held by a Mexican Beaded Lizard at (33 yrs 11 mths) and a Cayman Island Ground Iguana (33 yrs 5 mths).

The Gila Monster (Heloderma sucpectum) and the Mexican Beaded Lizard (Heloderma horridum) are the only two venomous lizards.

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Pigment filled cells, called chromatophores, are located in the skin of the chameleon. These cells expand and contract, in response to the colour of the environment and the need for concealment, as well as to the animal’s psychological or physical state (e.g. pain or aggression).

The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard, reaching 3m(10ft). These are clever hunters; once they know their prey’s travel routes; they will wait to ambush them. Having bitten a large animal on the leg, instead of killing it immediately, the Komodo will allow the toxins produced by bacteria in the wound to weaken the animal over several days. The dragons track their prey, waiting until the animal is too weak to escape.

Some horned lizards (Phrynosoma sp.) can squirt blood from their eyes. By constricting muscles, which prevents the flow of blood out of the head, blood pressure builds in the head until vessels in the inner corner of the eyes rupture, squirting blood up to 122cms (4ft).

Flying or Draco lizards, found in India, soar between trees using wing-like membranes linking their front and rear legs. They come to the ground only to mate and to lay their eggs.

Keeping Lizards at Home.

Although these larger lizards tend to hide, they may still be taken by cats and dogs. If you wish to encourage lizards in your backyard, be aware of possible predation by domestic pets, more particularly with smaller or younger lizards.

A concern with some lizards in a garden setting is if the homeowner lays out baits for snails that may be eaten by Bluetongues in particular. If you must bait snails, do it in a way that native animals cannot easily get to the poison.

As with other native animals, lizards require adequate food and water to survive. It is possible in a suburban backyard to provide for them, as long as you are aware of their basic needs. Planting thick native shrubs, grasses or groundcovers in a quiet part of the garden can provide protection against extremes of weather and predators.

The addition of hollow logs (provided you don't get them from the bush), leaf mulch, clay pipes partly set into the ground or piles of stones will also help. Rotting leaf litter or garden mulch will encourage insects and help fungi to grow which some lizards eat. Studies have shown that leaving leaf, twig, bark, branch and log litter is important for many species of lizards. Protected, warm, humid sites are also used by some small skinks to deposit their eggs.

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When providing cover for lizards, place whatever shelter you are using such that there are open areas or a basking log or rock nearby. This allows the lizards to warm in the sun while protection from predators is not far away. Having or placing, surface rocks amongst the vegetation will protect many of the smaller reptiles and the food they eat. Some of these foods are garden pests, so the lizards will be doing you a service. You can improvise rock crevices or shelters by using concrete pavers of different sizes (Nicholls, 2000). If you don't like the look of the pavers, grow a scrambling plant or groundcover over them.

Food for your lizards should not include anything artificial, unless you have rescued one of them and what you are giving it is part of its recovery process. Under these circumstances, expert advice is needed from your fauna agency or local native animal rescue group.

Natural food can be provided by planting native species with flowers, berries or leaves that lizards eat or attract insects that will become food in turn. Some plants you may try include Native Daisies (Olearia species), Muntries (Kunzea pomifera), Pigface (Carpobrotus species), Native Currant (Acrotriche species), Flax Lilies (Dianella species) or Native Cranberry (Astroloma humifusum), for flowers and edible fruits.

When my daughter became interested in lizards (maily because of a boy she liked) I cut off about 122cms (4ftft) of a large old water tank I had. covered the bottom with straw and woodchips put in 3 hollow logs and some rock piles the geckos and skinks she collected seemed to like it just fine.

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For a list of Tasmainian Lizards. (Internet Required)

Sources: Bennett, 1997; Cogger, 2000; Griffiths, 1997; Queensland Museum, 1995; Heyne. (Internet Required)



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