Home | Field studies and notes | Lizard Societies – Great Desert Skink Families Build Communal Homes

Lizard Societies – Great Desert Skink Families Build Communal Homes

Blue Tongued SkinkTwenty of the world’s 5,000+ lizard species have been shown to live in family groups (i.e. the Prehensile Tailed Skink, Corucia zebrata, and the USA’s Desert Night Lizard, Xantusia vigilis).  Field studies have now revealed that one social lizard – Great Desert Skink or Tjakura, Liopholis kintorei – actually constructs complex, long-term dwellings and lives in extended family groups.  Native to the red sand plains of central Australia, it is the only lizard known to exhibit such highly-evolved social behavior.

Natural History and Conservation

The Great Desert Skink is stoutly-built, much like the familiar Blue-Tongued Skink (please see photo) and sports rust to burnt-orange coloration that closely matches the red sands in which it lives; its Aboriginal name, Mulyamiji, means “red nose”. 

The diet is comprised largely of beetles, spiders and other invertebrates, with termites being an important food source for part of their active season.  Small snakes, lizards and some vegetation are also taken.  Please click here to view a photo of this most attractive lizard.

The Great Desert Skink’s range has greatly decreased in recent years, and it is classified as Vulnerable by the Australian Government (please see article below for conservation plan).

Skink “Towns”

The degree of social behavior exhibited by the Great Desert Skink is unprecedented among lizards, and has shocked the herpetological community.  Researchers from Macquarie University and Parks Australia have discovered that families comprised of a breeding pair and several generations of offspring cooperatively build complex tunnel systems which are occupied for at least 7 years.

Their subterranean homes have up to 20 entrances and separate latrine areas, and may cover an area spanning 50 feet or more.  Tunnel construction and maintenance duties are carried out by family members based upon size, with the largest individuals doing most of the “heavy lifting”…all seem to contribute some effort, however.

Mate Fidelity and Family Ties

Australian Red SandMated pairs of Great Desert Skinks remain together for years.  Females seem to copulate only with their mate, but 40% of male skinks father young “outside” of their primary relationship.  The young are born alive and remain within the tunnel system of their birth, with their parents and siblings, for several years.  How and when they disperse and breed is being investigated.

Biologists hope that further studies of Great Desert Skink communities will reveal insights into the evolution of social behavior in reptiles and other creatures.



Further Reading

Natural History and Conservation of the Great Desert Skink (Australian Government Report)

Central Australia’s Red Sand Habitats

Social Behavior in the Prehensile-Tailed Skink



  1. avatar

    Frank, I’m so excited to find a new knowledgable source for skink and other herp info. BTW, do you know Cord Offermann? He’s my vet. Fantastic day that I found him!
    Looking forward to following your blog &FB page.
    Sue Willman

    • avatar

      Hello Sue,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I do not know Dr. Offermann, but understand how useful it is to have someone like that. Many herp societies maintain lists of experienced vets, so you may wish to share your experience in that way, to help others.

      If you are interested in skinks, perhaps you’ll enjoy this Overview of the family, and some of the articles linked below it. I look forward to your questions and observations.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Absolutely fasinating and so mammalian-like!

  3. avatar

    Thanks. It’s a wonder they don’t lactate.

    • avatar

      Hello Kurt,

      Hmmm…maybe not beyond them…after all, some frogs and caecilians grow skin for their young to feed upon!

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    Actually, I found Dr. Offermann through my local Austin Herpetological Society web site. He is at the Kyle Animal Hospital, south of Austin. I thought it was possible you might know him b/c he is from the Bronx, and also b/c he lectures on turtles and tortoises at conferences and is involved in captive breeding of Asian turtles. I saw Asian turtles is one of your interests, too. Cord has also had prehensile tailed skinks in the past. He is the perfect vet for me!

    Back to skinks, I will check out your “overview” link. I am so surprised to see them described as social animals. Everything (which isn’t that much!) I’ve been able to find on them in the past said they were solitary creatures. He is very friendly to us, and does “smell” us with his tongue when we approach him, confirming us as family. Strangely, even though they are a nocturnal species, he seems to sometimes be startled if I reach into the cage at night when only the moonlight is on. I now always turn on a light in the room first. I have a few potted ficus trees I let him hang out in sometimes. One of my goals is to create a big enough enclosure around the big ceiling height one so he can spend more time in it w/o me being in the room to be sure he doesn’t climb down and out of the planter. He almost got up into the couch recently. Whew! A close call.

    Thanks very much for the link and your reply,


    • avatar

      Hello Sue

      Thanks for the feedback. Prehensile tailed skinks really are quite unique, as far as we know. Several herpetologists tried to organize field studies in the past, but none came to pass as far as I know. They flooded the market when the Solomon’s forests were being felled for timber, so most of what we know about their social life etc. has been gained from captive studies; I haven’t checked recently, but as of a few yrs ago their prospects in the wild looked very dim.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Hi i was wondering if its common for a Ctenotus leonhardii or C. regius to sometimes eat a Ctenotus schomburgkii. i did see one of these two a while back with a C. schomburgkii in its mouth

    • avatar

      Hello Shontelle

      Thanks for your interesting observation; was this in the wild?

      The genus Ctenotus contains over 100 species of Australian skinks. Many are generalists that prey largely upon invertebrates. However, as with many lizards, they will take small vertebrates on occasion. In some habitats, 7-14 different Ctenotus species may be found, so it’s likely that predation such as you describe occurs, especially when invertebrates are scarce. Please see this abstract for some related field observations.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar


    well thank you for that it was very interesting and to answer your question yes it was in the wild i was doing our annual trapping session for BHP Billiton and i found them in a pitfall trap together of course the C. schomburgkii had no head after it was spat out but it was interesting watching the C. ????? (sorry cant remember what it was) try to swollow the whole body.

    Thank you again.

    • avatar

      Hello Shontelle,

      Thanks for the feedback; I haven’t done any field work lately, nice to have your report. Any updates/notes you might have time to post would be appreciated.

      Always interesting to observe unusual feeding events. I once came across an anaconda (Venezuela) consuming a 60 lb deer; another at the Bx Zoo ate a good sized red-footed tortoise! Marine toads eating dog food, and so on… Herpetological Review is a great resource for these; always a few surprises each issue.

      Good luck in your work, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    It sounds like they are more intellegent than most people think. Alison

    • avatar

      Really fascinating, creatures, Alison, and i’m sure there’s lots more going on than we imagine. Here’s another surprising finding about the intelligence of another lizard that does not get the credit it deserves. let me know what you think,. best, frank

  8. avatar

    Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles
    as long as I provide credit and sources back to your
    weblog? My blog is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would certainly benefit
    from a lot of the information you present here. Please let
    me know if this okay with you. Appreciate it!

  9. avatar

    Many skinks of the egernia clade are social more or less. Does that species approach eusociality?

  10. avatar

    Helpful article. They seem to resemble some triassic burrowing premammals and reptiles.

    ps. A little offtopic, but are there any skinks that truely walk, or all have too short limbs to raise themselves from the ground?

    • avatar


      The NA 5-lined skink comes to mind as running in more typical lizard fashion; I’m sure there are others, given their diversity of habitats and lifestyles…largest lizard family, with nearly 1,600 species described to date; check this article for some examples.

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top