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The Crocodile Monitor Lizard – Reality and Legend

Despite – or perhaps because of – its immense size, impressive armament of teeth and scarcity, the spectacular Crocodile Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvadorii) is often considered the crown jewel of private and public monitor collections.

I became acquainted with these formidable giants when they were first imported into the USA, and have cared for several at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos.  Their husbandry is straightforward, but little is known about their lives in the wild.  Today I would like to summarize what we do know; please see the article referenced below for notes on captive care.


Crocodile MonitorCrocodile Monitors approach 9 feet in length – nearly as long as the famed Komodo Dragon, but less stoutly built.  There are recurring but unverified reports of much longer individuals.

The Crocodile Monitor’s prehensile tail often exceeds 5 feet in length.  The body is dark gray to black in color and marked with yellow spots, making for quite a spectacular appearance.  The snout area, especially in mature males, is large and bulbous.

Crocodile Monitors are unusually large for canopy dwelling lizards…the 3 foot long black tree monitor is far more typical.  However, aided by slender bodies, long claws and prehensile tails, they are very agile climbers.

Their teeth are unique among monitors, being serrated and over-lapping – possibly an adaptation for carrying large prey high above the forest floor.

Range and Habitat

Crocodile Monitors are found only in southern New Guinea.  Highly arboreal, they seem restricted to the canopies of mangrove swamps and lowland forests along rivers.


Little studied due to the inaccessibility of their habitat, the Crocodile Monitor’s limited range renders it a conservation concern.  Listed on CITES Appendix II.


Females lay 6-12 eggs at a time, and up to 3 clutches per year in captivity (multiple clutches may be a function of food availability), with arboreal nest sites being favored.  In common with other tree-dwelling monitors, they likely deposit eggs in tree hollows and similar sites above ground in the wild.


Their natural diet has been little studied, but probably includes nearly any animal that can be overpowered.  Likely candidates would be cuscus, tree kangaroos, naked-tailed rats, bandicoots, possums, bats, birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, invertebrates and carrion.

An Undiscovered Giant in New Guinea?

Long a creature of legend, the Crocodile Monitor is the source of rumors alleging “Papuan Dragons” of 20 feet in length.  This specie’s habitat is inaccessible and barely explored….I like to believe that it or an as yet un-described monitor may indeed reach such lengths.

A Calculating Reptile

Like all Varanids, Crocodile Monitors are highly intelligent.  One huge adult that escaped its enclosure at the Bronx Zoo wedged himself behind a cage while attempting to hide from myself and a co-worker.  As we moved into position to flush him, he very deliberately peered around first one and then the other side of his hideout, trying to keep us both in sight.  When we backed off, he followed our progress, again changing position periodically to ascertain where we were.

The lizard remained stationary while we were near, and only ran when we gave him some space.  When he did move, the old fellow made unerringly for a more secure retreat that he had obviously “decided upon” while in hiding.

Further Reading

Please see my article Monitor Lizards: an Overview for information about the captive care of this and related species.

A comprehensive field report on the crocodile monitor’s habitat is posted here.


Crocodile Monitor image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Ltshears

The Monitor Lizards (Family Varanidae) – Family Overview and Species Accounts; – Some Interesting Monitors and Their Care – Part II

Click: The Monitor Lizards (Family Varanidae) – Family Overview and Species Accounts; – Some Interesting Monitors and Their Care – Part I, to read the first part of this article.

Merten’s Water Monitor, Varanus mertensi
The popularity of this most aquatic of the world’s monitor lizards is soaring, and with good reason – it is active, hardy, of manageable size (averages 3 feet in length, occasionally to 4) and very responsive to its surroundings.

Native to northern and western Australia (Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and off-shore islands), Merten’s water monitors frequent creeks, rivers, canals, ponds and reservoirs. They bask on the shore or low overhanging branches, and rarely stray far from the water’s edge. Although common at present, this situation may change – water monitors readily consume introduced marine toads, and many are killed by the amphibians’ toxins.

Unique Adaptations
Merten’s water monitors, named after eminent Russian-born herpetologist Robert Mertens (1894-1975) of Frankfurt Germany’s Seckenberg Museum,
are deep brown to black in color, with dark-edged cream or yellow spots. The tail is laterally compressed and the nostrils, which can be sealed during dives, are located high on the snout.

Water monitors require a spacious cage (at least 4’x4’x 3′), a UVB source and a large (preferably drainable) pool. They must be able to bask at 90-95 F and to dry off completely upon leaving the water.

The natural diet consists largely of crabs, crayfish and fish, but frogs, tadpoles, turtle and other reptile eggs, shrimp, snails, nestling birds, planigales and other small mammals, large insects and carrion are also taken. They have been observed foraging in dumps, with discarded sausages apparently being a favored food! Water monitors use their tails to concentrate small fishes when hunting in the shallows.

Captives should not be fed a rodent-based diet, but rather one weighed heavily in favor of whole, fresh-water fish, whole, unshelled prawn, crayfish, roaches, crickets, earthworms, and canned insects/monitor diets . Pink mice are preferable to furred rodents, and should be offered only once each week or two. This species seems to have a quite high metabolism, and does best when fed small meals every 3-4 days.

Blue Tree or Blue-Spotted Tree Monitor, Varanus macraei
This strikingly colored lizard only appeared in zoos in the late 1990’s, and was not named as a distinct species until 2001. Never-the-less, beauty and small size (to 40 inches) has propelled it to the top of the “most desired species lists” of many monitor fanciers.

These slender monitors are jet black in color and variably patterned with blue spots and bands. The prehensile tail comprises 2/3 of the animal’s length.

Blue tree monitors are found only on Batanta Island, Indonesia (off Irian Jaya, New Guinea). Almost entirely arboreal, they inhabit trees and shrubs within rainforests and estuarine swamps. Their wild status is unknown, but the species is listed on CITES Appendix II due to the extremely limited natural range.

Blue tree monitors require a spacious cage with provisions for climbing, UVB light and a basking spot of 90-95 F. The several pairs I’ve kept have co-existed without incident, and frequently rested in close contact with one another. Quite shy and quick to take flight, they do best in a well-planted cage provided with numerous hideaways and located in a quiet area. This is a species to observe, not handle.

The natural diet is likely composed largely of invertebrates such as tree crickets, katydids, snails, caterpillars and spiders, along with occasional treefrogs, lizards, small birds and their eggs, nestling mice and other small mammals.

As with other small monitors, I prefer not to feed too many rodents to this species. Mine thrive upon waxworms, crickets, crayfish, super mealworms, roaches, chicks and quail eggs. Pink mice are given every two weeks or so. Canned insects and monitor diets are often accepted and should be included as a source of dietary variety.

Females lay 2-6 eggs at a time, and may produce up to 6 clutches per year (this may be a function of food availability in captivity). The young average 5 inches in length and hatch after an incubation period of 200-225 days. Captive females will bury eggs within moist substrates on the ground but seem to prefer arboreal nest boxes.

An Escapee that Made the Most of His “Vacation”
The long, slender tail of this monitor is prehensile and adds to its climbing abilities and agility. Alert and quick moving, blue tree monitors can catch even the swiftest of prey in their treetop homes. One individual that escaped from an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo was in the process of swallowing a house sparrow when I recovered him from atop a vine-covered fence!

In depth information about the family Varanidae and its individual species is posted at:

The Monitor Lizards (Family Varanidae) – Family Overview and Species Accounts, Part I

Larry the Nile Monitor from Forgotten Friend Reptile SanctuaryHerpetologists and hobbyists alike have long known that there is something “different” about the family of lizards known collectively as “monitors” (or, in Australia, “goannas”).  One cannot observe a monitor for long without getting a sense of the animal’s intelligence – they scrutinize the world differently than do other reptiles, and their reactions to new situations are surprisingly quick and complex.  Recent studies have confirmed that monitors are unique, and, in many ways, the most intelligent and advanced of the lizards.

In years past pet keepers were limited to a very small number of monitor species from which to choose.  An explosion of interest in the group has radically changed that situation, and today animals rarely seen even in zoos are being commercially bred in huge numbers.  Happily, there are monitors even for those without much room – and the very smallest types still exhibit true monitor behavior, intelligence and “attitude”.

Today I’ll present an overview of the group as a whole.

Species Diversity
Sixty eight species of monitor lizards, all classified within the family Varanidae and the genus Varanus, range across Asia, Africa and Australia.  Although generally associated with warm climates, one species, the desert monitor (V. griseus) may be found as far north as Kazakhstan – at roughly the same latitude as southern Vermont.

In Australia, where over 2/3 of the world’s species are found, monitor lizards have evolved to fill a wide range of ecological roles held elsewhere by other lizards and by large, predatory birds and mammals.  Huge Australian species such as 8 foot long parentie monitor, V. giganteus, and the lace monitor, V. varius, are the dominant predators in their habitats,  as are Komodo dragons, V. komodoensis, on the islands of Komodo, Padav, Rinca and Flores.

At 8 inches long, the short-tailed monitor, or pygmy goanna,
V. brevicauda, is the smallest member of the group.  The infamous Komodo dragon is the world’s largest lizard.  It occasionally tops 10 feet in length, but is dwarfed by extinct monitor species which may have measured over 20 feet long.

General Physical Characteristics
Water Monitor Eating a FishAll monitors share a similar body plan – a long neck and relatively small head, sturdy body and limbs and a long, powerful tail, and most measure in the range of 2 to 5 feet in length.

The tongue is deeply forked and is flicked out repeatedly.  As with snakes, the tongue carries airborne chemical cues to the Jacobson’s organ, thus conveying information about the environment and other animals.

Male monitor lizards compete for females by grappling, often rising onto their hind legs during tests of strength.  All species lay eggs.

All monitors are alert, effective predators, with the various species taking an incredibly huge array of prey – termites and other insects, snails, spiders, crayfish and other invertebrates, birds and their eggs, frogs, turtles, snakes, hatchling crocodiles and other reptiles and amphibians, and rodents, weasels, tree kangaroos and other mammals to the size of adult deer.  Large monitors living near developed areas also prey upon domestic dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, pigs and goats, and consume carrion and offal as well.  The Philippine monitor lizard, or bataans (V. olivaceus), is unique in feeding upon fruit at certain times of the year.

On rare occasions, the Komodo dragons have attacked and killed people.  In fact, current restrictions on the long-held tradition of feeding goats to these huge lizards (a tourist attraction with possible links to local religious beliefs) is possibly at the root of the recent rise in attacks on people and livestock.

Monitor lizards have evolved to occupy a wide variety of habitats – there are arboreal specialists, such as the green tree monitor, V. prasinus, aquatic species such as the mangrove monitor, V. indicus, and grassland dwellers such as the savanna monitor, V. exanthematicus.  There are also many generalists – Gould’s monitor, V. gouldii, a large lizard that occupies nearly all of Australia, is equally at home in grasslands, open forests, river valleys, cliff-sides, semi-deserts and nearly all other habitats within its huge range.

The Nile monitor, V. niloticus, is native to sub-Saharan Africa but is now thriving in southern Florida, where released pets have established breeding populations.  Approaching 7 feet in length, this aggressive predator is severely impacting the local ecology by out-competing and preying upon a wide variety of native species.

Wide-Ranging and Isolated Species
The size of the ranges of the different species varies greatly in extent.  For example, the blue tree monitor, V. macraei is limited in distribution to Batantan Island off Papua New Guinea while the 9 foot long Asian water monitor, V. salvator, is found from India through Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.


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