Beyond The Care Sheets with Mariah Healey of Reptifiles & Emzotic | Blue Tongued Skinks | S1E1
Hey and welcome Zen friends to the first ever series of Beyond the Care Sheets. This is an independent series, by Zen Habitats, where we interview every single series, every single episode, a new and really exciting, informative expert in some kind of species. Today, we are going to be speaking to Mariah Healy, who will be joining us to speak to us very excitingly about blue tongued skinks. So, we're just going to hang out for a little while and wait for Mariah to join us. And we've got plenty of awesome questions to ask her. And if you also have any questions that do happen to come to mind, be sure to drop them down below and we'll be periodically popping in and out to see if we can answer some of those questions. Oh, my goodness. Look how many of you have been arriving. We have (Zen Friend 1) over here. We have (Zen Friend 2). Hello, Addy. We have (Zen Friend 3). He says hello. Well, hello with a big smiley face. Of course. We've got Tyler Rugge in here who says hi. And that's how I imagine him saying it as hi. And I also see that Maddy is in here as well. How exciting. Oh, my goodness. Oh, and I can see Reptifiles has just joined us, so please join me in welcoming her, because it is an honor to have her on.
How are you doing this evening?
I'm good. How are you?
Good, thank you. Whereabouts are you based?
Well, right now I'm in the reptile room. And I'm in the Rocky Mountains area based in Utah.
Wow! Oh, that's so exciting. If anybody else is based in the same area, be sure to leave a comment down below. We've got tons of Zen Friends saying hi to you. I'm afraid I just I have to ask what, first of all, drew you to the blue tongued skink?
Oh, man. Well, I think it was just their um personality. And I've always thought that the skink body type is really funny looking and therefore cute. A good friend of mine, you probably know him, Clint, with Clint's reptiles. We were looking to get another reptile. He urged us to get our first bearded dragons. And he had a blue-tongued skink that we just fell in love with. So, we started to look into potentially adding that to our family and one thing led to another, and we ended up taking on a rehome.
Wow. Oh, my goodness. That's such a great introduction to blue-tongued skinks. And Mariah, for those of you who are watching today, who don't know about you and what you do, tell us a little bit about Reptifiles.
So, Reptifiles is where I publish my, for lack of a better word, research on reptile husbandry. So, my area of focus and study is helping reptiles do better in captivity. It's kind of similar to what zoos do, but I'm taking the information that zoos use for captive conservation programs, and I'm applying it or I'm trying to apply it to the pet business.
And that that's a pretty tall order because there's a lot of misinformation out there, as I'm sure you are well aware of. And with that in mind, I would love to just ask some of these questions which some of our Zen Friends have asked. If you'd be so kind as to help with answering some of these questions. Amazing. So, first of all, Casey's Critters asks, what is the best substrate for a Northern, blue-tongued skink?
My favorite substrate for a northern bluetongue snake really depends on your local climate. Actually, some people live in more humid permits can definitely get away with drier substrates. I see our recommendations for aspen Lot. One nice thing about aspen shavings is that they're very fluffy and so they offer a good growing medium, actually. The thing I don't like about aspen shavings is they are very dusty. And even though they're easy to replace and they're burrowable, they're just not...They don't they don't compact very well. They actually stay fluffy a lot. So it's not a very stable surface for the skink to be walking on. They kind of stick to it. So what I end up doing is or what I've ended up preferring over the years is a sand soil mix. My current skink is on, what is it? It's about a 60/40 mix of majority topsoil plus play sand added. Over a while, I've added some bark to that as well. And it's, it's fully bioactive. So it's got a lot of various organic debris to help fluff it out and provide nourishment to both the plants and the critters in there.
That's amazing. And because Casey mentioned what's the best substrate for a Northern blue-tongued skink? Roughly how many species of blue-tongued skink are commonly available?
If you are in the US, you are going to see Northerns as the most common Australian. And then it seems the most common Indonesian is a contest between the Merauke and the Halmahera. So both Tiliqua gigas, one is gigas evanescens , one is gigas gigas, Halmahera. Occasionally you'll see a classic Indonesian. Every once in a while, you'll see an Irian jaya, which don’t actually have a formal taxonomic classification yet. There's definitely more Indonesian imports in the U.S. right now than we have Australian. You can get a few others in the U.S.. Easterns seem to be the next hot thing. I've seen a couple of breeders of Westerns, (undecipherable) only the Latin names come to me right now. The shingle back. You’re not really going to see those in the US.
Mm hmm. Now the shingle backs, they're more from. I think they're actually restricted coming into the US aren't they?
Very, yes. Because we didn't get a lot of imports with those back when Australia was exporting reptiles, we don't really have them right now. You'd have to jump through so many hoops and there are a lot of people who try to illegally export them out of Australia. I hear accounts of people smuggling them in suitcases all the time. It's horrifying, but that is the dark side of the exotic animal trade in general is smuggling. So single backs are definitely a very common victim of that. So, if you ever see a shingle back skink as cute as they are for a suspiciously low price in the US, it might be an illegal export.
Yeah. So maybe let's not deal with those, anybody who's watching. Mariah just before you mentioned bioactive substrate. How do you feel about bioactive substrates in general for the bluetongue skink?
I think they can work really well and I like them because when you're dealing with a larger enclosure, replacing all of that substrate on a regular basis is very time consuming and kind of expensive. So what I like about bioactive is that it is lower maintenance for me in that respect. And also I feel like it gives the animal a more natural environment to live in. Its scent is everywhere in the enclosure. It is very much its territory. You are never disrupting that part of the animal's life. And when I talk about scent, I don't talk about a stink. I talk about a scent that the animal recognizes as its own. It's like, you know, when you leave for vacation and then you come back to your house and you take a deep inhale and you're like, That's my house. That's it's the smell that you carry with you. It's not a stink. It's not necessarily a fragrance either. It's just the smell of you in your home. And that's how it is for reptiles as well.
That's fantastic. I suppose skinks love to have that little skink stink around just to make them feel really nice. And at home. And I don't think that's something that most people consider when keeping them on a different kind of substrate. But every time you clean them out, you're actually taking away that comforting smell that makes them feel at home. So that's a really, really great point. Maria, thank you so much. Let's go on to the next question, which is which species out of the blue-tongued Skinks is the most difficult in terms of husbandry?
Okay. If we narrowed it down to the ones that are available in the U.S., sorry to exclude anyone who is not in the US right now. Those are the ones I most familiar with. The I'd say the Indonesians were probably the most difficult because they have high humidity needs. They are often imports, So they're going to be more stressed, they are more likely to come in less healthy. So you have to deal with those initial health hurdles and taming is going to be more difficult with them. It's and then of course, humidity can be really difficult to manage, especially since I live in an Alpine area which has crazy low humidity. My reptile room on a regular basis gets down to 20%. That's just how it was. So I have to combat that in my little humidity meter that I have in here is always, giving me the frowny face. I'm like, I know. I'd love to get a humidifier in here just to pump that up a little bit, but the uromastyx like it, so that's the important thing. And it starts to go higher when you have a lot of species in the same room, then start a little too humid and then have to worry about a decrease in humidity. But yeah, the Halmahera Indonesians are probably the most difficult to deal with just because one virtually no one I know of is breeding the Halmahera right now. And they require crazy high, I'm talking 80 to 100% humidity on average, so lower during the day and higher at night. There's just so much water going through that and then trying to prevent pathogens from thriving in a super wet environment, it can be tough. And it's a pity that those are the blue-tongued skinks that most people get first.
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for that. You mentioned that the northern of bluetongue skink is the skink that we're most commonly going to find here in the American pet trade. Let's say one of our listeners and viewers goes out and purchases their first blue-tongued skink. Hopefully they've done a little bit of prep and they have a nice setup at home or even better a Zen habitat like this model, Just saying. But what would be the best way to introduce a blue-tongued skink into the family? What are some of the dos and don'ts when bringing home your first blue-tongued skink?
All right. So the first thing you want to do is make sure you have the right setup. So don't bring it home and then put it into an enclosure that is going to significantly change over the next month. Make sure you have everything ready to go. Aside from that after, if you have done your prep, everything's good to go, you've tested it, you've made sure your temperature is near UVB parameters. You want to make sure not to touch it. Give it at least two weeks to settle into its new home. It is stressful for a reptile to be suddenly transported to a new area where everything in it is saying, I don't know where anything is right now. I could get eaten. Are they just waiting to eat me? Like there are a lot of instincts that are going on right now that don't deal well with sudden change. So letting them just calm down, get acclimated to their new environment before introducing yourself is huge because as a very much larger animal, humans freak out reptiles and when you bring one home, especially when they're a juvenile, as juveniles they are extremely defensive, they are afraid of everything because in the wild that's when they're most likely to get eaten. So they have these predator avoidance instincts that are just raging inside of them. So if you're chasing it around with your hand inside of the enclosure, that immediately marks you as a predator and something to be feared and avoided. So letting it settle in and not touching it, and just like you can watch it, you can put something that smells of you inside of its enclosure, but not touching it, not chasing it, not anything. For those first critical two weeks, what settles in it starts eating is going to be huge. Other thing is, I know thought it was important to have the right set up get go, but it is important to address the matter of quarantine. So that thing we don't do often enough in general in the reptile hobby. Yes, quarantine is minimum three months in a fairly minimalistic environment that makes it easy for you to monitor fecal output so that you can check that the texture and the color of the feces, which are often indicator of health, that make it a little easier for me to see the animal, or at least access it easily and are easy to keep almost in hospital like sanitation. Because this is the time when you need to be checking for parasites and clearing those out. Ideally before the reptile clears quarantine, You want it to pass to a parasite checked clean because one might just hit as part of the parasite lifecycle at a low point and so you get a false negative. So you need two clean checks before you're good to go. And that's also just a good time to if you have any other reptiles in your house, make sure that it's not carrying something, that it could spread to the rest of your animals. Blue-tongued skinks generally don't carry things that are going to be a problem for other reptiles unless you already have other blue-tongued skinks. But it's still a precaution that's very good to take, especially in the case of, say, crypto.
Oh, absolutely. If anybody doesn't know, definitely Google Cryptosporidium, it's something that you really want to be very well aware of, and it's something that can spread very easily throughout a reptile collection. So if you are bringing home a new reptile, any new reptile, I'm sure Mariah joins me in saying that we would thoroughly, thoroughly recommend every reptile going through a quarantine period for sure. Moving on to the next question, what are some common ailments keepers may encounter with their blue-tongued skink?
Let's see. The first thing we're going to say is that most problems with blue-tongued skinks are encountered because of husbandry related problems. So they are entirely preventable. One common one I see is shedding issues. I guess I should just go through the list of what Kairos, my rescue Northern came in with. So he was a neglect situation and just about everything that could be wrong with him was. So one big one that any shouldn't see too often with blue-tongued skinks, but it can happen and is a definite indicator of major problems with the husbandry, is metabolic bone disease. Blue-tongued skinks are commonly touted as being easier to care for because they are more tolerant of living without UVB exposure in their environment. However, if you are not providing enough vitamin D3 or calcium supplementation as part of their diet, then not providing that supplement plus not providing UVB lighting is just a double whammy of that. So that's one of the biggest issues and I will say, providing a supplement as a replacement for UVB lighting is an imprecise solution at best, because we don't actually know how much vitamin D3 it takes to meet blue-tongued skinks’, or any reptile's metabolic needs. That fluctuates on a day-to-day basis, depending on the age of the skink, the sex of the skink, the weight of the skink, a ton of factors. So you want to make sure to meet everything it needs in the most precise way. To do that is by providing an appropriate amount of high-quality UVB lighting. Another common problem you're going to see with blue-tongued skinks, I'd say more common than MBD fortunately, not fortunately, is a respiratory infection. So it seems they prefer it to be a little bit drier. It would develop in skinks that are exposed too much, too high humidity. But it's not just a high humidity problem. It's a also high humidity, poor hygiene environment where bacteria is growing. And then they are inhaling those bacteria into their lungs. So that is a common problem for say, it can happen with Northerns and it can happen with the humidity-loving Indonesians where the environment is not humid enough for them to have health and good respiratory health. And respiratory infection, is really, really broad spectrum terms. I mean, it can cover any type of respiratory virus or bacteria really. That's a general. It's more general. The thing about it.
Wow. Oh, my goodness. Well, thank you so much for that. And also to all of our Zen Friends who are just joining, I can just see a nice big influx of people joining. Welcome. This is Mariah Healy of Reptifiles and she's talking to us today about blue-tongued skinks as part of our Beyond the Caresheets series. This is series one, episode one. Now, you've just spoken to us a little bit about the setup with proper husbandry of a blue-tongued skink and a little bit about blue-tongued skinks as a species and how many there are. Could you tell us a bit about their diet? Because so many people, I'm sure, get this very wrong.
It's yes and no. They are very easy to care for nutritionally. We have seen over the course of decades that it, blue-tongued skinks can do just fine on high quality canned dog food. TC Houston can explain this better than I can, but the gist of it is the components of dog food are more or less similar to their wild diet in the in the nutritional composition. So blue-tongued skinks have been raised on canned dog food for generations. This is very well tested. They do have blue-tongued skinks living to 30 years old this diet. However that's not it. If you want to go that route, I recommend varying the flavors and the brands so you are providing sensory variety as sort of enrichment to the skink and that will also help the diet. The nice thing about dog food is when it's intended as a complete diet because dogs are usually fed one thing every day for the rest of their lives, which is really nice. So it's more of a nice to have rather than a have to have, but I strongly recommend varying flavors, since changing flavors and changing brands is not going to upset the skink. Other things, in the wild you're more likely to see blue-tongued skinks getting most of their protein, however, from insects, which are a much leaner form of protein, the meat is, a lot less fat so a lot less calories. And one big health problem with blue-tongued skinks is obesity. Lots of blue-tongues, skinks weight too much. A part of this, there are many contributors, there's the word, to the problem or one of them is too small enclosures. So you're keeping a bluetongue skink that's 24 inches long with a 36-inch-long exposure and, say, 40 gallon, and it doesn’t have enough room to move and to exercise the way it instinctively wants to exercise. Even a 4x2x, a good starting point, but still could be better. Mine are kept in 4x3x2s so that’s 12 squared feet and they could still use more. Absolutely. They're very active, curious little animals. So that's one part of preventing obesity. The other part is just not giving them too much. They love to eat. Blue-tongued skinks, really love to eat. And their so cute when you give them snacks from your fingers and they're so excited about it, but you have to be very careful about how much you are feeding them. my Merauke, in the rack above me, is he's known as an easy keeper. He will get fat. Right now, I'm trying to figure out a better way to keep him slim because he's down to one head size portion. And it's about 60% protein, 40% vegetables per week. And he's still got, like almost tegu-esque jowls. So like, dude, I don't know what to do with we're trying everything, but it's something that varies from skink to skink because my Northern, I couldn't get enough food into him. It's very, very hard to get him to gain and keep weight on. So I'm feeding him 2 to 3 times a week much more higher calorie food than I would dare give the other. And he also stops eating for months at a time in the winter so he doesn't lose a ton of weight but he still loses weight in a freaks me out. So that's something to know about feeding a blue-tongued skink is that your results will vary from individual to individual just like humans. You can feed them a variety of insects. There are also a lot of diet powders you could use, commercial diets. Repashy has a formula called Bluey Buffet which my Northern actually adores. it's one of the few things he will consistently eat. Which says a lot. The thing to be aware of with powder and gel diets is that they are very high calorie per unit compared to Whole Foods. So you actually are going to want to feed them less of that than you would a portion of say, even dog food or infinitely less than a portion of insects and greens, because those are relatively less dense.
Okay, great. And then in terms of feeding schedule, what is the kind of schedule that people should be looking at here? Is this once a day, every day? Is it a couple of times a week? What is the optimal sort of for a healthy blue-tongued skink? That's a healthy weight. What is that sort of optimal feeding schedule?
A good starting point for... So if you have a baby or a very young juvenile, blue-tongued skink, you're looking at daily feedings while they're growing. As they get a little older, past, about a six-month point, you can reduce that to that every other day depending on what their body condition is looking like. And after they hit young adulthood, so that's around the 12-month point. You can scale that back to go to two times a week, once a week, again, depending on the body condition. Each portion should be roughly the size of their skull. And that's the general rule for dog food. You can feed them a little bit more if you are using whole foods like calcium,-dusted insects and a pile of greens.
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for that. And let's just get real here for a second. Let's say somebody is looking at their blue-tongued skink going, oh, okay, my bluetongue skink put on a couple of covid grams over here. How is a person in a healthy way able to determine how to best put their blue-tongued skink on a diet? Is there a special ratio for that or can you just slowly cut back a little bit? Or would this send the blue-tongued skink into shock?
You definitely don't want to stop feeding it because then it's going to go into conservation mode and you, it's going to just not lose any weight at all, as it waits out this famine. So what you want to do is keep feeding it consistently, but smaller portions or reduce if you were using dog food, maybe switch to an insect-based protein source, higher fiber, make it work for its calories. And I know there are some people who won't like me suggesting going off the dog food. It's a little scary for some people as long as you're keeping your ratios right and supplementing appropriately. I highly recommend the Arcadia supplementation system. They really have it all together. It is likely to be safe, just keep an eye on their general health and their body condition, weigh them weekly with a kitchen gram scale and track those changes be aware weight loss is going to be extremely slow in reptiles. So this is something that can take over a year depending on how much weight needs to be lost, also encouraging them to exercise more. So that's if you are using a smaller enclosure, upgrading to a larger enclosure will help. But also getting them out for regular surprise free-roam time is also helpful. They're very curious. They love to explore. Give them an area where they can run around. So, my skinks, because they can't really get into trouble, will roam around in my bedroom and I mean the worst they can do is like go underneath my bed. So it's easy to get them out when they’re done hiding or they're done exploring. When they go into hiding, I can just drag them out, all right, you've had your fun. But encouraging them to exercise in a larger space, giving them something new to explore is huge. Give them some enrichment activities... Believe it or not, my Merauke is a proficient climber. He has...you would never believe the stubby little legs are so strong, but skinks amaze me every time I can stick him in the laundry basket with a net-like liner and he will do a vertical climb from the bottom of the laundry basket to the top easily and he will do it repeatedly.
We need footage at some point. Next time he does it, we need footage, please. Tag Zen. We would love to share that.
I think there's actually footage in my...YouTube channel is extremely neglected. However, I do have a video on there about enrichment for lizards and there is a clip in that video.
Oh, amazing. Well, we're actually going to discover a little bit more about your socials in a little while so that everybody knows where to actually find you for more of this incredible information. But we do have actually another question here, which is going to be our last question from the pre-prepared question. So if anybody has a particular blue-tongued skin question, feel free to drop it down below. We might have time for one or two of those. But the most common question...I had so many people ask this... is So you rescue a blue-tongued skin, or you purchase one. How can you really tell what gender your ,oh sorry, what sex your blue-tongued skink is? How do you actually sex a blue-tongued skink?
The simple answer is you can't. It’s a common, common problem with Blue-tongued, just skinks in general, actually. They're very, very good at hiding their biological sex. And it's a real problem for people who want to get into breeding. The good news is that blue-tongued skinks aren't particularly social, so you don't have to worry about dumping a bunch of them into an enclosure and then being like, Well, I want a group, but I don’t want babies. A more difficult issue whenever you're dealing with a life bearer right? And that's the issue I deal with with my ocellated skink but with blue-tongued skinks, fortunately, since they're pretty happy living solitary, that's not an issue and it's more of a, it's a thing that most humans just like to do because we like to know the sex of our pets, usually for naming reasons. Aside from that, if you can reconcile yourself to the fact that you just might have it for a long time until you figure out otherwise. But the good news is males drop sperm plugs right when they're mature. So that's going to be a very clear indicator that you have a male. But not all males will drop them. My Merauke did not drop sperm plugs until we got the Northern, about six months later, so we thought he was male then we thought he was female because we also put him with a known male in a supervised environment to see how they would react. Because if, you know, there should be hostile behavior between the two, if it was male and female, then the male should pursue and the female should more or less run away. So we tried that method. He ran away and he's very sensitive. So we're like, Oh, okay, well, must be female. And then we got our male northern and he could just he knew immediately that there was a male, blue-tongued skink in this thing because it was different. He started acting more territorial. Then he started dropping sperm plugs. It was crazy. So some there are it's never for sure, but you can end and depending on your exotics vet, you may be able to get contrast radiography done. If you really want to know because you want to, If you're considering breeding, they will inject dye into the cloaca area and the area will fluoresce under the x ray and it will fill in the gaps. So if there is an area for hemipenes then it will show up on an x ray. Okay, this there is room for hemipenes here and therefore it's male. Alternatively, there's no room for hemipenes here and it’s female. So that's the most accurate, least invasive way to do it. Definitely don't try probing a blue-tongued skink. You're going to injure them.
Well, that is such great advice because most people who keep reptiles, they might think, well, the way that you sex the snake is by probing or popping, but you're saying don't do either of those. Correct?
No! No...lizards are very different from snakes. And honestly, even in snakes popping is a questionable practice.
Absolutely. Especially in terms of arboreal species where it can do some really harsh damage to a snake before it's even reached sexual maturity and even after that. Mariah, I think I can speak for everybody who is here in the chat that we have learned so much from you. Thank you so, so much for sharing all of this incredible knowledge. And oh my goodness, I'm just so excited that you have a blue-tongued skink back there. And I just want to know, before we let you go, first of all, thank you so much, but where can we find you and find out more about Reptifiles?
All right. So first of all, my main platform is reptifiles.com. That is where I post all of my care guides. I'm also working on building a care sheet database. So even though care sheets are not ideal, I have recognized a significant need for quality care sheets on the internet so that is how I am building out a database for a wider variety of species than I could do otherwise with just the care guides, which is time-consuming. There's also blog posts on there on a variety of projects and pertaining to reptile keeping in general. And in terms of social media, I am present on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram is where I post photos of my personal collection. Facebook is usually where I share my resources on reptile keeping.
Amazing. Thank you so much. You also mentioned you had a YouTube channel, is that correct?
Yeah, I have a baby YouTube channel that has a couple of things on it. It's not quite live yet. I will let everyone know. You will hear for sure when there is a lot, when I'm finally focusing my energy on that. I can provide a teaser in the future. My YouTube channel will be including a series of Ask Reptifiles-esque videos. So if you are familiar with the website Reptiles Forum, where you can submit questions to me via email and I will answer them. I realize that having all these questions that I've answered and answering them privately is not very beneficial to people as a whole. There’s a lot of things that I answer repeatedly. So I want to help people out and just answer some of the more common questions in a more public environment. So that's going to be, I think, most of the videos I'm going to be doing on YouTube will just be answering common questions about reptile keeping and occasionally also doing live sessions where maybe for half an hour I just take people's questions and answer them in real time.
Amazing. Mariah, thank you so much for taking this time out of your evening to just help to spread such great knowledge about blue-tongued skinks. Everybody, please do make sure to go and check out Mariah on her socials so that you can stay tuned for her upcoming YouTube channel. And thank you all so much for joining. It's been such a pleasure to have you, Mariah. Thank you so much.
It's been fun!
All right, everybody. Well, that was Mariah of Reptifiles. I hope that you learned a ton from this very first, series one, episode one of Beyond the care sheets. If you want to go and find out a little bit more about blue-tongued skinks, you can also do that by going on the Zen Habitats website where we do also have care sheets as well as a 4x2x2 PVC panel enclosure, which also comes with an extension kit. So, if you want to have a really nice big enclosure, which is going to be a full life solution for your blue-tongued skin, feel free to go over onto the website as well. I’m Em, I’ve been your host, and I will catch you in the next one. So, make sure that you are following Zen Habitats and are looking out for the very next episode. Take care everyone, bye!