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Four reptiles that can brave the desert

Published 05 May 2023

It’s 44 degrees Celsius and it hasn’t rained in months. Sand dunes and rocky outcrops break up the plains. It’s the Little Sandy Desert of Western Australia, a vast, 11-million-hectare expanse where Martu people have lived for thousands of years. While it’s a difficult environment, it’s a common misconception that the continent’s arid regions are uninhabitable or lacking in biodiversity. In fact, a closer look reveals an array of wandering tracks in every direction, from big slithers to dainty, tic-tac sized dots.

Australia is a hot spot for reptile diversity, particularly in the arid regions. Here are four reptiles that have adapted to thrive in the Little Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Mulga – King Brown Snake

(Pseudechis australis)

The King Brown Snake or the Mulga, is unsurprisingly the king of Australian snakes. They reach up to two and half metres in length and have even adapted to eat other venomous snakes, including the Western Brown. They’re widespread throughout most of the country, except in the southeast. Mulgas build burrows to take shelter from the harsh conditions and have been observed hunting at night in arid regions. 

Thorny Devil

(Moloch horridus) 

Thorny Devils might look dangerous. But that is their only defense. They are one of the strangest of the country’s reptiles, and are found through central and western areas, stretching all the way to the west coast. The ThornyDevil is also known as Mingari or Kataputa by Martu. They’re known for their oddly jerky gait, which is thought to confuse potential predators from a distance.

This amazing reptile is semi-nomadic, following the movements of ants, their one and only food source. Water is so rare where Thorny Devils are found that their overlapping scales have the added purpose of transporting moisture to their mouths.


(Varanus giganteus) 

The Perentie or Tilti in Martu, is a goanna species, and one of the largest living lizards on earth. Though they are listed as ‘Least concern’ by the IUCN, they are rarely seen. This is largely due to their shy habits and the remoteness of their range. This powerful goanna reaches over two metres in length. They eat other reptiles, small mammals and even birds. Perenties are well known in the monitor kingdom for eating other monitor lizards, including smaller members of their own species. They are a celebrated food source for Martu people. 

Tjakura - Great Desert Skink

(Liopholis kintorei)

Who could forget the Great Desert Skink? It's known to Martu people as Tjakura and as Tjalapa, Mulyamiji, Warrarna or Nampu in other areas of Australia. Up to 40cm long, this thick and well-adapted lizard builds large numbers of burrows with up to 20 entry and exit points. Their range has shrunk, and they are now listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List partly due to predation from invasive predators.

Tjakura are unique because of their social behaviour. Family groups live in one burrow system, all working together to build and maintain it.

These beautiful reptiles are also known for their distinctive orange colour and yellow underside.

We work together in partnership with the Martu people, to protect Birriliburu Country. The Birriliburu Rangers are working to protect the Tjakura through ongoing monitoring, feral predator management and wildfire prevention.

Perentie. Photo by Ben Parkhurst. Perentie. Photo by Ben Parkhurst.
Mulga Snake. Photo by Ben Parkhurst. Mulga Snake. Photo by Ben Parkhurst.
Thorny Devil. Photo Ben Parkhurst. Thorny Devil. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
Adult and juvenile Great Desert Skinks in front of their burrow. Adult and juvenile Great Desert Skinks in front of their burrow.
Perentie photographed on Martu Country. Perentie photographed on Martu Country.
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