Australian Goannas (Monitor Lizards)

Last updated 03 May 2018 
Australian monitor lizards, or goannas as they’re commonly known, belong to an ancient lineage that evolved in the northern hemisphere during the Cretaceous period – about 90 million years ago!

The Perentie is Australia's largest goanna. Photographed on Hamelin Reserve by Ben Parkhurst.
The Perentie is Australia's largest goanna. Photographed on Hamelin Reserve by Ben Parkhurst.
Goannas radiated from the north to Africa and Australia during the Miocene epoch, around 15 million years ago and have an important place in our history and culture. They were an important traditional native food source and are commonly represented in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories.

Perhaps the most famous Monitor Lizard is the biggest today – Indonesia’s Komodo Dragon, which can grow up to 3m long, though Australia was once home to a giant (Varanus priscus) twice this size!

Gould's Monitor at Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Steve Wilson.
Gould's Monitor at Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Steve Wilson.
Today there are 27 extant species of these large lizards in Australia, most are carnivorous. All have a similar body shape to their original ancestors and have sharp teeth and claws to help them hunt and eat. Size is the distinguishing feature of Australian monitors; the largest is the Perentie (V. giganteus), which grows over 2m long, and the smallest: the Short-tailed Monitor (V. brevicuda), grows to just 20cm.

Monitors are commonly dark-coloured or white and orange-yellow in the desert. Most have camouflage bands, speckles or spots relating to their environments, though these differ between species and age groups. They can live up to 40 years in the wild.

Behaviour of goannas

A tree climbing Heath Monitor on our Monjebup Reserve, WA. Photo Jiri Lochman.
A tree climbing Heath Monitor on our Monjebup Reserve, WA. Photo Jiri Lochman.
Goannas mostly live on the ground and dig holes for nests or burrows to protect eggs from predators and provide a constant temperature for embryo development. Lace and Heath Monitors will dig holes into the side of termite mounds to lay their eggs. This is clever as the termites then rebuild the nest around the eggs, keeping them safe and at a constant temperature. When the young hatch the mothers return to help dig them out.

Several species, including the Perentie, hibernate during the coldest months (from about May to August). Ridge-tailed Monitors get their name from the raised and pointed scales on their tails, which they wedge into rock crevices, making it harder for predators to pull them out.

Goannas are surprisingly good climbers. In fact, Lace Monitors are known as Tree Goannas and are thought to eat more bird eggs than other goanna species.

The Sand Goanna is also known as the Racehorse Goanna. Pictured at Charles Darwin Reserve, photo Ben Parkhurst.
The Sand Goanna is also known as the Racehorse Goanna. Pictured at Charles Darwin Reserve, photo Ben Parkhurst.
While they may appear slow, goannas are fast runners and will sprint short distances on their hind legs – often to the safety of water or a tree. The Sand Monitor is sometimes called Gould’s Monitor or the Racehorse Goanna for its speed. Goannas are also known to rear up on their hind legs to scare off attackers or fight, but they’ll also do it to look around for threats from a higher vantage point.

Water Monitors are excellent swimmers and can stay underwater for several minutes hunting for food such as fish, frogs, crabs or shrimps.

What do goannas eat?

Monitors eat just about anything they can catch and swallow whole. Prey is dependent on the size of the goanna but includes insects, birds, eggs, small reptiles and mammals. In northern Australia crocodile eggs are a favourite food. They’ll also scavenge for carrion and are attracted to rotting meat.

A Rosenberg's Monitor using its tongue at Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Brett Peden.
A Rosenberg's Monitor using its tongue at Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Brett Peden.
As predators and scavengers goannas play an important role in each of the ecosystems they inhabit. They maintain population numbers of prey species and keep disease loads low through the removal of carcasses. Monitors have adapted to a range of environments and vary in their hunting methods, such as digging, swimming and tree-climbing. They use their long forked tongues as snakes do, flickering to detect prey through scent molecules in the air.

It was only a decade or so ago that goannas were discovered to have venom glands similar to snakes. However, they don’t have enough venom to cause serious harm and lack fangs to inject into prey. Nonetheless, goannas have a great deal of bacteria in their mouths and a bite will often turn into a nasty infection, so caution and a healthy dose of respect are called for if you see a monitor in the bush!

Where do goannas live?

Pygmy Desert Monitor at Eurardy Reserve. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
Pygmy Desert Monitor at Eurardy Reserve. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
If you do any travelling in outback Australia you’ve got a good chance to see goannas. They're most active in the day, and like to spend time basking in the sun. They are mostly solitary, except for mating season in spring and summer.

How are monitors threatened?

Threats to Australian monitors include habitat loss due to land clearing for agriculture and urban space. Monitors prey on cane toads and suffer from the poison glands exuded by the toads, so the spread of cane toads has caused declines in many areas, most recently the Kimberly. Habitat degradation and removal of termite mounds and other habitat features such as fallen timber have a significant impact on some goanna species. Invasive mammals and generalist predators such as foxes and cats may also prey on young monitors.

A Yellow Spotted Monitor at Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
A Yellow Spotted Monitor at Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
The conservation status of each individual species can be found on the IUCN Monitor Lizard Specialists Group website.

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

Goannas occur across most of our reserves and partnership properties. In each case we conserve habitat by keeping native grasslands and woodlands intact with fallen logs and plenty of cover. We also control feral predators such as cats and foxes, which can potentially prey on goannas. By keeping natural systems in place, we’re preserving the environment in which these wonderful reptiles have evolved over millions of years, and allow them to continue to play their important role in the ecosystem.

Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work. Most of our operating costs are funded by generous individuals. Donations over $2 are tax-deductible and we can't thank you enough for your support.

Where are they found?

A Lace Monitor at Yourka Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
A Lace Monitor at Yourka Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Short-tailed Pygmy Monitor (Varanus brevicauda): Cravens Peak, Ethabuka
Stripe-tailed Monitor (Varanus caudolineatus): Charles Darwin, Eurardy
Pygmy Desert Monitor (Veranus eremius): Cravens Peak, Ethabuka, Eurardy, Hamelin
Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii): Cravens Peak, Ethabuka, Reedy Creek, Charles Darwin, Nardoo Hills, Kojonup, Boolcoomatta, Bon Bon, Chereninup, Eurardy, Carnarvon, Naree
Yellow-spotted Monitor (Varanus panoptes): Carnarvon, Charles Darwin
Rosenberg’s Goanna or Heath Monitor (Varanus rosenbergi): Kojonup, Cherininup Creek, Beringa, Yarrabee, Scottsdale, Monjebup
Black-headed Monitor (Varanus tristis): Charles Darwin, Carnarvon, Yourka, Naree
Lace Monitor or Tree Goanna (Varanus varius): Brogo, Reedy Creek, Fan Palm, Nardoo Hills, Carnarvon, Yourka
Pygmy Mulga Monitor (Varanus gilleni): Cravens Peak, Ethabuka, Bon Bon
Perentie (Varanus giganteus): Cravens Peak, Ethabuka, Charles Darwin, Birriliburu, Hamelin