Australian lizards belonging to the Varanus genus (monitor lizards) are called Goannas. This name is thought to be derived from the word iguana, as early European settlers likened them to the South American lizards. There are around 20 species of goanna, 15 of which that are unique to Australia. They are a varied group of carnivorous reptiles that range greatly in size and fill several ecological niches. The Goanna features prominently in Aboriginal Mythology and Australian folklore.
The predatory goanna is often quite large, or at least bulky, with sharp teeth and claws. The largest is the Perentie (Varanus giganteus), which can grow over 2m in length. They prey on all manner of small animals such as insects, lizards, snakes, mammals, birds, eggs. Meals are often eaten whole, and thus the size of their meals depends on the size of the animal itself. However, the Perentie has been observed killing a young kangaroo, and then biting out chunks of flesh like a dog. Goannas have even been blamed for the death of sheep by farmers, though most likely erroneously, as goannas are also eaters of carrion and are attracted to rotting meat.
Not all goannas are large. Pygmy goannas may be smaller than a man’s arm. The smallest of these, the short-tailed monitor (Varanus brevicuda) reaches only 20 cm in length. They survive on smaller prey such as insects and mice.
Most goannas are dark in coloration, whites, grays, blacks and greens featuring prominently. Many desert dwelling species also feature yellow-red tones. Camouflage ranges from bands and stripes to splotches, speckles and circles, and can change as the creature matures; juveniles sometimes being brighter than adults.
Like most lizards, goannas lay eggs. Most lay eggs in a nest or burrow, but some species lay their eggs inside termite mounds. This offers protection and incubation. Additionally the termites may provide a meal for the young as they hatch. Unlike other species of lizards, goannas do not have the ability to regrow limbs or tails.
Goannas are found throughout Australia, except for Tasmania, and manage to persist in a variety of environments. Most species are terrestrial, or ground dwelling. Prominent among these is the Sand goanna (Varanus gouldii ““ also known as the ground goanna or Gould’s goanna), the most common of all goannas. They are often found in close proximity to a burrow or den, which may be a hollow log or burrows which can be up to three feet deep. They may even take over rabbit warrens. The far end of the burrow is often close to the surface, so if the entrance is blocked off (by a predator, or a collapse) the goanna just needs to break through a few inches of soil to be free.
As well as sandy plains, some goannas live in rocky outcrops and cliffs, often having special adaptations that aid their survival. The spiny-tailed goanna (Varanus acantharus) of Northern Australia has blunt spines on it tails that make it virtually immovable from the rockface if in danger.
While some terrestrial goannas may occasionally climb trees or outcrops, there are plenty of primarily arboreal species. The lace monitor (Varanus varius) is probably the most well known amongst these, but is not the most common. The lace monitor is the second largest of all goannas, reaching lengths of up to 2 meters. Other more common tree goannas, such as the Timor tree monitor (Varanus timorensis) and Mournful tree monitor (Varanus tristis) don’t grow to quite such lengths, averaging only a few feet nose to tail.
Other goannas are adapted to swampy coastal environments such as the Mangrove goanna (Varanus semiremex). Further still, the Mertens’ water monitor (Water goanna ““ Varanus mertensi), found in lagoons and rivers across northern Australia, is streamlined for swimming, utilizing its tail as a paddle. Most other goannas are good swimmers, but tend not to voluntarily venture into the water.
Goannas and humans
Goannas are rather wary of human intrusions into their habitat and will most likely run away (into the scrub, up a tree, or into the water, depending on the species). A goanna is a rather swift mover, and when pressed will sprint short distances on its hind legs.
Goannas also rear up when threatened and also inflate flaps of skin around their throat and emit a harsh hissing noise. The larger goannas can reach around a man’s waist, so they can be quite a fearsome experience to the unwary.
Some goannas recover from their initial fear of humans, especially when food is involved (or food has been involved previously). This reinforces the wildlife authority’s mantra of not feeding animals while camping or hiking. Even so, most authorities doubt that a goanna will actually direct an intentional attack on human unless said human attempts to attack it (or grasp at it) first. Aborigines who hunt goannas for food consider the perentie as a high risk (but tasty) prey.
Aside from a severe bite or scratch (which carries risk of tetanus), the goanna can also injure with its hefty tail, which it swings much like a crocodile if cornered. Small children and dogs have been knocked down by such attacks. Often victims in goanna attacks are bystanders, watching the person antagonizing the goanna. People can be mistaken by a terrified creature for a tree, and then hurt quite badly as the animal tries to claw their way up them (and probably even worse off when they run about screaming and bleeding with a goanna still attached).
European settlers perpetuated several old wives’ tales about goanna habits and abilities, some of these have persisted in modern folklore amongst campers and bushmen. This includes the above-mentioned exaggeration of goannas dragging off sheep from shepherds’ flocks in the night. Around a campfire these might even be exaggerated into child-snatching, rivaling drop bears (attack koalas) as tourist scarer, probably more convincing due to the reptiles carnivorous nature and fearsome appearance.
A common tale was that the bite of a goanna was infused with a powerful and incurable venom. Every year after the bite (or every seven years), the wound would flare up again. While no goanna actually contains any venom, like their cousins the Komodo dragon, their saliva is rife with bacteria from carrion and other food sources. Bites from a goanna are very prone to infection and septicaemia.
Continuing on the subject of venom, because the goanna regularly eats snakes (often involving a fierce struggle between the two), they are often said to be immune to snake venom. The goanna does eat venomous snakes, but no evidence found actual suggests actual poison immunity. Other stories say the lizard eats a legendary plant, or from a healing spring which neutralizes the poison. This is immortalized in Banjo Patterson’s humorous poem Johnson’s Antidote.
Possibly related to the above poison immunity and treasure-seeking, goanna fat or oil has been anecdotally imbued with mystical healing properties. Said to be a cure-all for all sorts of ailments, and possessing amazing powers of penetration (passing through glass as if it were not there), it was sold amongst early settlers like snake oil in the Old West of North America.
For the most part, in common names, “goanna” and “monitor” are interchangeable.
1. Perentie ““ Varanus giganteus
2. Lace monitor ““ Varanus varius
3. Sand goanna ““ Varanus gouldii (also Gould’s goanna or ground goanna)
4. Mertens’ water monitor ““ Varanus mertensi
5. Spiny-tailed goanna ““ Varanus acanthurus (also ridge-tailed monitor)
6. Mangrove goanna ““ Varanus semiremex
7. Timor tree monitor ““ Varanus timorensis (also Timor monitor)
8. Mournful tree monitor ““ Varanus tristis
9. Short-tailed monitor ““ Varanus brevicuda
10. Racehorse goanna
11. Black-tailed goanna