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Book Review - Australian Goannas Print E-mail
Book Review from mampam.com

©Daniel Bennett 2000

Australian Goannas. Matt Vincent and Steve Wilson.   1999. New Holland Publishers, Frenchs Forest. 152pp. AUS $29.95. Available from; 14 Aquatic Drive, Frenchs Forest, NSW 2086, Australia. Rating (out of 10) = 8

The last few years have seen a proliferation of books in the English language about the Varanidae, or monitor lizards (King and Green 1993, Bennett 1995, 1998, De Lisle 1996, Steele 1997). With the exception of King and Green (1993), all of them suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from trying to cover too wide a range of subjects in relation to a very diverse group of lizards. This inevitably leads to generalizations and can make for rather cumbersome reading. Vincent and Wilsons' book, as suggested by the title concentrates only on Australian monitor lizards. Within it they discuss natural history, captive husbandry and conservation, yet manage to keep the book specific and highly readable. This book is clearly aimed at Australian reptile keepers, and it will serve as very strong encouragement and support for them. But it deserves to be popular elsewhere and I suspect that it will sell more copies in the USA than it does it its homeland.

Following a foreword by Angus Martin, Part I is titled the "Natural History of the Goannas", and starts with discussions of the goannas' place in Australia, their evolution, conservation and descriptions of different habitat zones. The ensuing sections stretch the meaning of Natural History somewhat, to cover aspects such as keeping, breeding and transporting goannas, diseases, euthanasia and, penultimately, preservation of (dead) goannas. The final section "environmental enrichment", provides useful, but misplaced, advice on providing behavioral stimuli to captive animals. On reading the text, however, the puzzling arrangement is not really noticeable.

The section on habitat zones is useful, covering mangroves, mallee scrubland, saltbush and ten other vegetation types, but the text suggests that certain monitor species are limited to particular habitats, which is often not the case. The section on conservation states that all Australian monitor lizards are secure at present because of tight government controls and the fact that most occur in areas remote from human activity. Five species are listed as being rare or insufficiently known, including V.semiremex. The authors state that, as well as suffering from habitat destruction, some populations of Varanus semiremex were seriously depleted by collection for the pet trade in the 1970s and never recovered. Not for the first time, I wished there was a little more information, or at least a reference, to substantiate this claim.

Following the section on conservation comes one on Australian monitor lizards in the animal trade, which takes a rather different viewpoint. For example "whilst smuggling cannot be condoned, it has resulted in many successful and valuable instances of captive reproduction" and further on "..in time all Australian monitors will be bred outside Australia……contrary to popular opinion….this may be of enormous benefit to the long term management of this genus". I found these statements at odds with those in the previous section.

Part II is a species account of all 26 of the Australian monitor lizards. Each has a description, a distribution map and notes on ecology and captive biology. The notes on ecology would have been greatly enhanced by the addition of one or two key references for each species. The information on captive biology however is entirely new. It includes a great deal of information on clutch sizes, incubation periods, size of hatchlings and age at sexual maturity that offer a completely new insight into the reproductive biology of monitor lizards. Females laying nine clutches of eggs in a year and animals reaching sexual maturity at the age of four months, for example, are unparalleled in the literature. There is no indication throughout these accounts of where the information has come from, and the reader is left dumbfounded by these tantalizing snippets. I suspect that the information has been passed on from commercial breeders in the USA, who, for reasons of their own, are reluctant to publish these extraordinary results in full. They would do well to read the excellent section on the importance of keeping records and writing articles, which in my opinion was one of the best parts of the book. The information on captive husbandry is detailed, excellent and undoubtedly the best available in print. The only parts of the text I took objection to were the recommended use of the evil formalin as an initial fixative for specimens and the suggestion that if bitten by a lizard, alcohol be applied to the mouth to make it let go. The latter I thought was unwarranted, because anyone foolish enough to get bitten should endure the pain rather than subject the animal to distressing treatment. But I have the method in the back of my mind, just in case. The 65 colour illustrations show all species of Australian monitor lizards and various habitat types. Many of the pictures are excellent but Plate 38 (of V. primordius) appears to be a picture of a hole in the ground. Perhaps the lizard went underground, or else it is in the picture somewhere, cunningly camouflaged.

Vincent and Wilson have done an excellent job in producing a very attractive, extremely informative guide to the care of Australian monitor lizards in captivity. It deserves to do well both at home and abroad. It is absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in captive monitor lizards and will lead to a greater appreciation of goannas among a much wider audience. For Australian monitor keepers the book is the most valuable resource they could wish for. But to the outside world it shows the world of monitor lizard keeping as being very sad. The Australians themselves are strongly discouraged from keeping the animals, whilst those smuggled abroad are bred in incredible profusion and for enormous profit. The data on reproductive biology generated has important and immediate potential in some of the poorest countries of the world, where hundreds of thousands of monitor lizards are exported as skins each year. But it is entirely unavailable. If, as Vincent and Wilson predict, captive breeding is going to be a useful conservation tool for monitor lizards, such information must be freely available. This book represents the first step in that direction.


Bennett, D. 1995. A little book of monitor lizards. Viper Press, Aberdeen, 208pp.

Bennett, D. 1998. Monitor lizards: Natural history, biology, husbandry. Edition Chimera, Frankfurt. 352pp.

De Lisle, H. 1996. The natural history of monitor lizards. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida. 201pp.

King, D. and B. Green 1993. Goanna. The biology of Varanid lizards. New South Wales University Press, Kensington. 102pp.

Steele, R 1997. Living dragons. A natural history of the world's monitor lizards. Blandford, London. 160pp.



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Varanus bitatawa

Varanus bitatawa is the third species of  monitor lizard to be recognised by science that belongs to the "Pandan Biawak" group,  all of which are of at least as great a conservation concern as the Komodo dragon, but receive virtually none of the attention. Pandan Biawak occur only in lowland dipterocarp forest. The first species (Varanus olivaceus or Butaan) was discovered in 1845 and not seen alive by a scientist until the late 1970s. The next species (Varanus mabitang or Mabitang) was discovered in 2001 and in 2010 Varanus bitatawa (Butikaw or Bitatawa) was described. Other species of frugivorous monitor lizards may remain undescribed, but many may have  gone extinct without ever having been recognised.




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