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Eastern Water dragon
Goulds Goanna

Sand Goanna also known as Goulds Goanna

Varanus gouldii gouldii

By Graeme Hawley

The Varanus gouldii gouldii pictured is one of two sub-species of V. gouldii, also known as sand goanna or Gould’s goanna. The word “goanna” was first used by early European occupiers of Australia and is believed to be a derivation of the word “iguana”, although it is one of many words in common use in Australia today that are often mistakenly asserted to be derived from indigenous Australian languages on the premise that they sound like they are. “Goanna” is used interchangeably in Australia with “monitor”.

These photographs were taken in the flood-plains of Bungawalbyn, south of Lismore, in northern NSW. V. gouldii is believed to be the most abundant and widespread of the Australian monitors. Distribution maps show it as inhabiting most of mainland Australia, exceptions being a narrow coastal strip beginning in northern NSW and following the coastline to approximately the Yorke Peninsula in SA, as well as the south coast of WA and a large portion of north-central Qld. A Field Guide to Reptiles of NSW, by Swan, Shea and Sadlier, shows it inhabiting certain parts of the NSW far north coast. It is also known by members of WIRES Coffs Harbour to inhabit their area of coverage.

In approximately seven years of operation of the Northern Rivers branch of WIRES (as at the time of writing in early 2011), only one V. gouldii has come into care and only very recently. It was found upside-down in Casino and not in a good way. The cause of its predicament is unknown, but as they are a carnivorous animal that often eats carrion, it is possible that this one could have been poisoned by eating the invasive, toxic, introduced pest Bufo marinus, more commonly known as cane toad (Australia does not have any native toads). After spending some time in care, this fortunate animal made a full recovery and was able to be released back to the wild.

We first spotted the subject of these photographs a few years ago, at which time it was obviously still quite young. Since then we have seen it getting bigger and bigger each season. Unlike the arboreal lace monitor, which is very common and abundant in our region, V. gouldii is ground-dwelling. This little fellow digs holes and tunnels over quite an area of our property, mostly where there is bare sand, as well as under logs and trees. He also enlarges nest holes that have been made in banks by rainbow bee-eaters and striated pardalotes (both birds); in all likelihood to get at and eat their eggs.

Whereas a lace monitor will run to and climb a tree as soon as disturbed, a sand goanna runs to a tunnel or hole. “Our” sand goanna, however, is so used to us being around that many times we have nearly trodden on him before spotting him. He is quite used to us sitting on the ground nearby and watching him go about his business.

The other sub-species of V. gouldii, V. gouldii  flavirufus, inhabits sandy desert areas, so is unlikely to be seen in our region.

Updated March 2021  

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