Goanna is the common name for various types of monitor lizards in Australia. They’re the biggest lizards in Australia, getting up to 2.5m long, and almost the world, although they’re beaten by the monstrous Komodo dragon which can exceed 3m. A lot of that length is a long, thin tail, but even so I’d go a bit carefully with a large goanna. Unlike Komodo dragons – which have been known to attack humans – goannas are wary of people and will generally get out of your way unless you provoke them, or if they’ve become accustomed to being fed. This is probably because although they’re nearly as long as Komodo dragons, they’re lightweights by comparison, getting up to a mere 20kg versus a large dragon at up to 166kg.
The fossil record shows that they did once attain gigantic sizes – Megalania got up to approximately 5.5m and 575kg, living until a mere 50,000 years ago and possibly later. Aborigines nowadays who hunt large goannas for food apparently consider them to be ‘high-risk but tasty’ – I wonder what their ancestors thought of Megalania! NB goannas, like essentially all native animals are protected by law. However like many other indigenous peoples, Aborigines are allowed to hunt them.
There are very few surviving fossils of Megalania, which accounts for the wide range of estimates for it’s size, varying from 4.5m through to a whopping 7m and 1,940kg. Consequently and inevitably this means there are people who think there might still be monsters hidden away in the outback. Fringe science at best I think, but everyone secretly hopes it might just be true!
Like many names beginning with ‘G’ in Australia (such as Gippsland and Gellibrand), goanna is pronounced with a hard ‘G’, not a soft ‘J’ sound. The name goanna is thought to have evolved from ‘iguana’, although it’s not certain – it could equally well have been from the African name for monitor lizard ‘leguaan’, and brought over on ships stopping around the Cape of Good Hope.
Goannas live out in the bush and tend not to come near towns and cities. I’ve never seen one in or around Eltham, but we saw lots down at Mallacoota near the NSW border – on ‘Goanna Island’ so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve also seen them while walking on the trails around the Blue Mountains.
To the delight of many Australians earlier this year Samia Lila showed exactly how to evict a pesky goanna when she dragged one by the tail out of the winery where she was working. That’s a definite ’10’ for bravery and sang-froid there!
Goannas have big claws, and frequently climb trees, both to escape from predators or to go after birds nests for the eggs or chicks. Some of the (very few) people hurt by goannas have been bystanders to other people hassling or attacking a goanna. When the poor beast has tried to escape, it can occasionally mistake a bystander for a tree and climbed up them with understandably painful results. They can also quite happily climb up the walls of houses too, as this resident of Thurgoona found out. Goannas can run fast, and if they really feel the need for speed can rear up and run on their large hind legs. I’ve never seen this but it must be pretty impressive.
Goannas also feature heavily in both Aboriginal and European settler folklore. The Dirawong, or goanna spirit, is a benevolent being who helps protect people and is associated with rain – definitely a good guy then. There’s a clear similarity between the blotches and stripes on a goanna and Aboriginal dot paintings. European settlers tended towards a more sinister view, attributing sheep-killing, possible child-snatching and hideous incurable venom to them. It’s very unlikely that goannas could ever be responsible for the former two, but it seems they are venomous to some degree.
Don’t let that put you off though – they’re placid creatures that are much more interesting than your average little lizard.