Myfany Turpin on Sand goannas in central Australian languages –

From Myfany Turpin

Picture © Myfany Turpin

The names for ‘sand goanna’ (Varanus gouldii) in the languages of areas where they are found often correspond to two ethnospecies. Photographed here are the small arlewatyerre and the large aremaye, both from near Barrow Creek, NT, as they are called in Arandic languages (Arrernte, Kaytetye, Anmatyerr and Alyawarr). On this day my companions successfully hunted both in close proximity, so I thought I’d see if there were differences in the scientific taxonomy that could improve my translations of ‘small sand goanna’ and ‘large sand goanna’ respectively.

However it turns out that the nomenclature surrounding these lizards is as difficult to navigate as their burrow:

“… the animals referred to here as sand goannas or goanna x (V. flavirufus) are usually called V. gouldii gouldii in the literature. The desert sand goanna V. flavirufus flavirufus is usually called V. gouldii flavirufus. The animals known as V.panoptes in the literature should be called V. gouldii, and the animals known as V.gouldii in the literature actually belong to V. flavirufus. In older literature the name V.gouldii could describe the nameless actuality, V. gouldii gouldii, V.g. rubidus, V.g. horni, V. flavirufus or V. rosenbergi.” Extract from A Little Book of Monitor Lizards © Daniel Bennett 1995. Viper Press, UK

Wikipedia paints a much simpler picture:
• Gould’s goanna – V. g. gouldii
• Desert sand monitor – V. g. flavirufus

Both exist in the arid interior of Australia, but V. g. gouldii also exists across most of Australia.

For Kaytetye speakers, the main difference between their ethnospecies is size and frequency: arlewatyerre is smaller and common while aremaye is big and less common (five of the former and one of the latter were obtained on this day). Such highly localized knowledge is absent in the descriptions of the two subspecies, which say that size, pattern and colour vary depending on the region.

One comment by Bennett suggests that the smaller one could be V. g. flavirufus:

“The habit of standing bipedally is well documented for Gould’s goanna, but my impression is that V. flavirufus flavirufus is less inclined to adopt a bipedal stance than Gould’s goanna or goanna x, probably on account of its smaller body size.”

Where was my inner herpetologist when I was in the field to tell me to ask if they were both bipedal? But then another comment by Bennett, coupled with my scant first-hand experience of the holes of these lizards, suggests that the larger one could in fact be V. g. flavirufus:

V. flavirufus flavirufus (and probably other closely related races) often shelter in shallow burrows that terminate just below the surface”

Again, where was my inner herpetologist to measure burrow depth? The odds stack up even more for the larger one as being V. g. flavirufus when we consider another observation by Bennett:

“The sand goanna [V. g. flavirufus] is restricted to sandy soils whilst Gould’s goanna [V. g. gouldii] prefers harder substrates.”

Kaytetye speakers say that the larger lizard tends to be found in coarser sand. There is also a totemic site for the larger lizard that is on a creek bed. However, the one we got yesterday was not in what I considered to be particularly sandy soil. But then again, what exactly is ‘harder substrates’? Time to consult the inner geologist…

In summary, a brief comparison of their scientific descriptions on the web did not enable me to decide if the two ethnospecies correspond to the two subspecies of Varanus gouldii, and if so, which ones. All in all, Bennett paints a bleak picture of the knowledge of these two subspecies:

“some people believe that the desert populations (V. flavirufus) form a separate species from the animals in more mesic areas, and that the latter animals (which now have no valid scientific name) may be a complex of more than one species. This makes any description of the group ridiculously complicated. Biochemical comparisons of the group throughout Australia are needed to properly resolve these very serious taxonomic problems.”

Stay tuned for updates from the herpetologists on this one. The difficulty in navigating the Linnaean nomenclature, coupled with the fact that most linguists do not have the necessary local biological expertise, point to the need for us to foster relationships with our cousins in biology if we are to seriously document the vocabulary of Indigenous languages.

5 thoughts on “Myfany Turpin on Sand goannas in central Australian languages –”

  1. Interesting, thanks Myf.

    Adult female Gould’s goanna average two-thirds the body length and only one-third the mass of adult males. Adult males are approximately 32 cm in length while females are approximately 28 cm. (Animal Diversity Web entry)

    I wonder if Kaytetye people comment on this, or the male vs. female burrows described there?

  2. When I posed the question of whether the difference between the two lizards might be gender, people said they didnt think so; but I don’t think this necessarily rules it out. Apparently determining the sex of varanids is no simple matter, as according to Nic Gamboldt “the females have hemiclitores that mimic the males’ hemipenes”.

  3. I agree! There must be more to it than this but we got similar responses when we were doing ethnobiology work with Glenn Wightmann (ethnobotanist with LRM) on Gurindji. So:

    Kirrawa – any prized land-dwelling goanna i.e. not a water goanna (Varanus mertensi) or tree goanna (Varanus tristis) or rough-tailed goanna (Varanus acanthurus – too small)
    Jarrampayi – any large goanna inc. Varanus panoptes or Varanus gouldii

    Gould’s goanna is a case in point of vagueness:

    Generally they are called ’tilyarri’, but the really big ones are called ‘jarrampayi’, the red-tailed ones are called ‘purnungku’ and gravid females are called ‘kiliny’.

    So some work is needed to sort out what is going on here. Are the big ones male? Is the red in the tail related to gender or a different subspecies or something environmental?


    Hector, I. K., Kalabidi, G. J., Banjo, S., Dodd, T. N. N., Wavehill, R. J. W., Danbayarri, D., . . . Wightman, G. (2012). Bilinarra, Gurindji and Malngin Plants and Animals. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management.

  4. Hi, both the specimens pictured are Varanus gouldii. And, even though there’s some pattern & size differences between them, they’re both the Centralian subspecies, V. gouldii flavirufus. V. gouldii gouldii doesn’t really occur sympatrically with V. g. flavirufus – one ssp. just grades into the other ssp., on the periphery of the inland sandy deserts.

    So, I think what you may be looking at here is sexual dimorphism. Though I’m not aware of this in V. gouldii — males do combat, so odds on they’ll be proportionately larger than females. Sexing goannas is v hard (females have hemiclitores that mimic the males’ hemipenes), so maybe two names exist because without being able to assign MR or MRS – two sympatric ‘forms’ are recognised?

    The other possibility is that the 2x names derive from another species… People with country on the edge of northern savanna or Barkly Tablelands (i.e. Warlpiri, Gurundji, Warlmanpa speakers etc) know the very looking similar V. panoptes — which is much more robust, lives along creeks and (being twice as heavy) is the preferred resource species. Maybe, where it doesn’t occur (most of central Aust) the term for V. panoptes (in Warlpiri it’s Kalawurru) is applied to larger specimens of V. gouldii?

    Note: Bennett’s comments re: substrate are misleading because the genus Varanus is precocious in terms of its ability to throw up eco-morphs to match habitats, i.e. patterns, colorations, sizes etc sizes vary considerably across and within the range of most goanna species in response to environmental conditions. And for some species (e.g. Bell’s morph of the Lace Monitor) there’s outlandish genetic variants that exist side by side with standard morphs.

    Hope this helps!

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