Killer “bobtail flu” nothing to be sneezed at

WA scientists have achieved a world first by identifying a new virus thought to be killing an iconic Aussie lizard species.
​Lisa Morrison
​Lisa Morrison
Freelance reporter
Killer “bobtail flu” nothing to be sneezed at
Image credit: Dr Bethany Jackson, Murdoch University

A mysterious respiratory disease has been striking down wild shingleback lizards, or bobtails, since the 1990s in WA.

It’s not influenza and it’s no threat to humans, but reptiles infected with “bobtail flu” suffer flu-like symptomsrunny noses, watery eyes, sneezing and lethargy.

If you thought the dreaded “man flu” was badbobtail flu is far worse.

Without treatment, sick bobtails can become so emaciated they whither away and die.

Bobtail flu is one of WA’s most urgent threats to wildlife says Dr Mark O’Dea Murdoch University veterinary virology lecturer.

“It’s a nasty disease. They come into wildlife care centres…looking really miserable.”

“[Some] have just wasted away to almost skin and bone.”

“They lose their bobtail because that’s where they store their fat [and] don’t seem to recover… unless they get treatment.”

The good news is antibiotics, inhaling distilled water mist to clear their lungs and rest saves approximately 80% of infected bobtails.

View Larger

A healthy bobtail lizard

Image credit: Ashleigh Wolfe, Curtin University
View Larger

A bobtail lizard showing symptoms

Image credit: Carol Jackson, Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre


Wildlife carers suspect the disease is on the rise in WA.

Prevalence is hard to work out because the number of bobtails in the wild is unknown and wildlife carers don’t see healthy lizards.

But Mark says the number of recent cases is a worry.

“In 2015 Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (KWRC) received about 200 bobtails and of those, 40% came in because of this flu problem,” he says.

“To have an infectious disease making up 40% of your intake is pretty phenomenal.”

“I think it’s urgent that we do some more work into it.”


Mark and Dr Bethany Jackson, Murdoch University wildlife veterinarian, took saliva swabs from healthy and sick bobtails admitted to KWRC to try to unravel the mystery.

They used next generation sequencing technology on the swab samples to compare infected bobtails’ DNA for a link.

Detecting a virus never before identified in Australian lizards was an exciting moment, Mark says.

They’ve tentatively named the virus Shingleback nidovirus 1.

Its closest relative is a virus thought to cause a respiratory disease in ball pythons in the United States.

“That certainly made us feel pretty confident that we had found something worth investigating further,” Mark says.


The researchers have developed a diagnostic test for the virus.

They hope their discovery will give fresh hope to the health of bobtails in WA, Australia and worldwide.

“I would be very surprised if this virus is only in WA,” Mark says.

They aim to team up with Flinders University researchers to investigate if bobtail flu is a national problem.

Their plan is to study how it’s transmitted, and see if there are bobtail populations immune to the disease or areas that haven’t been exposed to it.

​Lisa Morrison
About the author
​Lisa Morrison
Lisa is a freelance journalist based in Albany, WA. She has four years' experience as a news reporter for newspapers in Esperance and Albany, and three years' experience as a science writer for websites. She enjoys tracking down and telling interesting stories.
View articles
Lisa is a freelance journalist based in Albany, WA. She has four years' experience as a news reporter for newspapers in Esperance and Albany, and three years' experience as a science writer for websites. She enjoys tracking down and telling interesting stories.
View articles


We've got chemistry, let's take it to the next level!

Get the latest WA science news delivered to your inbox, every fortnight.


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy