A Quick Overview of Lizard-Keeping

by David T. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D

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So you've finally gotten bored with all of those snakes, and now you want to keep something else. Turtles take up too much room, frogs require too much clean water; the next acquisition is going to be a lizard. But what kind of lizard should you get? Before you decide on the lizard itself, you should really think about what type of set-up you can provide for it. A large percentage of successful lizard-keeping lies in matching an environment with an appropriate lizard. For example, if you have a reptile room that is always damp and hot, a day gecko or an anole colony might be a good choice, while a desert skink probably won't do as well. On the other hand, a dry apartment might be appropriate for a leopard gecko or a spiny lizard, as the appropriate heat and water requirements can be provided easily.

Another important decision to make is the level of care that you are willing to devote to an animal or habitat. Old World chameleons usually need to be checked a couple of times a day, while leopard geckos will breed for most people with only an hour or two's attention a week. Lizards require more room than snakes although usually not as much as turtles or tortoises. Can you really give them the room that they need, especially in the case of the large lizards (iguanas, for example)? Are you willing to handfeed a lizard every day, or do you want to just dump in some insects and water occasionally? These are extreme examples, of course. Most lizard care is somewhere in between these two, but the question of the amount of care and time you are willing to devote on a daily and weekly basis is a question that you should seriously consider before purchasing any lizard.

Most enclosures for lizards can be divided into three rough categories: desert, temperate and tropical. Many variations on cages are possible, but I am going to describe how to set up each using a 20 gallon aquarium. These recommendations assume a small lizard, such as a leopard gecko, anole, or swift. Larger lizards, such as iguanas, blue-tongued skinks, uromastyx, or adult bearded dragons require a much larger enclosure. I recommend that you start with at least a ten gallon aquarium for all lizards; generally, the more room you can give a lizard, the happier it wil be. A few pieces of equiipent are common to all three setups: the 20 gallon aquarium, a metal screen top for the aquarium (get the finest metal mesh that you can find - the smaller it is, the less chance there is of any stray insects getting out and taking up residence in your clothes closet, and metal won't melt under a hot lightbulb), and incandescent lamp - the kind with the metal reflectors that you can buy in hardware stores work wonderfully and are very cheap, and a timer to turn the light on and off every day. Many people also recommend providing a fluorescent light with a full-spectrum bulb, in addition to the spotlight. Full-spectrum bulbs are probably more beneficial to lizards active during the day, for obvious reasons, and are virtually a necessity for those animals adapted to high-intensity sunlight environments, such as deserts or savannahs.

To make a desert enclosure, put a layer of pea gravel, available in any pet store that sells fish (and what pet store doesn't?), spreading it over the bottom of the aquarium until it is about an inch thick. Into this substrate place a number of rocks - both smooth and jagged types work well. Put in some type of hiding space for the lizard. This can be either a hollow log, an overturned clay pot or plastic tub with a hole cut in the side, or a cave made out of rocks. Finally, the screen top goes on, with the reflector light sitting on top of it at one end of the aquarium. Check the temperature at ground level directly under the light. You can vary the temperature by changing the wattage of the ligthbulb; the temperature under the bulb should be 90 to 95 F.

For the temperate lizard set-up, place a layer of newspaper or bark chips on the floor fo the aquarium. Place some plants in pots into the cage. Ivy and similar houseplants work well - I prefer to use pothos or philodendron. Put in branches and logs running from the ground to the sides fo the cage, and also to and from the plant pots. A hiding spot of the same types as described for the desert cage should also be available. The lighting is also similar to that of the dseert set-up, but the temperature should average in the mid 80's, rather than the low 90's.

A tropical set-up is similar to the temperate enclosure, but much damper. Instead of newspaper or bark chips, a layer of sphagnum or peat moss, mixed with bark chips if you want, should be used as a substrate. These materials absorb and hold onto water much better than newspaper or gravel, increasing the humidity in the cage. Plants are very desirable in a tropical set-up - make sure that the plants you choose can tolerate a lot of humidity. Once again, I recommend pothos. The temperature should be similar to that of the temperate aquarium, but a portion of the screen top should be covered. A blanket or towel can be used, but I prefer taping down a sheet of plastic (plastic wrap like Saran wrap will do). This will also help to increase the humidity in the tank.

Now that you have your enclosure set up and running, you want to get a lizard or two for it. Commonly available lizards for desert tanks include leopard geckos, crevice lizards, and swifts of various types. Lizards that can be kept in a temperate environment are leopard geckos, some of the swifts, iguanas, anoles, tokays, house geckos, and some of the day geckos. Finally, tropical set-ups can house day geckos, house geckos, and green anoles. If you are not sure what type of environment to provide for a lizard, put it in a temperate enclosure and watch its behavior closely over a couple of days. If it is constantly thirsty or has trouble shedding, chances are that it requires a more tropical environment. If it seems lethargic or is constantly at the hottest end of the tank under the spotlight, try a more desert-like environment. The more closely you pay attention to how your lizard is acting, the better you will be able to provide for it.

Most lizards are insectivorous, but some will also take fruit or baby food, especially some of the geckos. A few, such as iguanas, are herbivorous. No matter what they eat, however, variety in the diet is extremely important. Crickets, mealworms, waxworms, spiders, beetles, and flies are all good food items for most lizards. I feed my lizards every other day, and only give them as much as they will eat in one day. If I notice any food remaining the next time I feed the lizard, I reduce the amount of food that I give out. Vitamin and calcium supplements should be given with some regularity. Depending on the type of lizard it may not be necessary to give them supplements every time you feed them, but they should not be eliminated entirely.

A water sprayer or mister, usually used on houseplants, is handy for lizards. Most tropical setups should be thoroughly misted down once a day, or even more, depending on the lizards. Temperate enclosures should be misted daily, but not as heavily as tropical tanks. For desert setups, the inside of the hiding spot should be checked daily to make sure that it is somewhat moist. The rest of the tank can be misted every other day. However, as I said earlier, take your cue from the lizard itself. If it is always thirsty, give it more water!

Before you buy any lizard, do your homework. Ask yourself the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this article - what type of setup can you reasonably provide, and how much care will you actually give the animal? Then, do some reading or ask around bout the lizards that do well in the type of enclosure you are going to make. The NEHS bookstore sells a number of good books - Keeping and Breeding Lizards, by Chris Mattison, The General Care and Maintenance of Green Anoles, The Green Iguana Manual, and the Right Way to Feed Insect-Eating Lizards, all by Philippe de Vosjoli. The Mattison book is somewhat expensive, but covers a lot of ground, while the de Vosjoli books are limited in scope but excellent in content. They are also cheap; all of them sell for under $8.00. Finally, ask around at meetings or check your NEHS directory. Many of our members have kept lizards successfully for years, and a number even have captive-born hatchlings for sale at various times during the year. With some thought and planning beforehand, lizards can make wonderful additions to any herper's life.


This article copyright 1993 by David T. Kirkpatrick. A version of this article was originally published in HerpTales, the Newsletter of the New England Herpetological Society, June 1993.

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