The African fire skink is quite active and full of personality when housed properly.
African Fire Skink (Lepidothyris fernandi, previously Ripoa fernandi)
Striking in color, these large bodied skinks are bright red, flecked with black and white bars along their side. Their backs range from bronze to golden. Long squarish bodies with stout legs and thick tails give them the typical appearance of most skinks. Originally from western Africa, their range is currently known to be as far west as Guinea, south as Angola, and as far east as Kenya where they inhabit forests, woodlands, and densely vegetated areas.
Typically regarded as being very shy, they are actually quite active and full of personality when housed properly. Being very hardy, they make an excellent choice for beginners and experienced keepers alike. In this article, we offer reptile supply suggestions along with husbandry techniques.
Fire skinks prove somewhat difficult to find, but are growing easier to come by. They are most common at reptile expos and through major websites. Proven captive breeders remain few and far between, tending toward small breeding programs.
Captive bred skinks are most recommended for conservation reasons along with the general healthier nature of captive bred specimens along with calmer temperament. Additionally, as their status in the wild is not well documented, the impact of their capture for the pet trade is unknown. Captive bred young are most easily found from late summer into the fall. Occasionally captive bred adults will turn up throughout the year.
Hatchlings are approximately two inches at emergence from an egg, with adults reaching lengths of fourteen or fifteen inches. Growth is not rapid, with young taking a year or more to reach their full size. While dimorphism is subtle, females do tend to be slightly smaller and leaner than males.
Data regarding the lifespan of this species is still inconclusive; however, reports of captive specimens living 15 to 20 years are common.
Fire skinks will make use of whatever space is provided, a 40 to 50 gallon reptile terrarium is ideal, especially if housing a pair. Horizontal space is more important than vertical; however, fire skinks will climb and are actually quite good at it. An adult skink can be kept in a tank as small as a 20 gallon long (30” x 12” x 12”), but no smaller. Glass or similar material types make the best enclosures.
A male and female can be housed together and will even show signs of being a mated pair. While they can act territorial about food there is no cause for alarm unless real fighting or injuries are observed. Always take care in housing a pair. Do not house more than two together, and do not house two males or two females in the same enclosure.
Most essential to an active and happy skink is a well made enclosure including lizard habitat products. Plants, hides, logs, and the like will ensure a skink feels secure spending time on the surface.
Lighting and temperature are most critical in creating a suitable gradient within the enclosure. A hot and cool end are preferable, with the ambient daytime temperature sitting at approximately 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The basking spot should reach a temperature between 92-96 degrees. Ideal nighttime temperatures should fall to about 70, but fire skinks will do fine with night time temperatures as low as 65. You can use a reptile thermometer to keep track of temperature gradients in your habitat. Provide an under-tank heater on the warm end. Dome lights are a good source for heat with ceramic heat emitters. Always use a reptile thermostat to control heat sources. For larger enclosures, side mounting heaters also work well. Never place a heat source directly in the enclosure.
Fire skinks benefit from and require at least some UVA exposure. A simple 40 watt day bulb, like the Zoo Med daylight lamp, works well. Fire skinks can thrive without UVB light as long as they are receiving food dusted with calcium. During spring and summer months, a ten to twelve hour photo-period is required, dropping to an eight to ten hour photo-period in the cooler months.
Humidity is most important in the substrate, which should always remain moist, ranging approximately 60% to 70% relative humidity. Use a reptile hygrometer to monitor these conditions. As long as humidity in the substrate remains at this range, the surface can drop as low as 40%. Misting thoroughly twice per day with a (Exo Terra) reptile mister is usually sufficient.
As a burrowing lizard, the proper substrate is critical. Ideally a mixture of materials like cypress Zoo Med mulch, Exo Terra coconut husk, sphagnum moss, and nutrient-free soil work very well. Leaf litter or moss as a top layer also proves helpful. The most important issue regarding substrate is that it remain moist. Substrate that gets too dry can create a risk of ingestion, poor sheds, or even respiratory infections.
Fire skinks benefit from a varied diet and are opportunistic feeders on live reptile food. Crickets make an excellent staple, and should be supplemented from time to time with other prey like mealworms, butterworms, silkworms, waxworms, or anything similar. Pinkie mice can be offered as an occasional treat, (no more than once per month). Fire skinks should be fed five to six insects every three days. Dust prey with reptile calcium every third feeding.
Seeing a fire skink in a water dish is rare, nevertheless offering a shallow one assures they can hydrate themselves and will help increase humidity. Most of their needs for hydration are met through their prey and their environment. As mentioned, the enclosure should be misted thoroughly twice a day; once in the morning and one in the evening.
Handling and Temperament
Reputed as very shy and reclusive, this marker of fire skink temperament is not entirely true. A skink feeling both secure in its surroundings will display frequent activity on the surface of the enclosure.
Fire skinks will tolerate handling and are usually docile; however, they are very fast and can prove squirmy. Any handling should always be done in a safe location where an escape will not occur.
Weston Brownlee is a professional bronze sculptor who has worked with reptiles since he was a boy and with and breeding Fire Skinks for four years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org