Choosing Desert Lizards

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Choosing Desert Lizards

Bonus content from the December 2010 REPTILES magazine article "Build a Desert Lizard Vivarium."

Herpetologist Photographs Male Black And White Tegus Trying To Mate With Dead Female
The Brown Four-Fingered Skink
Herps Of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

When purchasing a lizard, look for one that has good body weight. No bones should be showing in the tail or at the tail base, or in the rib cage or shoulders. There should not be sunken areas on the head or stomach. The eyes should be full and bright, and the lizard should be looking around its environment, especially at anyone who comes near it. It should move readily. Most healthy lizards will exhibit quick, jerky motions and will dart quickly about when something unfamiliar, like your hand, comes too near. Unless sleeping, most healthy lizards sit upright, with their chest held off the ground, not lying lethargically on the ground.

If you live in the Southwest U.S., where there are many nice little lizards in desert and arid areas, and you wish to collect some for your vivarium, check federal, state and local regulations to make sure it is OK to do so. Limited numbers of many species can be collected with the proper document, such as a fishing license. Some lizards are endangered and protected by law. Please do not collect these.


When collecting, use a method that will not injure the lizard, and do not do anything that damages the environment, such as excessive digging or disturbance of rock features, tearing out plants, or leaving rocks or wood overturned. Before collecting any species, make sure you know its environmental and nutritional needs and can appropriately provide for the animal. Once you have kept any animal in captivity, never release it back into the wild, as it may have picked up disease pathogens in captivity that may harm native populations of animals. Also, after acclimating to captivity, the lizard may not survive in the wild, anyway.

Desert Lizard Types

This is just a small sampling of the many pretty, active, interesting and altogether great little lizards from arid and desert regions around the world that would make great additions to a desert vivarium. You can often find such lizards in your local reptile or pet store, within ads in REPTILES magazine, at reptile shows and expos, and sold over the Internet.

Because many of these little lizards are readily available and inexpensive, they often do not get the respect and proper care they are due in captivity. In a vivarium like this, the many attributes of these lizards become apparent. They are beautiful, active, entertaining and surprisingly clever. They often display individual personalities and can sometimes become familiar and friendly with their owners. Most should live at least five years, and under ideal conditions, many will live much longer.

Some of the genera listed here contain many different species. If a genus is listed here, it is because most of the member species will live happily under the environmental conditions prescribed for the vivarium in the article. However, there may be certain species with exceptional needs in one area or another. This is why you should always research the specific requirements for the species in which you are interested.

Native U.S. Desert/Arid Area Lizards:

The following are nice native lizards that would make good desert vivarium residents. Some species or subspecies may be protected. The laws change over time, so be sure to check before collecting.


• Banded geckos (Coleonix spp.)
• Earless lizards (Holbrookia spp.)
• Fence lizards, sagebrush lizards, mesquite lizards, canyon lizards, etc. (Sceloporus spp.)
• Some night lizards (Xantusia spp.)
• Side-blotched lizards (Uta stansburiana)
• Some small skinks (Eumeces spp.)
• Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
• Whiptail lizards and racerunners (Cnemidophorus spp.)
• Zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides)

Exotic Desert/Arid Area Lizards:

These are just a few of the many, many little lizards from desert/arid areas of Africa, Asia, South America, etc. All of these are either currently available from some providers at the time of this writing, or they have been available within recent years. Availability varies over time. These lizards are virtually always wild-caught species, so have your reptile vet look them over and perform some basic prophylactic anti-parasite treatments if needed. However, it is highly unlikely that any parasites they may carry will become any significant problem in a properly set up community vivarium when you have the appropriate environmental factors as described in the article and your animals are given the right nutrition. Cross-infection is a valid concern for some diseases with some kinds of herps in some kinds of vivaria, such as the chytrid fungus in frogs, but it is not a significant threat in this kind of desert vivarium with these lizards.

• Armadillo lizards (Cordylus spp.)
• Beaver-tail agama (Xenagama batillifera)
• Cat-eyed geckos (Stenodactylus petrii)
• Chinese spotted lacerta / Mongolia racerunner (Eremias argus)
• Dwarf shield tail agama (Xenagama taylori)
• Egyptian sandfish (Scincus scincus)
• Some small flat (rock) lizards (Platysaurus spp.)
• Helmeted gecko (Tarentola chazaliae)
• Peter’s ornate sandfish (Tracheloptychus petersi)
• Pink-bellied swift (Sceloporus variabilis)
• Red-tailed savanna racerunner (Heliobolus spekii)
• Rock skink (Mabuya spp.)

Want to read the full story? Pick up the December 2010 issue of REPTILES, or subscribe to get 12 months of articles just like this.