Uromastyx an Introduction
Uromastyx, Spiny-tailed Lizard, or Mastigure as some may see these members of the Agamidae family called are increasing in popularity. This is alarming and gratifying for me; this is my favorite lizard. I have enjoyed the Uromastyx species since I first arrived in the private sector of reptile keeping over a decade ago now. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Cue wavy lines of memory montage
I walked into a privately owned pet store to begin work. I was feeding and cleaning enclosures as I had done a hundred times before (probably more but who’s counting)? I was interrupted by the manager. He asked me to go to the back and grab the seven-bean dried soup mix from the cupboard. I did as asked, thinking to myself
“Damn, it’s only 10 am and this guys having lunch already?”
As I walked towards my then employer, he informed me
“Put some of the beans in that dish.” He said pointing to a large enclosure I’d suspected of being empty.
I poured soup mix into the dish and out from the hide came what I can only describe as
“a tortoise without a shell.”
The creature then walked to the dish, picked a bean up of its choosing, then snapped it in half with what looked to me like a wink. After getting over my fear reaching into the enclosure; thinking this ‘lizard’ I’d never seen before would tear my digits off in a fit of rage, I began to interact with it daily.
I say interact in the loosest sense, as this consisted me of me feeding it the necessary diet of greens and dried beans then watching it as much as I could through the day. Before digressing too far let’s just jump right in to why you’re reading this particular article. Which of course is the captive care of the Uromastyx species. The biggest topic when it comes to captive care of Uromastyx is HEAT. We will get to that in a bit, for now let’s do a little science.
Taxonomy of Uromastyx
Uromastyx as we have discussed prior are in the family Agamidae. There were eighteen species at one time. As of 2009 three subspecies have been elevated to full species status. Today we have the following species and subspecies of Uromastyx.
U. aegyptia has 3 subspecies as follows.
U. aegyptia aegyptia
U. aegyptia microlepis
U. aegyptia leptieni
Uromastyx dispar has 4 subspecies as follows.
U. dispar dispar
U. dispar flavifasciata
U. dispar hodhensis
U. dispar maliensis
Uromastyx ornata has 2 subspecies as follows.
U. ornata ornata
U. ornata philbyi
Life in the Desert
There seems to be much confusion as to what exactly a desert is and what a desert isn’t, we will try to explain the difference here briefly. The USGS uses the method of Perveril Meigs who classified the desert regions of the Earth into three distinct areas. Meigs used the annual amount of rainfall to determine these categories.
Extremely Arid = 12 months without rainfall
Arid = less than 250 mm of rainfall
Semiarid = 250-500 mm of rainfall annually
Furthermore, they classify extremely arid and arid as deserts while semiarid grasslands are often referred to as steppes. As an interesting side note. Antarctica is a desert. As we now see desert doesn’t mean the blowing sands and sand dunes often portrayed in movies.
Uromastyx species live in the, yes, you guessed it desert. The reason I keep hitting this point is there is much debate/questions regarding water. Uromastyx get all the water they need from a properly prepared diet. Unless a Uromastyx becomes ill, which can cause dehydration, or they are hatchlings of U. dispar or U. benti then Uromastyx should never be offered water. Dr. Dix of Deerfern Farms recommends water for the hatchlings of the two species above until their second shed.
Substrates for Uromastyx is another subject of some debate as there are numerous people who are under the impression that particulate substrates are or can be harmful to their reptile pets. I have gone into significant detail about this in the article Substrates: Getting Your Hands Dirty. However, I will say it briefly again here. If the reptile is offered the proper diet and vitamin and mineral supplementation particulate substrates are generally not a cause for any issues.
That said, in the years I have kept Uromastyx species I have never used anything outside of Quickrete washed play sand and never once I have ever had any impactions in my lizards. If this is still a concern for you then I would recommend using bird seed which is only millet. Before moving on let me clarify something for everyone. Yes, Uromastyx live in a desert environment. However, they tend to inhabit clay like soil areas where they’re able to dig burrows. I think it safe to say, sand dunes wouldn’t hold a burrow well at all. They also don’t live on bird seed in the wild either. So it’s our responsibility to create as natural a habitat as we can. If you have some suggestions on substrates you use to recreate the clay like substrate please let us know about it in the comments field below.
Uromastyx are not by any means a lazy lizard when provided the proper environment. Reptile enrichment is something that was practiced by many in the early years of herpetoculture. People such as Philippe de Vosjoli (one of the foremost pioneers of keeping reptiles) saw that keeping reptiles in a natural environment was more suitable rather than the all too popular ‘rack systems’ which are often employed by breeders today. That however is another article entirely. Decor for the Uromastyx species can range from simple sandblasted grapevine branches to underground tunnels depending on how extensive you want to make the enclosure.
If you’re going to house Uromastyx indoors (most people do) the smallest enclosure we recommend is a 40 gallon measuring 48in x 12in x 16in. This will house a single adult and or a breeding pair. Within this, place enough substrate to cover the bottom of the enclosure to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch in-depth. To this you should add several pieces of sandblasted grapevine as well as ceramic tiles and or non-sharp edged rocks which can be siliconed together to build up basking areas. If you plan to build up areas using rocks make sure they are siliconed together using aquarium silicone as this is safe for use in the enclosure.
What I have done in the past and still recommend to anyone who wants to keep Uromastyx is to build a network of crevices and tunnels with rock pieces. This will allow the Uromastyx to crawl in and out of the holes/tunnels as they would in the wild. Sandblasted grapevine also makes for interesting climbing in some species and I always recommend it for any reptile being kept as it serves a secondary purpose, allowing the reptile to rub against it to remove shed skin. Another technique I have seen used is buying a large piece of PVC pipe, then slicing it in half. With this as a base you then silicone pieces of rock-work around it to create one large ‘cave’ and a rocky peak above it where the Uromastyx can climb and bask if it likes.
This is where most people make mistakes when keeping Uromastyx sp. of any kind. For Uromastyx a basking spot or basking area should be between 110 – 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Ambient or temperature outside of the basking surface area should be 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit. At the opposite end of the enclosure you want a temperature in the 80 degree range. When night falls ambient temperature should drop by about 10 degrees to about 70. The best and as far as we are concerned, the only way to get these temperatures is with overhead basking elements. We only recommend the Ceramic Heating Elements as the red and other ‘night bulbs’ can disturb the circadian rhythm of the reptile as is reported in our article Colored Lights.
When it comes to lighting this is where we’re sure to get some flack. Hear us out though. According to Dr. Dix one of, if not the premier breeder of Uromastyx in the United States has stopped using UVB producing bulbs all together and has found no distinction or change in behavior with the Uromastyx he keeps. Dr. Dix mentioned his study he was doing a few years ago and since then has posted as much on his website. Now he is using
“clear white Infra-Red bulbs” with this he has also stated that he supplements the diet with powdered D3. We will cover this more in-depth in the dietary section next.
We have not attempted this with our own Uromastyx but this is something we plan to test and then report our own findings. We use fluorescent light tubes which put out high UVB rates which would be found in the desert where the Uromastyx live. We turn the lights on as the sun rises in our area and then they’re shut off at sundown. This is achieved much easier with a timer which can be bought in our Complete Herpetoculture Store.
There are a lot of varying thoughts on diets, especially for herbivores in herpetoculture. To me unless you’re going to grow your own, the best solution for any herbivorous reptile is buy the organic spring mix commonly sold in any grocery store. With that stated, Dr. Bogoslavsky has written another article on the proper greens for reptiles. He allowed us to share his piece here Reptile Diet. To the Uromastyx salad we also add a separate dish of seven bean soup mix every other day with the red kidney beans removed. This bean mix includes red, green, yellow, and brown lentils. Yellow and green peas as well as various other beans. Daily we dust with vitamin/calcium supplement powder. Feeding of any species of herbivorous reptile should be done in a food dish to avoid ingestion of any substrates. Calcium applied to the Uro salad will generally prevent any ingestion of the substrate but they may engage in what’s called incidental tasting where they lick or taste the substrate. This is a normal behavior and nothing to be alarmed about. If the Uro begins to eat large amounts of substrate this is generally a sign that they are not getting their correct amounts of vitamin and calcium supplementation.
Uromastyx are sometimes reported to be one of the Agamid species which are less inclined to be handled. This is both and true and false. Some species of Uromastyx ‘relax’ and become more acclimated to being handled. Uromastyx can be handled if given time to adjust. We don’t recommend trying to handle any newly acquired reptile for at least two weeks. This allows them time to settle into their new home. Speaking of homes you should have the entire enclosure setup with all the heating and lighting elements in place before bringing the new Uromastyx to its new home. We describe the journey of a new reptile pet here in Homeward Bound.
To begin handling, place your hand in the enclosure and slowly move it closer to the Uromastyx over the period of a week. Finally by the end you should be able to at least touch the Uro without them running away. Let your hand rest gently on their back for a few minutes at a time. In time, you will be able to move your hand beneath the Uro and lift them into your palm. Make sure to support their entire body and allow their hands to grasp your arm and palm so they feel secure. Make sure when you begin this process you hold them over something soft that they can land on. They may squirm and try to escape and we’d rather they fall into something soft.
Uromastyx in Captivity
We’d love to hear about your experiences with Uromastyx in the captive environment or if you’ve been lucky enough to experience them in the wild please drop us a comment so we can share knowledge about this incredible species. Also John F Taylor is updating his original Uromastyx book as there have been so many changes since the original one was published and it’s hoped to be released in the Winter of 2016.