How to keep...

European lacertids

Herman A.J. in den Bosch


Our webzine Pod@rcis is named after a, in evolutionary terms, young branch of the large family Lacertidae. Apart from the genus Podarcis, this group is represented in Europe by the genera Acanthodactylus, Algyroides, Gallotia, Lacerta, Ophisops and Psammodromus. This listing covers the most familiar names (not taking into account recent taxonomical fine-tuning). As a matter of fact, lacertid lizards are also found in Asia (think of the genus Takydromus) and in Africa where the group may have originated.

The European species vary in size from very small, like the slender Algyroides fitzingeri with a snout-vent length of approximately four centimetres, to the bulky Lacerta lepida that is over twenty centimetres in length.

Many species are relatively easy to keep. German and Dutch breeders have been very successful with these lizards and it is often possible to obtain animals from fellow enthusiasts. Make sure that the animals are active, bright-eyed, and have properly filled-out tail and thighs. The edges of the jaws should not show any (flat to wart-like) greyish-brown or transparent protuberances. The lizards should have completed their skin shedding without problems so that no shreds of loose skin remain attached.


As a general rule males are more powerfully built than females. At a similar body length, males have a larger head and possess a swollen tail base (which harbours the hemipenes). On the inside of the thighs, both sexes show a row of pores. In males the openings of the pores are larger and during the mating season, thick, wax-like rods emerge from these openings. The more colourful lizards are almost invariably males.


For smaller lizards, those with a snout-vent length of approximately six cm, a simple but properly closing glass or plastic terrarium with minimum measurements of 30x30x60 cm (wxhxl) and fitted with a screen lid is sufficient. Bigger species will of course need a larger home.

For bottom substrate it is better not to use sand because this may cause eye problems. Branches and plants are a useful addition for climbing. Some rocks need to be present so the lizards can wear down their nails. Make sure the rocks are stable, because almost unavoidably these will crush a lizard at an unforeseen moment. Lacertids are fond of cracks and spaces between rocks and bark as hiding places.

For lighting and, at the same time, heating 25 W spotlights are adequate in a smaller terrarium. They will increase the temperature locally (aim for 30-35ºC on the 'basking spots') while the rest of the terrarium will remain cooler. Cooling down at night is favourable to their health. Allow for at least 8-10 hours of light during the summer. In spring and fall a few hours per day is sufficient. One can even switch off the lights for a while.

A true hibernation of one to four months at temperatures of 2-4ºC in, for example, humid peat covered with a layer of beech leaves is essential for many species. Without it, reproduction in the following spring may not be successful. It is essential that the animals should have emptied their stomach and intestines because otherwise the contents decompose in an uncontrolled manner, which will inevitably result in death. Have the animals fast a few days before their hibernation with the lights still on. Bear in mind when putting animals through hibernation that species which in nature only experience a slightly cooler period - such as Podarcis milensis inhabiting a Mediterranean holiday island - will not survive four months at near 0ºC. On the other hand, montane species like Lacerta mosorensis will get sick from remaining awake throughout the winter.

Most European lizards are easily kept in outdoor terraria. Make sure that during the summer there is not only sun but also sufficient shade, and that in winter the animals can retreat into burrows that are deep enough for them to survive the frost. Understandably, a high ground water level in your garden can be lethal during this period. Protect the terrarium against unwanted visitors from above (birds, cats) and below (moles, rats, mice).

Never let yourself be persuaded to take the animals out of their terrarium for curious visitors. The lizards will not handle this very well and will eventually fade away for 'inexplicable' reasons.


It is best to keep a single pair of lizards together or a male with a few females. Keeping two males together is asking for trouble. Part of the mating ritual is the male biting the female (often in the flank). This is no reason to interfere. However, if a male is too eager to mate with the females that are housed in the same small container, he may eventually mortally wound them. In such a case it is often preferable to separate the lizards after mating. Make sure that females have the possibility to deposit their eggs in a container with some moist potting soil. The eggs should be transferred to an incubator kept at 25-30ºC. Good eggs are taut and have a parchment-like shell; those that show dents and feel flabby are probably unfertilised and incubating these is futile.

The juvenile lizards are fed small crickets or a variety of small insects. These insects can be caught by sweeping a net through, for instance, tall grass. Put the juveniles in a separate terrarium, as their parents will rarely see them as their offspring.

Lizards worship the sun. Ensure that each has a place to bask so that they are not in each other's way all the time. Of course, there should also be access to proper shade. Lizards need exercise and all kinds of obstacles for climbing are greatly appreciated.

Keeping these animals with other reptiles or amphibians is strongly discouraged.


Every species has slightly different requirements. Some are very peaceful, while others are not. Some are easily stressed, and other species literally need to be shoved aside during feeding and changing their drinking water.

European species are protected by law, but the regulations for keeping them in captivity - with or without permits - differ from country to country. Independent of these regulations, do not attempt to keep Lacerta vivipara, Podarcis muralis or Psammodromus algirus. These species are very difficult to raise. The Canary Island lizards of the genus Gallotia are often extremely shy in the terrarium, making it hard to derive much fun from them. The larger Green Lizards, such as Lacerta viridis and Lacerta bilineata, or the Turkish forms Lacerta media and Lacerta pamphylica are often rewarding species; some individuals may even become more or less tame and take food from your hand. Of the smaller lizards, Podarcis sicula is a hardy species.


Lizards predominantly eat insects. Island forms in particular occasionally eat fruit in the wild. Make sure that the prey animals, such as crickets, mealworms and buffalo worms, are being fed properly themselves, with healthy food and lots of calcium (for example bird rearing food). This will help to keep your lizards healthy long term. Dust the insects with a mixture of minerals before they are served to the lizards. Make sure that plenty of calcium is easily accessible (e.g. by putting bite-sized pieces of eggshell inside the terrarium). Adding water soluble ('aquosum') vitamin A and D3 to the drinking water is absolutely necessary! A minimum 20.000 I.E. vitamin A and 20.000 I.E. vitamin D3 per litre is required. Refresh the drinking water on a daily basis, if possible. Ultraviolet light in nature ensures proper vitamin D regulation. In small terraria this situation can be mimicked with halogen lights, but vitamin supplements are a more secure method of acquiring vitamin D.


If a lizard does not crawl into hiding during the night, this should be a general warning that something is amiss. If this happens, attempt to find the cause for this anomalous behaviour.

The vitamins and minerals mentioned earlier will ensure that your animals will not suffer from bone problems. Swollen, teary eyes may indicate a vitamin A deficiency. A dirty mouth is a symptom of a hard to treat infectious disease that not only affects the oral mucous membranes, but actually invades the entire body of the lizard. Local treatment with antibiotic cream is therefore only partly successful. Long term oral administration of antibiotics normally will completely cure this ailment. Do not give up too soon; instead continue the treatment for a while after the mouth appears clean. Some species (Podarcis lilfordi and Podarcis pityusensis) and weakened animals are especially susceptible to this infectious disease. Make sure to place infected animals in quarantine!

Ectoparasites in the form of ticks and mites (the so-called blood lice) are easily treated with Vapona or another ectoparasiticum. Consult with your veterinarian or a very experienced lizard keeper, and do not start spraying insecticides without prior knowledge. Observe your animals during the treatment as individual animals may develop allergic reactions. Never use permethrin (Ardap Spray), as this is lethal to small lizards.

Animals that eat well but still lose weight may have intestinal worms.

Shedding of the dead outer layer of the skin, which comes off in bits and pieces in the course of a few days, is a normal phenomenon in lizards and not a symptom of any disease. In this way, lizards renew their skin several times a year. Whitish or yellowish areas not caused by skin remnants (which in itself can be a sign of poor health) may indicate a fungal infection. Salve containing miconazole, sold over-the-counter for treatment of (human) athlete's foot, often helps.

One concluding remark: Almost all lizards have a tail that breaks off when handled roughly. This is not a disease but a natural escape mechanism, therefore, do not grab your lizards by the tail.


The natural history of a number of temperate South American lizards is more or less comparable to that of the European lacertid lizards. Do not assume that every South American lizard lives in a rainforest. One of the most common forms is Liolaemus tenuis. The males are green with blue on the flanks, whereas the females are brown with lighter spots. Juveniles are not very tolerant towards each other, although no real fighting will take place. It is advisable to raise them separately. The terrarium should definitely not be too humid, because then whitish spots will appear on the lizard's skin. However, if the terrarium is too dry, they will have trouble shedding their skin. Spraying some water in the terrarium is a good idea; you could add some vitamin D. These lizards also like to climb plants. It is quite possible that several forms can be recognised under names as Liolaemus gravenhorsti (a live-bearing, higher altitude form), and the egg-laying Liolaemus chilensis.

It seems that recently mainly small iguanids from Peru appear in the pet trade. Keeping in mind that this country shows almost all possible climates, it is obvious that it is essential to know the origin of the species. Obtain this information before acquisition, not afterward.

During summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it is winter in South America and vice versa. Keep that in mind with recently imported animals. If possible, it is preferable to start with captive-bred offspring from other lizard keepers. Those animals are already adjusted to our seasonal cycles, do not harbour parasites, and the breeders can be a source of information.


The German magazine Die Eidechse ( specialises in lacertid lizards.