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3:25 PM   April 26, 2015
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Lively Lizards

PPN LogoWith proper care, the hardy curly-tail is an ideal pet for beginning herpkeepers.
By Darren Boyd

Curly-tailed lizards are inquisitive little reptiles native to Peru, the Caribbean and Cuba, and they have also been introduced into several areas in the southern United States. About 20 species of curly-tails exist, but the northern curly-tailed lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus armouri) and jeweled curly-tail (L. personatus) are the ones most commonly seen in the pet trade.

Male curly-tails tend to be larger, more robust and more brightly colored than females. Credit: Darren Boyd
While curly-tailed lizards aren’t as popular as they used to be, they are still hardy and attractive herps that make particularly suitable pets for beginner or intermediate lizard enthusiasts.

Although not always colorful, curly-tailed lizards are still appealing, with their subtle shades of brown and red and occasional ranges of orange, green and yellow on their hind limbs, faces and bodies. Males tend to be more brightly colored than females, depending on the species. These reptiles have keeled scales, and a small vertebral crest runs the entire length of the bodies and tails in both sexes.

Adult curly-tailed lizards can range in size from 4 to almost 10 inches from nose to tail. Males tend to grow larger and more robust than females.

Curly-tails get their name from the way startled individuals curl their tails over their backs, similar to scorpions. Owners rarely observe this behavior in captivity, however.

Curly-tails’ heads are stout and almost birdlike. They have curious eyes that look directly at their keepers.

These lizards don’t tolerate handling well, and they make better display animals than hands-on pets. Sporadic contact may be necessary for examination and during cage cleaning, but curly-tails are quick and agile reptiles that can become stressed with frequently forced handling.

When a person must pick up a curly-tail, industry members recommend taking hold of the middle of their bodies and never trying to pick them up by their tails. Like many lizards, curly-tails drop their tails in defense.

An ideal habitat for a curly-tail is a dry environment with a bark/sand substrate deep enough for the lizard to burrow. Credit: Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.
Curly-tails are easy to care for, but there are a few basic requirements retailers can stress to potential owners.

A 10-gallon aquarium or similarly sized enclosure is suitable for housing one curly-tail; multiple tenants need a larger enclosure. If possible, industry members suggest, avoid housing males together, since they can be territorial. If owners keep curly-tails in groups with multiple males, they can present plenty of space, visual barriers and basking perches.

A secure screen lid is another curly-tail cage necessity. Although they are mostly terrestrial lizards, curly-tails climb well and like to perch themselves high on limbs or rocks to bask during the day. Leaping out of an insecure terrarium would take little effort.

The natural habitat for curly-tails is variable; thus, they adapt to captive conditions without difficulty. A dry environment with a bark/sand substrate deep enough for the lizard to burrow is appropriate.

It is normal for curly-tails to completely burrow beneath their substrates at night. When the lights are back on in the morning, the lizards reappear.

Curly-tail Fast Facts

  • Lives for 7-10 years
  • Feeds on a variety of bugs
  • Is active during the day and sleeps under substrate overnight
  • Makes a great display lizard, but does not enjoy handling
  • Appears most commonly in the pet trade in the jeweled and northern curly-tail species.

Northern curly-tails have been introduced into Florida, and the specimens that become pets are often collected from those thriving populations.

Various shelters and objects to climb on are important in making curly-tails feel at home. Driftwood and cork bark are suitable. Rocks are natural-looking and sturdy, but they go on the floor of the terrarium rather than simply on top of the substrate. If a lizard burrows underneath the substrate, the rocks may topple and injure or kill the animal.

Shallow water dishes allow curly-tails to tilt their heads down to drink. Intermittent misting helps the shedding process.

Since curly-tails are diurnal, sun-loving lizards, they benefit from full-spectrum UVA/UVB bulbs. A photoperiod of approximately 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness is sufficient.

An incandescent basking lamp at one end of an enclosure helps heat the enclosure to about 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and it provides a hot spot of about 90 degrees directly under the light. The nighttime temperature naturally drops by turning off the light, but industry members recommend it not dip much below 72 degrees.

Owners can always keep turned on a heating pad or heat tape, which they place beneath the side of the cage where the light is located. These heating devices add belly heat for digestion and prevent the cage from getting too cold overnight. Curly-tails can overheat if their heating pads are too hot. If a heating pad has an adjustable setting, it needs to be on the lowest one.

Incandescent basking lamps, shallow water dishes and secure screen lids are products to recommend to potential curly-tail owners. Credit: Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.
A good reptile thermometer ensures the temperature is appropriate for any species of herp.

Curly-tails are insectivores with tremendous appetites for being such small creatures. Adults have no problem consuming four or five medium-size crickets during a meal, which industry members suggest offering every second or third day. They’ll also eat waxworms, mealworms, small roaches and, on occasion, soft fruit or baby food.

These curious little lizards become energized by dietary variation, so herpkeepers need to occasionally offer them wild insects, such as grasshoppers, spiders and sow bugs. People need to collect wild insects to feed a captive reptile only at a location free from the use of chemicals or pesticides.

Also important for curly-tails’ long-term health are powdered supplements to provide additional calcium. Owners can dust prey items with commercially available powders every other feeding. Gut-loading feeder insects—those fed nutritious foods with the intention of passing the nutrients on to herp s that eat the prey—also deliver additional nutrients to captive curly-tails.

Curly-tails are not available in large numbers in the North American pet trade anymore, primarily due to exportation bans from their native countries. In time, captive-breeding efforts might increase their numbers for hobbyists. These lizards are hardy, personable and make perfect starter herps, but seasoned keepers can enjoy them as well. The enduring and entertaining curly-tail can be promoted to any herpkeeping enthusiast. <HOME>

Darren Boyd is a writer from Ontario, Canada. After graduating from Zoo School in Central Florida, he returned to Canada to open his business, The Reptile Rainforest, which specializes in captive breeding and educational reptile shows for various events. He keeps several hundred reptiles.

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