History | Sexing | Housing | Feeding | Tameness | Breeding | Health | Relationships within the group | Conclusion | A Note on Keeping Chalcides ocellatus Outside | Bibliography
Skinks are a worldwide and diverse family, but only a few reach Europe. One of the most attractive is Chalcides ocellatus, the Eyed or Barrel Skink. Being interested in European species and having kept other skinks before, it was almost logical to buy a pair of these animals.
This is a small-to-moderate-sized skink (up to 12"/30cm but usually less) of an overall yellow/light brown colour with a varying pattern that usually involves brown/black ocelli containing white spots that may or may not form rows (the exact pattern varying according to subspecies and location). The head is not separated from the body and the ear opening is lower than the eye. The limbs are small but not vestigial, and the tail tapers to a point. The lower eyelid has a small "window" in it: sometimes the skinks appear to have narrowed their eyes as if tired, but a closer look will show that their eyelids are in fact closed, exposing this transparent area.
Sexing hatchlings and juveniles is a fairly thankless task. In adults, females tend to be smaller, or at least smaller-headed, than males, with a more striped pattern [Arnold et al]. This of course assumes that all your Chalcides ocellatus are the same age and comparative size, which is not always easy to judge. With younger specimens at least you may have to take a chance if you are trying to set up a small breeding group.
Although they should not be overcrowded or confined, Chalcides skinks do not seem to be overly demanding in terms of space. I have been keeping mine in a plastic cage 18" by 8", with a ventilated lid and one end resting on a heatmat. A small UV light sits on top of lid at the same end, and while there is debate over whether UV is necessary for these skinks, having it on a timer does give them a clear sense of night and day. The ambient temperature in the reptile room ranges between 65-70 (in winter) and over 90 (in the hot summer), so there is no danger of the temperature dropping to a critical level. However, I will shortly be moving them into a larger vivarium of 2' length as I do not believe they are fully grown yet. If you need to depend very much on heating within the vivarium, then Rogner recommends the following temperatures: 24-29 deg C by day, with a hot spot reaching up to 35 deg C, being allowed to drop to 20 deg C at night. I should add that Rogner cited these figures for C. bedriagai but said that he kept C. ocellatus under the same conditions. Although not strictly fossorial, these skinks do like to burrow, and so a substrate deep and loose enough to allow this is quite important. I use a form of calcium sand to a depth of about two inches, upon which I laid several small pieces of flat rock, a small ceramic shelter and that old standby the hollow cork bark.
These skinks have small mouths and are unlikely to take the average-sized crickets sold in most shops. 1st or 2nd instar size brown crickets (possibly 3rd instar for full-size adults) are a good staple, supplemented by flies (fruitflies or specially bred houseflies). It may also be worth experimenting with a small dish of fruit-flavoured baby food. I feed my Chalcides every three days, at which time they seem to be nicely hungry and will eat for several minutes, seizing and devouring prey rapidly. Occasionally they will squabble over the odd insect, but if enough crickets are thrown in, preferably not too close together, then fighting is normally the exception rather than the rule. Although creatures of usually arid habitats, Chalcides do seem to need some standing water in their cage. I use a inverted lid of water in one corner, but any smallish receptacle should be fine. Occasionally I mist the tank, but I have noticed that the lizards do not seem to like being misted themselves. I have watched them drinking from the water receptacle, lapping it up, so this seems to be the best way to give them liquid.
My own pair seem to be growing more trusting, certainly more so than my Podarcis muralis. While sudden movements make them nervous (as with most animals), they will readily come out of their hides or from under the surface if food or sometimes water is being offered. One is bolder than the other and more assertive, and I am guessing that this is the male. They certainly do not have any reservations about chasing prey or drinking in front of me. Interestingly, hatchlings and juveniles also suddenly lose their nervousness of a human after a few weeks and learn to gather around near the front of their enclosure in the hope of food or water.
A period of winter "rest" (cooling) is recommended: in the wild this takes place from November to February, the exact length probably depending on locality. Rogner recommends dropping the temperature to 12-15 deg C end of November to the beginning of February. With this in mind, in November I began to decrease the photoperiod by half an hour, and dropped it again by another half hour in December. In the event, however, it seems I may have already been overtaken by events. On the evening of February 7th 2003 I checked the enclosure and noticed a third, smaller and somewhat browner skink moving about. With great excitement I placed the cage on the floor, opened the lid and began to search. All of the skinks, including the adults, buried themselves, but by removing the stones and other hiding places (after checking them) and running my fingers carefully through the sand, I was able to count four hatchlings. Presumably the female had given birth to these at some point since the preceding evening, maybe in the night. I took a while to remove the four hatchlings into a spare tank into which I placed a shallower substrate of sand, some stones and a cork bark piece, and a small water dish. In the wild and in captivity adults are known to prey on younger members of their own species, so separation from adults as early as possible is vital. Apart from their smaller size (although they still look relatively large to the size of the mother), the hatchlings are dorsally a golden brown colour, but with yellower tails. The faint traces of the C. ocellatus pattern are barely visible. Juveniles take 2-3 years to reach sexual maturity.
On April 22 2003 the adult female gave birth to another litter, again of 4 individuals: these I likewise separated and placed in a separate container. On the evening of June 19 2003 a third litter of 4 individuals appeared in the cage. This would appear to confirm that C. ocellatus do have more than one litter per year! A further 4 individuals were born in the autumn, 3 in the New Year 2004 period, and 5 appeared on March 13 2004.
So far I have had no problems with the health of either of the Chalcides. Hatchlings and juveniles, however, need to be monitored fairly closely because of a tendency to squabble and fight over food and possibly dominance within the group. This in turn leads to damaged and sometimes completely dropped tails. One juvenile had their tail dropped right down to the tailbase, which itself appeared so ragged that I suspected he or she was not long for this life. I separated this individual from the others and placed it in a separate tank, and about two months later it is still alive and the tail has begun to regenerate. My only loss has been one of the first batch. The three left from this batch (after the damaged one had been separated) seemed to be fairly compatible, but on the evening of June 18 2003 I found one laying on its back in the tank, obviously dead (and apparently having been so for a few hours). Since I replenish the water bowls daily and these are creatures of hot and semi-arid climates, I do not think that a current spell of very hot weather was responsible, nor did the body appear damaged in any way as if by fighting.
As a pair my adult specimens seem to get on fairly well, apart from the odd competitiveness over food (which can be avoided by dropping food in front of each one while they are not close together). Rogner suggests that these can also be kept in a breeding group, but I am not sure how aggressive males would be towards one another. For relationships between juveniles, see above.
C. ocellatus make good captive lizards. They are colourful, not as reclusive as other skinks, and are fairly robust. While they probably cannot be considered a pet in the same sense as, say, a bearded dragon or plated lizard, nor suitable for young children, they could be kept by responsible older children and as a first lizard by beginners. This does not detract in any way from their appeal, even to veteran herpetologists. Given the ease with which they breed, it is a shame more people are not working to produce a viable captive pool of specimens.
|Vivarium size:||Ideally at least 2 ft by 1 ft for adults, glass tank or vivarium with sliding front doors (having a lid on top rather than sliding doors might be safer with these lizards). Juveniles can be kept in smaller containers provided other conditions (esp. deepish substrate) are met.|
|Heating:||Thermal gradient from 24-29 deg C by day, with a hot spot reaching up to 35 deg C, being allowed to drop to 20 deg C at night. Winter cooling period from end of November to beginning of February of 12-15 deg C.|
|UV Light:||Advisable, in the absence of clear proof to the contrary. However, as with heating, the light photoperiod should be reduced into winter and then brought back up again: this will stimulate the skinks into breeding in the spring.|
|Food:||Mainly insectivorous, but will take soft fruit, even if in baby food form. Easiest main menu would be brown crickets of 3rd instar size or smaller. Fruitflies and similar may be offered.|
|Water||Bowl should always be present.|
|Handleability||Not great: temptation should be resisted as this species will drop its tail if threatened.|
|Health||Fairly robust if kept properly. Small size and (usually) low cost make a visit to the vet problematic, both in terms of likely outcome and of cost.|
|Initial outlay (excluding the lizards themselves)||About £100 for the tank/vivarium and the heating and lighting equipment. The lizards themselves will probably cost anything between £5-20 each, depending on where you purchase them and whether they were captive bred or wild caught. Buy from a reputable shop or dealer as wild-caught imports do vary in health: in addition most if not all European wildlife is protected.|
Some European reptiles can be kept outside in the UK with proper conditions and housing, but I do not believe Chalcides ocellatus is one of those species. The main reason is that these skinks do like the warmth, and apart from the brief heatwaves in Britain this country's climate is simply not warm enough. Keepers in southern Germany or parts of the US might be able to do this, while Spain, the southern US and similar climates would doubtless be fine. Even then, however, I am unsure whether there would be any benefit to the keeper, as these skinks do like to burrow: coupled with the action of natural sunlight, which in some cases has proved to make at least some species act more feral and revert to their wild form (monitors being a prime example), this might result in the lizards burrowing out of sight for considerable periods. However, I have no hard and fast data on this. Suffice it to say that for British keepers this is probably not an option.
Although no books are dedicated specifically to Chalcides ocellatus, most manuals on lizard keeping do mention them and give the basic requirements, including those for breeding. The only English-language book I have found dedicated specifically to skinks, Jerry Walls' Skinks (TFH) has details on C. ocellatus and good info on keeping skinks generally. Bartlett and Bartlett's A-Z Of Lizard-Keeping (Barrons) and deVosjoli's Lizard-Keeper's Handbook are also useful. Manfred Rogner's Lizards (Volume 2) has a section on C. ocellatus and is available in both English and German: it is however somewhat more expensive than the other books mentioned above. Richard Wynne's Lizards In Captivity (TFH) gives a useful thumbnail guide plus colour plate near the back, although the book is now rather old and some of the taxonomy outdated. I have not yet encountered any account of either their natural history or captive requirements at all in the herpetological magazines, nor does there seem to be much on the Internet. Most field guides to European wildlife do mention C. ocellatus. The best monograph on the species in the wild I have come across is in the very detailed tome Amphibians and Reptiles of North Africa by W Kästle, H H Schleich and K Kabisch: this is however rather an expensive volume (justifiably so) to purchase for just the one species!
I believe the Chimaira publishing house has a German-language book containing details of 40 or so skinks and their captive care, possibly by lizard academic Professor Wolfgang Böhme. An English translation would be most desirable.
Please see also European Skinks | Back to Skinks | Chalcides species | Back to Main Lizards Page | Back to HomePage