History | Sexing | Housing | Feeding | Tameness | Breeding | Health and Longevity | Relationship of a Pair | Conclusion
I remember noticing Cunningham's Skinks for the first time when my wife and I started going down to a local pet shop. Up until then the only skinks I had seen were the typical "skink-like" species - Blue Tongues, Berbers and the smaller ones - all smooth-scaled, with often diminutive-looking legs, but usually colourful. These two were so different I was surprised to discover they were skinks at all - black, with flecks of white, and above all, spiky - veritable armoured lizards looking not unlike the African Cordylid species. They lay on a rock in their cage under the heat bulb, round-eyed but perhaps a little grumpy-looking. The girl behind the counter was feeding the reptiles, so I asked if I could take a look at them. Feeling rather confident of myself, I put my arm in and picked one up. It rewarded me by twisting its head round and biting my finger hard, leaving a nice heart-shaped mark where its jaws had pressed home. Love at first bite, you might say.
This experience notwithstanding, I remained quite interested in the skinks, but assumed that because they were Australian in origin, they would soon be snapped up because of their rarity. Actually this is not quite the case, since Egernia cunninghami has been bred rather regularly in captivity for some years, but nevertheless they could still hardly be called common. Weeks went by, however, and nobody seemed really interested in purchasing them. Maybe it was their pugnacious behaviour when handled: one bit me again and drew blood this time. I toyed with the idea for a while, and eventually after seeing one for sale at the Gillingham Herp Exhibition in April 1998 I struck a deal with one of the owners and bought the pair.
Skinks as a rule are considered hard to sex, and Cunninghams are probably more difficult than most. Bartlett (A-Z of Lizard Care) says that they were convinced one specimen they had was male until she produced a litter of young one summer. No hemipenile bulges are visible, but probing (done by an expert!) may prove if an individual is definitely male.
It's not too difficult to house Cunninghams, provided you can provide the space for them. Being 12-18" in adult length, they require roomy terraria, and I settled for one 4' x 2' x 3'. Height, however, is not important as these skinks are strictly terrestrial and in fact somewhat saxicolous (dwelling among rocks). Rocks are indeed important for the well-being of Cunninghams, and most writers recommend a jumble of sturdy rocks in the cage for both basking and hiding. This raises one important point, namely to make sure that your vivarium or tank can bear the weight of so much stone. I would certainly not recommend using an aquarium to house these lizards for that reason, and even if you are using a wooden vivarium you should make sure that the bottom is not going to drop out. I still have the occasional qualm about keeping ours on top of the monitor vivarium, even though the latter is 6' x 3' and very sturdily constructed. Another thing to beware of with all rock-dwelling creatures is that their eagerness to tunnel in between rocks can lead to the rocks collapsing on them (with fatal consequences) unless the rocks are secured. If you wish to make a rock hide for your captives, it is often best to glue the rocks to one another to lessen this risk. Aquarium sealant (silicon-based) is recommended. I have used large pieces of bark in addition to the rocks provided, and the lizards seem happy to use these as hides. One of them also persistently squeezes under the heat mat when it is not switched on.
By the way, an amusing but instructive anecdote: if you are loading a vivarium sideways into a vehicle, make sure you take the glass doors out of the vivarium first! I didn't, and as we tipped it over on its back they both fell inside and smashed to pieces. Take heed!
Like a lot of medium-to-large lizards, Cunninghams Skinks are fairly easy to feed but do need a variety of food. If you keep Blue-Tongue Skinks you can feed Cunninghams a similar diet but with a greater proportion of insects and less veggies. My own feeding routine for my pair was on the same rota as the plated lizards, but with a few slight differences. Both groups of lizards (Cunnighams and Plateds) had a routine where they got fed 2-3 times a week, usually every other day with a two-day gap between meals once a week. For the Cunninghams one feed would normally consist of black crickets (not too many of these as the chitin can be hard to digest), one of vegetables and fruit, chopped and placed in a bowl, and one of king mealworms (Zoophobas) or occasionally of two pinkie mice each, dipped in calcium powder (eg Nutrobal), since they did not seem overly keen on these but would eventually consume them. In any event, insectivorous or omnivorous lizards should not be given too much animal protein. The best ingredients for the veggie dinner are paw-paw fruit (also known as papaya), water cress or mustard and cress, and one of the following: mixed vegetables (peas and carrots, normally thawed from a bag in the freezer), a chopped up strawberry, a couple of leaves of kale or spinach, and a few slices of ripe mango or banana. Note that kale, spinach and banana should only be given sparingly, as the first two items contain an oxidant-binding substance and the third is quite fatty for reptiles, although they love it. Hal Cogger notes that in the wild this species consumes much fruit and seeds, as well as arthropods and small vertebrates. A bowl of water should always be available (not too cold).
If you are used to the tameness of Blue-Tongue Skinks or Plated Lizards, you may be disappointed with Cunninghams. Egernia cunninghami in my experience tend to revert more to the usual skink characteristic of secretiveness and flighty retreat if they are exposed to the sight of a human, at least initially. Like a lot of nervous lizards, if handled they will also try to bite, and believe me they can bite, hard enough to draw blood. For this reason I recommend you purchase a tough pair of smooth gardening gloves if you wish to handle your Cunninghams. Once I was handling the male, Tucker, when he bit hard on my gloved finger. I was able to draw my hand out of the glove without any discomfort and had the amusing sight of Tucker sitting in my grasp still pugnaciously clasping my glove in his jaws until he grew tired of this game. It took months to get to the point where these skinks would not run away to hide as soon as they sensed my presence in the room, but eventually they would normally remain basking or sitting when I came in provided that I did not stare too long at them - eye contact (or lack of) seemed quite important to them.
Cunninghams do not seem to need much preparation to start breeding in captivity. This was brought home to me in late September 1998 when I came into the reptile room one morning and noticed two small black blurs whizzing around the vivarium. Sure enough these turned out to be two baby skinks, who had obviously not long been born as one of them still had the placenta in its mouth. Skinks are alone, I believe, among lizards in that some species (including Egernia cunninghami) do display true viviparity, ie they give birth to live young which have been nourished by a placenta, as true mammals do. They are also rare in displaying a certain mother-young bond: for example, the two to three offspring of Egernia depressa often stay with their mother for up to two or three years, whereas the young of most lizards are born ready to make their own way. Nevertheless I was taking no chances and separated the two babies, placing each in its own plastic tank with a heat-mat under each one. For the first three months or so I used a simple newspaper substrate in order to monitor their fecal output, but then switched to a digestible sand-type substrate. The only disadvantage of the latter is that it seems to make the faeces bigger due to clumping where particles have accidentally been ingested during feeding. Their diet was mainly crickets, first micro-crickets for about two months, then a mixture of micro- and small crickets. During the same two months at the beginning I gave them a fruit-flavoured baby food at least once a week, but latterly I gave it about once or twice a month. From March (about five months after their birth) I also dropped feeding them once a day to once every other day. It is interesting to note that right from the beginning these baby Cunninghams were avid feeders, chasing and striking at crickets right from day one. Needless to say they also had access to water, which due to the dictates of space and the baby lizards' size is provided in a jar lid. This was changed once a day owing to (a) the substrate that gets kicked into it and (b) the frequent saurian habit of defecating into or near water.
For the most part I had no problems with the health of any of the Cunninghams, adult or hatchling. They seem to be fairly hardy if the basic requirements (correct heat, UV, cleanliness and diet) are provided, plus of course enough space. However honesty compels me to state that the hatchlings only reached subadulthood before both losing interest in their food and passing away. The cause of this was unknown. This was one case where the adults outlived the offspring.
The longevity record for Egernia cunninghami appears to be 26 years. Tingha and Tucker sadly both passed away in 2007 within months of each other. As I had had them as sexually mature adults for about 9 years, actual age at purchase unknown, I have no way of knowing whether their deaths were premature or normal for their age, but they showed no signs of disease or ill health other than slowing down and a steady loss of appetite.
Tied in with breeding is naturally the relationship of a male and female(s) Cunninghams. Though they were secretive, I sometimes noticed Tingha and Tucker sitting at the cool end of the tank on top of a log together, occasionally one on top of the other. Whether this preceded or followed mating is not certain. When hiding, I noticed that they also sometimes both squeezed under the same log and lay there together, both pointing in the same direction. At other times one would lay under this log and the other - I suspect Tucker, the male - would lay under the heat mat at the warm end. This also raises the reminder that two males should not normally be kept together unless their habitat is really large and there are visual barriers to prevent them from coming to territorial blows.
I had the Cunninghams for 9 years and have a steady decrease in their reclusiveness, but I would never have called these tame lizards. For this reason, and the reason that the viewing pleasure was somewhat restricted by their secretive and flighty behaviour, I would not recommend them to everybody, particularly younger keepers. Nevertheless they are beautiful, almost spectacular, lizards when seen in the open, and for that and the reason that the skinks are still an under-studied family, I believe they are worth keeping. I also strongly urge any keepers to make notes on their captives and make their observations available, and if at all possible to breed them as the export of these animals from their native land is currently prohibited.
|Vivarium size:||Ideally at least 4 ft by 2 ft, best with sliding glass door.|
|Vivarium setup:||Generously equipped with rocks, set up carefully to avoid accidents. A newspaper substrate may be acceptable.|
|Heating:||Thermal gradient from 70-75 degrees to 85-90 during the day, dropping about 10-15 degrees for 10 hours or so at night.|
|Food:||Omnivorous and easily satisfied: Insects: crickets, both brown and black, king mealworms especially good for adults, occasional mealworms and waxworms. Vegetable matter: cress, paw paw (aka papaya), thawed veggies such as mixed peas and carrots, mango, strawberry, limited amount of spinach, kale, banana: if you are used to offering seeds to Uromastyx lizards, try offering some to these skinks: low-fat dogfood or pinky or two occasionally.|
|Water||Bowl should always be present.|
|Handleability||Low: not at all suitable as a children's pet.|
|Health||Fairly robust, but do watch out for parasites in wild-caught specimens. A precautionary visit to a reptile vet may be worthwhile. As with all omnivorous reptiles, do not overfeed with animal protein (ie vertebrate prey and dogfood, etc)|
|Initial outlay (excluding the lizards themselves)||About £200 for the tank/vivarium and the heating equipment. The lizards themselves will probably cost about £40-50 each. Buy from a reputable shop or dealer as wild-caught imports do vary in health.|
There is not a great deal in print dedicated to Egernia cunninghami, and you should not expect to find them in beginners' or introductory books on lizard keeping. However a number of books mention them if only in passing. Richard Wynne's Lizards In Captivity (TFH) gives a useful thumbnail guide plus colour plate near the back, while Bartlett and Bartlett's A-Z Of Lizard-Keeping (Barrons) is a little more useful. Jerry Walls' Skinks (TFH) does a good job of covering all the skink genuses but again does not go into much detail about Cunninghams. I have not encountered any mention at all in the herpetological magazines, nor come across anything about them on the Internet. Perhaps here is one species which is waiting for somebody to write up a monograph of its life in captivity, the wild or both.
Ageing and longevity for Egernia cunninghami
The Herpbeeder page for Egernia has a useful bibliography, including several E. cunninghami references
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