Added 27 April 1999. In memory of Troilus, Cressida and Cressida II.

My experiences with and observations of

Golden Skinks

Mabuya multifasciatus


History
Sexing
Housing
Feeding
Tameness
Subsequent History
Conclusion

History

Although I had seen small skinks for sale before, I only really took an interest in skinks when I saw my first pair of golden skinks at Beaver Water World. They were small enough to be housed in a large plastic Pen-Pals carrier in the aquarium section, where other livestock for sale was kept due to the warmth. They were quite beautiful, being indeed a sort of golden burnish on top that gradually lightened to a matt creamy yellow underneath. They also bore two yellow brown stripes just behind the front legs that ran a short way down the flanks. Add to that their round eyes and you had a very attractive lizard, and furthermore one which did not need a lot of space.

I tried nevertheless not to rush in, so instead I bought a small caresheet on Mabuya multifasciatus, followed by Jerry Wall's TFH book on Skinks. Their care requirements seemed fairly easy, so after some thought, and after my wife had bought another rodent or two for her collection, I purchased the skinks and their home. Believing we had a male and a female, we christened them Troilus and Cressida.


Sexing

Skinks as a rule are considered hard to sex, and golden skinks are no exception. The only tips I can give is that skink behaviour tends to be slightly calmer in males, and that male colours are usually brighter in breeding season. I am not sure about femoral pores in these lizards.


Housing

Housing for these small lizards is quite simple in terms of space. An 18" by 12" aquarium or terrarium will hold a pair, since they are not overly active and spend a lot of time buried in the substrate or under a shelter. What you must have is some heat source, preferably overhead, to take the heat in the warm end to the mid-eighties, and a UV light as Mabuya do need this to thrive. (There may be psychological benefits for the lizard). A substrate of corncob or reptile bark or similar is also preferable to newspaper, since skinks like to have something to burrow in. Real plants may be used, or you can do what I did and add the plastic variety - as long as there is a reasonable amount of hiding space for the skinks, they don't mind. I used a long piece of bark resting on the substrate in the middle of the tank to give them something to burrow under.

Mabuya multifasciatus also like humidity, so a misting once or twice a day will be necessary. This means that the tank should have some ventilation to prevent the buildup of bacteria. This raises the problem of security, since from bitter experience I can vouch for the escape abilities of these creatures. Grills, either in the vivarium lid or set in the top of the terrarium back and/or sides, are the best way. If you are using a UV light, don't let it just dangle inside the tank with a glass panel shut on it to hold it up: I tried this method and lost a lizard this way.


Feeding

Despite their small size, golden skinks are voracious feeders. Small to medium-sized brown crickets will be eagerly taken, as will waxworms (not too many, as they are quite big proportionate to the skink) and freshly molted mealworm pupae. I used to feed mine at night every 2-3 days when feeding the other nocturnal lizards. It was actually pleasurable to drop the food into the tank (where I could usually never see the skinks, buried as they were) and wait for the sudden thudding, thrashing sound of the lizards realising the presence of their prey and seizing it. Sometimes Troilus or Cressida would suddenly burst into view from between the plastic fronds, arthropod between jaws, pause for a second upon seeing me and then just as rapidly disappear into cover again.

For water I used a small plastic flowerpot holder, which I leaned slightly against the bark and squirted liberally with water every night so that the droplets would eventually trickle into a small pool. You have to be careful if using this arrangement to make sure that the receptacle does get washed out regularly, otherwise the water goes stagnant. I also varied this routine from time to time by filling it instead with baby food fruit mixture, which they seemed to appreciate since I normally found the dried remainder a day or so later with what looked like ploughmarks through it (their tongues, I suppose). This also supplied them with moisture, plus what they licked off the leaves of the plants after the nocturnal spraying.


Tameness

This is where golden skinks get marked down. Not only are they unhandleable compared to similar sized lizards like geckos, but their shyness means that unlike, say, day geckos, they cannot even be considered true display animals, since they spend most of the day if not the night buried in substrate and often under a large object. If you do attempt to pick them up, great care is needed as they have the typically shiny-smooth skink scaling that enables them to wriggle and slip from your grasp, leap to the floor and thence scuttle off into hiding, usually beneath an awkward piece of furniture. Much as I loved our three that we kept for over a year, I could not in all conscience recommend these to a beginner as they might be disappointed with the low visibility factor. They are really for keepers who want to try something different and are not too bothered about the shy nature of their charges.


Subsequent History

The golden skinks both escaped at different times, including once when I had Troilus in my hand (he squeezed out and disappeared before I could stop him. On the first occasion I only found him when Uther, our male plated lizard, was doing his walkabout thing in the reptile room. I saw him climb under the cover of a guitar amplifier and disappear into the back of the amplifier, and when I removed the cover, there was Troilus, sitting in the bottom. (Uther, if I remember correctly, was up on the back of the speaker). No harm appeared to have been done. The second time this happened he was actually out for a couple of days or more. I eventually went through all the furniture and finally, to my frustration, found that the only place left was the old hi-fi unit which was laden down with books and equipment. Having removed all of this, I moved the unit carefully and found him underneath, a little nervous but perhaps more acquiescent owing to hunger. I think he survived the ordeal partly because I had left a small plate or container with water at each end of the room in the hope that he would come out in the darkness and drink.

This precaution was tragically underlined to me later when Cressida escaped, and points to another difficulty with these small lizards: it's hard to keep track of them individually in a communal setup. In this case I had heard skink movement in the tank so assumed all was well, until one day I felt uneasy and actually rooted about inside with my hands to check them both. Cressida was missing. A short while later my wife moved the duvet at the end of our bed and found Cressida's body, stiff and dessicated with the eyes sunken in. She had obviously been out for a couple of days or more and had died of thirst. I took the body to the vets, but Dr W. said the insides would be too far gone to carry out a post mortem. We buried her in the garden.

After that we made sure that Troilus was secure, and he seemed to get on OK in his tank, eating well and making the odd appearance. I occasionally considered getting another mate for him but held off for nine months until we went to the Gillingham Herp Exhibition in April 1999. Among other lizards for sale I saw a box with some golden skinks in and asked the vendor to pull me out a female. The fact that so many were together in a plastic tub, and that the skinks were selling for just 7 each, should have made me more wary. They did bag her up in a large plastic sack with airholes in, and we took her home. Fiona rightly suggested quarantining her, but I had a shortage of containers at that point and, having never had a problem with disease before, blithely assumed that Cressida II, as we had named her, was in good health. I put her in with him.

From almost the first day I noticed that Cressida II was behaving strangely. Instead of burrowing into cover as the previous two had done, she sat out in the open in the tank, hardly moving but head pointing upwards and mouth slightly agape. I assumed she was suffering from stress and got her to move a couple of times. I did not observe her eat. A couple of days later I went to pick her up and found that she had died.

Looking back, it's hard for me now to consider how complacent I was, or how I didn't take necessary precautions. I should also have had an autopsy done on her. But we put her in the freezer in an airtight plastic bag for a few days and then buried her with some of our other pets that had died and been awaiting interrment for a while.

On the Saturday following, to my horror Troilus started showing the same symptoms, sitting in the open with his head up and mouth slightly agape. I phoned Dr W, who advised that it was probably a disease and that I should remove him to a clean tank and keep him warm. I did this and applied both a heat mat and a light bulb, making sure the temperature was up to about 90. I also gave him plenty of hiding places. Troilus was more of a fighter in some ways: despite his sickness, he still ran for cover when he was able. But his body seemed to be suffering contractions down the flanks, and I noticed the occasional small fluid bubble emerging from his mouth. I remember him looking at me once as if defiant, whether of me or the disease I don't know: perhaps it was just my anthromorphic imagination. But my hopes were dashed. I came back on Sunday night and he had died a short while previously.

I felt bad, naturally, that I had lost Troilus through my carelessness. This time I was more circumspect. I phoned Dr W who advised me to remove the tanks he had occupied from the room, throw out all the cage furniture and disinfect the tanks and lights, etc. Fiona and I used bleach to clean everything that we did not throw into a black bin liner. The next day I took his body to Dr W for a postmortem. Dr W phoned me the day after to say that the autopsy had revealed Troilus had been infected with a bad disease of the Aeromonas bacterial type, and that not only had his mouth been infected but his air sacs in his lungs had also been badly damaged. While we had suspected some respiratory infection, clearly this had been much worse than we had anticipated. Dr W went on to say that he believed the disease to be confined to golden skinks, but that I should watch the rest of the collection, in his words, "like a hawk". Needless to say I was extremely anxious for the next few days, particularly for Spike, our corn snake, who occupied the tank directly below the golden skinks. Happily so far there appears to have been no further problem.


Conclusion

Golden skinks score well in the size stakes, are reasonably hardy once quarantined and acclimatised, and do not need much maintenance. On the debit side they are swift escape artists who will try to get out at every opportunity and therefore need secure tanks. They are not tame or handleable, and often do not show themselves, even at night. Nevertheless an overhead heat source will bring them out to bask, if only for a short while. On the whole these little lizards are really suitable only for skink specialists and advanced keepers. Then again, it may be that my experiences with these lizards have not been shared by everyone: Jerry Walls (see Bibliography) is more upbeat about them. If anyone reading this has kept golden skinks I would like to hear from them.


Summary of Mabuya multifasciatus requirements:

Golden Skinks' Requirements
Vivarium size: Ideally at least 18" by 12": lockable door or lid essential! Also make sure that there is adequate ventilation.
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.
UV Light: Yes
Food: Mainly insectivorous and easily satisfied with crickets, freshly molted mealworms and the odd waxworm. Fruit baby food makes a nice change occasionally.
Water Bowl should always be present: also spray the cage furniture once or twice a day.
Handleability Very low: not at all suitable as a children's pet.
Health Fairly robust once acclimatised. A precautionary visit to a reptile vet may be worthwhile. Always quarantine new members.
Initial outlay (excluding the lizards themselves) Under 100 for the tank/vivarium and the heating equipment. The lizards themselves will probably cost about 7-15 each. Buy from a reputable shop or dealer as wild-caught imports do vary in health.

Bibliography

There is not a great deal in print dedicated to Mabuya multifasciatus, 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) lumps Mabuya and Riopa species together under the heading "Rainbow Skinks" but gives a reasonable care guide. Jerry Walls' Skinks (TFH) does a good job of covering all the skink genuses and devotes a couple of paragraphs to the Asian Mabuya species. Chris Mattison in Keeping and Breeding Lizards also gives care requirements for Mabuya multifasciatus and related skinks. I have not encountered any mention at all in the herpetological magazines, nor come across anything about them in English on the Internet, although I did find a small Dutch page with picture. Given the relative availability of this species, more information would be most welcome.

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