Last updated 28 April 2001
Although not the sort of hot continent that is associated with reptiles in general and lizards in particular, Europe does have some interesting saurians, some of which are quite striking. I have always been struck in particular by the Lacerta genus, particularly L.viridis (Green Lizard) and L. lepida (Eyed or Ocellated Lizard), which is the largest European lizard. As a group I also felt that they were somewhat neglected by herpetologists. This year I resolved to obtain a pair, and I got my chance at the April 1999 IHS exhibition at Gillingham.
While as adults Eyed Lizards are easily sexed, by colour, size and markings, juveniles and hatchlings tend to be more difficult as they look pretty much the same. However, the friendly dealers at the table (forgive me, I can't remember your names or your company, but you were good!) helped me as we looked for the femoral pores on the legs, and after a few minutes we were convinced that we had a pair, which I subsequently purchased. There were a few anxious weeks in the summer when, owing to their rumbustious behaviour and the lack as yet of distinctive markings, I was worried that I might have inadvertently purchased two males, but since then they have suddenly become remarkably distinct: Tristan, the male, is a beautiful bright green with the characteristic dark blue spots on the side and is somewhat larger than Isolde, whose colour is more of a subdued grass green and whose spots have faded to a washed out blue or in a few cases simply circles.
Most if not all lacertids need plenty of room, so I am envisaging at least a 4' tank for these two as adults. The good news is that being European they don't have the same high temperature requirements as, say, many African or Asian lizards, and indeed in the wild would hibernate in the Mediterranean winter. This means that they can be kept in a different room in the house later on, rather than the permanently warm study, and will also be able to have a free run indoors when the weather is not too cold. At the moment I am keeping them in a large plastic "home" with a heat mat underneath and a UV light overhead close enough for them to get the benefit of its rays. They are quite active so I included a few logs for them to climb on, plus a shelter for each one. While their bodies are not that long, their tails are, something you should be aware of when considering their total length. Eyed lizards prefer a fairly dry habitat but they seem to appreciate the occasional short misting every few days. Do not let humidity build up. For substrate I use calci-sand which has the advantage that it can be ingested - very important given the chasing and grabbing tactics of these lizards when hunting prey.
One word of warning: like many lizards, Eyed Lizards can and will try to escape, especially during the early days of their captivity. This was brought home to me when they were smaller and in a small plastic box with a non-locking lid. I came in one day to find that they had worked out how to get the lid off and had escaped into the study. (This is why I often keep the door shut). Interestingly, I ran across one of them clinging to a mains cable, sitting on it like a trapeze artist as it grasped the cable with all four limbs, watching me with interest and making no attempt to flee as if it knew I could not reach it where it was (behind the savannah monitor vivarium). It took me a little while to recapture them both, during which time I found out how fast and nimble they can be. Please make sure your lizards are secure, for their sake even more than yours.
Like a lot of medium-to-large lizards, Eyed Lizards are fairly easy to feed but do need a variety of food. As they are still young Tristan and Isolde are fed every day with a few small-to-medium sized brown crickets which they take eagerly. This is interspersed ideally once a week with a plate of chopped fruit and vegetables, or else with a few soft-bodied mealworm pupae, ideally ones where the outer skin has not yet hardened (easy to distinguish by their whiteness). A good treat, and a break from insect prey, is a small lid full of fruit baby food, preferably not citric (eg apple and pear, banana, etc). The lacertids love this and will sit for some time licking it up with their purple tongues which they then run around their lips (such as they have - only primates seem to have full-blown lips in the understood sense of the word). The best ingredients for the veggie dinner are paw-paw fruit (also known as papaya), water cress or mustard and cress (finely chopped for young lacertids), and one of the following: a chopped up strawberry, a couple of shredded leaves of kale or spinach, and a few small cubes 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. A bowl of water should always be available (not too cold).
Most books state that while they are distrustful in the wild, Lacerta lepida will settle down and become quite tame in captivity. This has so far been borne out by my experience with Tristan and Isolde, who have grown progressively bolder. They are now at the point where they will come to the glass window of their terrarium and watch me with curiosity. I can now also handle either of them without them trying to pull free of my hands, provided they are not restrained for too long. When they grow to full adult size then I shall see how they act.
Obviously it is too early to say, although Tristan and Isolde have taken on their adult colouring already. A cooling period is, I believe, usually beneficial with most European lacertids. In any case it is better not to rush into breeding too early as this places undue strain on young females. I shall start serious attempts at "pre-breeding conditioning" this winter.
So far I have had no problems with the health of either of the Eyed Lizards. They seem to be fairly hardy if the basic requirements (correct heat, UV, cleanliness and diet) are provided, plus of course enough space.
Again, it is too early to say as some creatures that live together happily as juveniles later become antagonistic following sexual maturity. However, Tristan and Isolde seem to co-exist in much the same way as my other pairs: competitive for food, tearing it from each other's mouths, but otherwise very sociable, occasionally one laying on top of the other under the light or else sitting together on the logs. One thing I have noticed is that if they are in the shelters, the head of one of them will often be looking out as if watching - possibly a tactic from the wild, although these are captive-bred lizards. I am uncertain as to whether the lacertids are colonial in the same way as many agamids, but am inclined to think not.
I have had the Eyed Lizards since April 1999 and have enjoyed keeping them. They are easy to care for, very colourful (certainly the males) and grow to a reasonable size without being awkward or dangerous. I recommend them to anyone who wishes to know more about this underrated and under-observed family.
|Vivarium size:||Ideally at least 4 ft by 2 ft for adults, best with sliding glass door.|
|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. Temperature should be adjusted according to the natural seasons found in the Mediterranean, so that by winter no artifical heat need be provided if the room temperature does not fall too low.|
|UV Light:||Yes - very important! However, as with heating, the light photoperiod should be reduced into winter and then brought back up again: this will stimulate the lacertids into breeding in the spring.|
|Food:||Omnivorous and easily satisfied: Insects: brown crickets, occasional mealworms (pupae if possible) and, for adults and especially gravid females, waxworms. Vegetable matter: cress, paw paw (aka papaya), mango, strawberry, limited amount of spinach, kale, banana : adults may take a pinky occasionally.|
|Water||Bowl should always be present.|
|Handleability||Medium: will probably tame down in time.|
|Health||Fairly robust, but do watch out for parasites in wild-caught specimens. A precautionary visit to a reptile vet may be worthwhile.|
|Initial outlay (excluding the lizards themselves)||About £200 for the tank/vivarium and the heating and lighting equipment. The lizards themselves will probably cost about £30-40 each. Buy from a reputable shop or dealer as wild-caught imports do vary in health.|
Lacertids are among the few lizards that could be maintained outside in the UK, at least in the summer. Certainly Chris Mattison recommends this. However, security in this case becomes absolutely paramount, as there are foxes, cats and crows to consider. Either use the sort of vegetable frame design that Mattison suggests, or follow Bartlett's idea and set up a moveable cage on wheels which gives plenty of room. As lacertids tend not to be arboreal, although they can climb, width is more important than height. Obviously you need to make sure that the housing is escape-proof and safe before you take your lizards out.
There is not a great deal in print dedicated to Lacerta lepida, but most manuals on lizard keeping do mention them and give the basic requirements, including those for breeding. 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) and deVosjoli's Lizard-Keeper's Handbook are also useful. Jerry Walls' Your First Lizard (TFH) mentions them as Level 1 lizards, making them ideal for beginners. I have not yet encountered any account of either their natural history or captive requirements at all in the herpetological magazines, but have not looked yet on the Internet. Most field guides to European wildlife do mention L. lepida, even if they omit other lacertid species.
Please see also European Lacertids | Back to Main Lizards Page | Back to HomePage