Added 8 October 2002

My experiences with and observations of

Ruins Lizards

Podarcis sicula


History
Sexing
Housing
Feeding
Tameness
Breeding
Health
Relationships within the group
Conclusion
A Note on Keeping Lacertids Outside
Bibliography

History

European lizards have often been neglected within the hobby, even in their own continent, since herps from other continents became more readily available. Nevertheless they have a beauty of their own and are worth study. Although not all are easy to keep in captivity, some of the Lacerta and Podarcis species are. Since studying European species I have long been fascinated by the slender wall lizards of the Podarcis genus, and recently I was offered the chance to acquire a captive-bred trio of Podarcis sicula, the Ruins Lizard.


Description

These are small and slender lizards. Although their length may be 8-10" (mine were smaller when first acquired, about 6") in total length, the long tail makes up two-thirds or so of this length. Like many species of the genus the snout is long and pointed. The eyes are small but bright. Coloration varies among the fantastic amount of subspecies (about 40) but is usually some shade of grass green dorsally with brown or other dark coloration on the flanks. A few subspecies are melanistic (all black). My own show beautiful sky-blue ventrolateral scales, and this cyan blue coloration features in several subspecies.

Sexing

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 Podarcis sicula 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.


Housing

Although small, P. sicula seems to need a lot of room to run about in as the need takes it. I started off with an 18" by 10" tank, but after a few weeks moved up to a 24" by 12", which seemed to induce a change in their behaviour in that they seemed less jittery. An ordinary aquarium with a vivarium lid can be used and indeed may be safer, as these lizards are so fast I would be very wary of them leaping out through a front-opening cage. Lizards of this small size are difficult to recapture at the best of times, and with the sudden bursts of speed that P. sicula is capable of, it is vital to be secure.

Furnishing is also important. Apart from the normal hide places such as cork barks, this species seems to need tall stones or rocks to bask on. In the "wild" (which may in fact be in the middle of a big city), they are found clinging to walls (hence the common name), and I have noticed that when given the opportunity they will do this in captivity. The easiest way to reproduce this environment is to use flat pieces of aquarium rock and to stand them up on their end. The rocks should remain standing if you have a deep enough substrate of sand or gravel to bed them in and if you lean them against a wall of the cage. One thing to be aware of is that either the lizards or their insect prey may eventually dig under the stones, weakening their stability. So far only one of mine has fallen over with no ill effect, but obviously you should be aware of the possibility. Another thing to be mindful of is that if the lizards are basking on top of the rocks, they are near to the top of the tank: hence a closed lid is essential.


Feeding

Due to their slender build, Podarcis sicula should only be offered small food items. This is not always easy if you depend on your local pet shop for food supplies, as I have found that the very small food items are not often stocked (and if they are, a spell of very hot or cold weather can rapidly reduce them). However, some good shops do carry them, or they can be ordered online.

The main item will usually be 1st or 2nd instar crickets, as these are readily available and can be easily "gut loaded" for nutritional value. Allow about 6-8 per lizard and cool the crickets in the usual way (ie put them in a bag and leave them in the fridge for 10-15 minutes before offering them). Owing to the nervous nature of this species, do not expect to see them chasing crickets down in front of you, at least not at first. However, I have noticed that the lizards will often strike at nearby crickets from cover, seizing them in their jaws and then running off with them or ducking back into hiding. After a while they will pursue crickets in your presence, but sometimes you get a better view by standing further away, which seems to make them feel more relaxed. I have found that a number of crickets accumulate in hiding places such as underneath the water bowl, so it may be an idea to leave some food for these crickets in the tank (maybe a small lid with tropical fish flakes, for example) and then to remove their "cover" two or three days later. This way the crickets, presumably well-fed by then, can be consumed further by the lizards.

Fruit flies (Drosophilia) are sometimes available from pet shops or online and would probably make a useful variation on the diet. However, I have not tried this item with the lizards yet. Recently I tried some of the captive-bred houseflies as food items, and the results were encouraging: a Podarcis will dart after one, struggle to seize it in its jaws (the target fly will hop deftly about, these flies having been bred not to fly as well as the normal housefly) and then, once it has it, shake it vigorously once or twice before chewing it.

Water is important. Although these are creatures that enjoy the heat, basking in the Mediterrean daylight, I always have a shallow water bowl topped up in the tank. This may also provide humidity to help them shed, which they seem to do at the moment fairly regularly.


Tameness

I have had these lizards for a few months and to be honest I have learned not to expect them to become tame. It may be due to their slender build, but even after acclimatisation they can be mistrustful. Their usual tactic when I enter the room is to freeze in position and then as soon as my back is turned to dart into the nearest cover. This may change slowly with time, but the initial shyness and their small size really make them less than suitable for a children's pet.


Breeding

Too early to say. Females take two years to reach sexual maturity. A period of winter "rest" (cooling) is recommended: in the wild this takes place from October/November to February/March, the exact length probably depending on locality.


Health

So far I have had no problems with the health of any of the Podarcis, and they seem to shed regularly, leaving the shed skin in large pieces. Although I have not observed it, the numbers of pieces I have found in the water bowl leads me to think that this damp area may be a favoured place to shed the old skin.


Relationships within the group

These lizards live in large colonies around walls and man-made stone structures in nature, so one would expect them to rub along fairly tolerantly in captivity, especially if their needs are met. So far I have not encountered any fighting or grabbing of food from one another within the group. However as the sex ratio within the group is uncertain, no firm conclusions can be drawn from this. These also appear to be juveniles, so the situation may change with sexual maturity.


Conclusion

European lizards are often neglected as they are seen as less exciting in contrast with species from elsewhere. However, owing to their shy nature and small size, Podarcis sicula are probably lizards for European specialists only. I certainly do not recommend them as a children's pet, nor if you want a reptile that can be handled. Having said that, they seem to be fairly robust if kept properly, and their coloration can be very attractive.


Summary of Podarcis sicula requirements:

Eyed Lizard Requirements
Vivarium size: Ideally at least 2 ft by 1 ft for adults, glass tank is ideal.
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 artificial 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: Insectivorous. Best menu appears to be 1st/2nd instar brown crickets. Fruitflies may be offered.
Water Bowl should always be present.
Handleability Very little: 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 5-30 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.

A Note on Keeping Lacertids Outside

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. To be honest, Podarcis sicula are so slender and small that problems of keeping them safely caged may outweigh the benefits. As they seem to need to bask in strong sunlight in the wild, any garden where these lizards were housed outdoors would have to catch the sun most of the day. Most keepers would be better keeping this species indoors.


Bibliography

There is not a great deal in print dedicated to Podarcis sicula, 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. Manfred Rogner's Lizards (Volume 2) has a section on P. sicula and is available in both English and German: it is however somewhat more expensive than the other books mentioned above. Jerry Walls' Your First Lizard (TFH) mentions Lacerta and Podarcis lizards in passing 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, nor does there seem to be much on the Internet. Most field guides to European wildlife do mention P. sicula, even if they omit other lacertid species.

For German-speakers, Manfred Rogner's PraxisRatgeber: Eidechsen, (Edition Chimaira 2002, Frankfurt am Main) is dedicated to the Lacertidae, including their husbandry and breeding. It covers all the genera, including Podarcis. Hopefully an English translation is in the pipeline.

Please see also European Lacertids | Podarcis species | Back to Main Lizards Page | Back to HomePage