Add a pair of wings and a flamethrower to an Armadillo Lizard and it would look like one of the dragons from Game of Thrones.
It would, however, be a very small dragon. Depending on the species, adult Armadillo Lizards range from four to six inches long. The biggest, the Giant Girdled Lizard (Smaug giganteus) will reach an imposing eight inches.
Armadillo Lizards are easy to keep and relatively docile. They are sociable creatures who like company in their tanks. (But be sure you only have one male in the group! Males are territorial and will fight each other for space. In the wild a weaker Armadillo Lizard can escape its stronger opponent. In an enclosure it may be seriously wounded or killed).
This article provides an introduction to these spiky little lizards. We will explore the Armadillo Lizard in its native habitat and in captivity. We will learn how to provide your Armadillo Lizard with a proper habitat and appropriate diet. And we will provide you a guide to the different species of Armadillo Lizard which you may find for sale.
Different Types of Armadillo Lizards
Several different species are sold in the pet trade as Armadillo Lizards. All these Armadillo Lizards come from southern Africa and have similar care and feeding requirements.
The Armadillo Lizard (Ouroborus cataphractus) gave these South African lizards their common name. When threatened O. cataphractus takes its tail in its mouth and rolls up into a ball like an Armadillo.
O. cataphractus is found in rock outcrops in South Africa’s northwest. It is illegal to export them without a license and so these Armadillo Lizards are difficult to find in the pet trade and expensive when you find them.
The Armadillo Lizard (Cordylus tropidosternum) is the most popular and readily available of the Armadillo Lizards. You may also see it sold as a Dwarf Sungazer, Tropical Girdled Lizard, or Forest Armadillo Lizard.
C. tropidosternum is found in southeastern Africa in a range from southernmost Kenya to central Mozambique and eastern Zimbawe.
The Jones Armadillo Lizard (Cordylus jonesii) is also called the Limpopo Girdled Lizard because it was first discovered in Zimbabwe’s Limpopo National Park. There they live in dry mopane (Turpentine Tree) forests and brushland.
C. jonesii has smooth scales on its throat and belly where C. tropidosternum’s throat and belly scales are spiky like its back and body. They are otherwise identical to C. tropidosternum.
The Giant Girdled Lizard (Smaug giganteus) is also sold as the Sungazer, Giant Girdled Lizard, Giant Dragon Lizard, or Giant Zonure. The ridged scales around its eyes make Smaug giganteus look a great deal like a baby Smaug.
S. giganteus resides in the grasslands of South Africa’s Highveld region.
There are several other Cordyleus species and subspecies which occasionally pop up in the pet trade. Unless they are imported by dedicated breeders who can identify the subtle differences between groups, they too will likely be sold as Armadillo Lizards, Sungazers or Girdled Lizards.
Armadillo Lizards in their Native Habitat
Armadillo Lizards are covered with spiky keeled scales that protect them from predators like a hedgehog’s spines. They also have flat heads which help them squeeze into their snug homes.
In Africa the Armadillo Lizards live in rocky arid and semi-arid regions. Cracks in the rocks provide them with shelter. (Unable to squeeze their mighty bulk into the smallest cracks, Giant Girdled Lizards dig burrows in the sandy soil which can be 3 feet deep and 6 feet long).
Termite mounds provide wild Armadillo Lizards with an abundant food source. They will also eat other insects, as well as spiders, scorpions, millipedes, and small vertebrates. In captivity Armadillo Lizards thrive on crickets and adults may even enjoy an occasional pinky mouse.
Armadillo Lizards are also social reptiles, living in groups of thirty to sixty lizards. The males fight each other over territory. If you are confident your Armadillos have been properly sexed, you can keep a male with multiple females. Armadillo Lizards are most active in daytime hours.
Wild-Caught Armadillo Lizards
S. giganteus is notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. Many keepers have successfully bred the other Armadillo Lizards, but their clutches are small. Female Armadillo Lizards typically give birth to one or two live babies every year or two.
Many pet owners want Armadillo Lizards in their collection. Wild-caught Armadillo Lizards can be purchased cheaply from exporters. (O. cataphractus can be purchased illegally for more sizeable sums). As a result, most Armadillo Lizards in the pet trade are wild-caught animals.
Wild-caught reptiles often arrive in their new homes with parasites. They may have bacterial or viral loads which will wreak havoc on the rest of your reptile collection. And they may fail to thrive because of poor handling after their capture.
Reptile exports can also cause serious problems for native populations. Since the 1970s the habitat range of S. giganteus has decreased over 65%. Poaching for the pet trade has been one of the major factors behind this precipitous decline.
If you purchase an Armadillo Lizard, be certain to keep it quarantined until you are certain it is healthy and parasite-free. You may also want to take it to a veterinarian with exotic reptile experience to ensure it is well and to treat any parasite infestations.
And before you buy, make sure your Armadillo Lizard was captured legally. If your O. cataphractus isn’t captive bred you’re not just endangering local lizard communities – you are breaking the law!
Housing Your Armadillo Lizard
If you are keeping your Armadillo Lizard alone, a 30-gallon tank will probably be sufficient. For groups of two or three, you will do best moving them to a 40- or even a 50-gallon tank. Armadillo Lizards are small, but they like some room to move around.
In the wild Armadillo Lizards squeeze into rocky crevices. The pressure of the rock against their back makes them feel safe from predators. Give them rock hides elevated an inch or less above the substrate. You can also give them a couple of branches and rocks to climb.
If you are bringing in rocks from around your home, make sure they are sterile. Scrub them thoroughly with a natural soap and wire-bristled brush. Then put them in a warm oven (200 to 225 degrees) to kill any bacteria or parasites. This will ensure your new rock hides don’t come with any unwanted stowaways.
The more space your Armadillos have and the more places they can explore, the more you will see them out and about.
Heating Your Armadillo Lizard’s Home
Some Internet care sheets recommend basking temperatures as high as 130 degrees! This is a good way to cook your lizard. African rocks may get that warm when Armadillo Lizards are basking on them. But those lizards can quickly move to cooler areas as soon as they are thermoregulated.
Do not use “hot rocks,” even if your pet store recommends them. Hot rocks heat unevenly, and reptiles have often been terribly burned by malfunctioning hot rocks. A safer option is a small under-tank heating pad beneath a ceramic tile with a thermostat keeping it at 95-100 degrees.
The air temperature in the warm spot should be 90 to 95 degrees, with the cool spot between 75 and 85. Use a heat lamp with a temperature controller like the Zoo Med ReptiTemp Digital Thermostat to maintain a consistent warmth. Temperatures can drop at night, but the air temperature should never get below the high 60s or low 70s.
UV Light for your Armadillo Lizard
Armadillo Lizards are also called “Sungazers” because they will stand outside their homes with their front legs stretched out and their heads pointed toward the sun. This helps keep them warm and provides them with ultraviolet (UV) light.
Armadillo Lizards, like many other reptiles, need UV light to synthesize Vitamin D3. Without D3, they cannot properly absorb calcium. This leads to metabolic bone disease which can cripple or even kill your lizard.
The UV light must reach your Armadillo Lizard unfiltered. You cannot place the UV light outside the glass though you can place it atop a screen. The UV bulb should also be within 12 inches of your lizard. Leave the light on for 10 to 12 hours a day.
An 18-inch fluorescent UV10.0 bulb will give your reptiles all the light they need to stay healthy. You can also provide a rock or two which they can climb should they want to get closer. Be sure to change your bulb every six months, as UV output drops with age.
Substrate for your Armadillo Lizards
Reptile carpet makes an excellent lizard substrate. You can cut two carpets to fit your enclosure. When the first is dirty, take it out and replace it with the second. A quick rinse in cold tap water will get rid of any droppings, uneaten food or dirt. Hang it up to dry and you’re all set for your next tank cleaning.
Sand does not make a good substrate for Armadillo Lizards. While they live in arid regions, their soil also contains a fair amount of clay. When they feed on loose sand, lizards often swallow some of their substrate. This can cause bowel impactions that might kill your Armadillo Lizard and will certainly result in a costly vet visit.
Water Dishes for your Armadillo Lizard
Your Armadillo Lizard will need a shallow, heavy water dish for drinking. Change the water daily. The dish should be no more than an inch deep. Any deeper and your Armadillo Lizard will have to work harder to get a drink – and a small Armadillo Lizard might fall in and drown!
Feeding an Armadillo Lizard
Instead of keeping an African termite mound in your home, you can feed your Armadillo Lizard crickets. Crickets are a staple diet for most insect-eating reptiles in captivity.
Before you feed your Armadillo Lizard, give your crickets a high-quality meal like Fluker’s High-Calcium Cricket Diet. Ideally you should feed your crickets for at least 24 hours. You can also dust your crickets with Zoo Med Reptile Calcium Powder or a similar supplement.
Toss in a few crickets at a time and wait until your lizard is done eating before adding more. If a couple manage to hide behind the rocks wait till nightfall and remove any you see or hear. Stray crickets may track through droppings and spread bacteria in the cage and water bowl.
Crickets may also turn the tables and start eating your lizard! Crickets are omnivorous and can inflict painful bites on a small lizard. While an Armadillo Lizard has more armor than many reptiles, its eyelids and mouth area could be damaged, or it could wind up losing a finger or toe.
One or two loose in the cage will probably be no problem. If any more get loose, you should remove your lizard and get the strays out before putting him back in his home. And make sure you are feeding appropriately sized crickets. If the cricket is wider than the Armadillo Lizard’s mouth, your lizard may choke trying to swallow it.
While Armadillo Lizards can live on crickets, they appreciate a little variety. Silkworms, mealwroms or bee larvae will be a nice treat. And although they are primarily insect-eaters, Armadillo Lizards enjoy greens.
Leave some kale, dandelions or collard greens in a dish. Young Armadillo Lizards, like children, may turn up their snouts at plant food. But as they get older, they will begin eating more vegetables. Greens may make up as much as 30% of an adult Armadillo Lizard’s diet.
Handling Your Armadillo Lizard
At first your Armadillo Lizard is likely to be skittish. Be careful holding it, as they can run faster than you might think those little legs could carry them. If you drop your Armadillo Lizard, catching it may be a chore.
As Armadillo Lizards becomes accustomed to their owners, they grow less fearful. In time your Alligator Lizard will probably grow tolerant of occasional handling. You may be able to take them out for cage cleaning or a vet visit without worrying about a mad dash.
Even then you should not handle your Armadillo Lizard too often. Armadillo Lizards are little, and you are big. Being picked up by a large animal will always be stressful for a small one. Armadillo Lizards are not mammals that love to cuddle. They may learn to tolerate handling, but they will never enjoy it.
Do Armadillo Lizards Make Good Pets?
If you provide them a proper environment, Armadillo Lizards are hardy animals who can live for eight to ten years in captivity. There are a few Armadillo Lizards in their twenties who are still providing their owners the joy of owning a cricket-eating pocket-sized dragon.
Armadillo Lizards are more for display than one-on-one interaction. They will not tolerate handling as well as a Bearded Dragon, Ball Python or Boa Constrictor. But they are undemanding pets and will thrive in a clean cage with abundant UV light, a warm basking spot and a steady supply of food.
Though they are fascinating, Armadillo Lizards are uncommon in the pet trade. Care sheets are few and far between, and many contain inaccurate information. Armed with this guide, you should be able to provide your Armadillo Lizard with a long and healthy life!