The Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink (Tribolonotus gracilis) first appeared in the pet trade in 1994. Since that time these little alligator impersonators in eyeshadow have become increasingly popular.
As befits their name, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks have keeled scales which resemble a crocodile’s skin and red-orange rings around their eyes. But unlike crocodiles, Crocodile Skinks top out at around eight to ten inches, with their tails making up half their length.
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks have some specialized care requirements. They are shy reptiles who will spend much of their time hiding and who do not enjoy handling. But if you can meet their needs, you will find Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks to be beautiful and entertaining pets.
In this article we will talk about the Red Eyed Crocodile Skink’s native habitat and its needs in captivity. We will show you how to give your Red Eyed Crocodile Skink a properly humid home and an appropriate diet. If you want to add a Red-Eyed Crocodile Skin to your collection, this article will tell you what you need to know.
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks in their Native Habitat
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks live in the tropical rainforests of the island of New Guinea. They spend much of their time hiding under rotting leaf litter, coming out at night and during the early morning to look for insects. Though they can climb, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks spend most of their time on or under the forest floor.
New Guinea’s total land mass is approximately the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. But it contains between 5% and 10% of all the species on the planet. And that’s just the ones we know about! Large parts of Papua New Guinea, the eastern New Guinea region where the Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink was first discovered, remain unexplored.
We do not have a clear idea of how many Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks there are in the wild, nor even the extent of their range. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are common throughout their range. But the government of Papua New Guinea has still banned export of Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks from their territory.
Wild-Caught Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks
The eastern half of the island of New Guinea is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. The western half is part of Indonesia. Indonesia has annual export quotas for 3,500 skinks. Every year over 1,000 of these Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks make their way to the United States: others go to Japan, where they are popular in the pet trade.
The Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink was originally found in Papua New Guinea and was considered endemic (restricted to) to that region. Since so much of the island remains unexplored, it is not clear if the Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks being sold are captured in western New Guinea or smuggled out of Papua New Guinea.
Several owners have successfully bred Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks in captivity. But males do not become sexually mature until they are two to three years old and females do not begin laying eggs until they are four or five.
The female lays one egg, then another when the first hatches in 65-70 days. In a season she may lay as many as three or four. But since in captivity Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks live an average of six to ten years, that means you are likely to get no more than a dozen babies from any breeding female and probably less.
As a result, the overwhelming majority of Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks in the trade are wild-caught animals. Wild-caught reptiles frequently carry diseases and parasites. They are also recovering from a stressful journey and must now adjust to a new home and new diet.
If you purchase a Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink, be certain to keep it quarantined safely away from the rest of your reptile collection until you are certain it is healthy. You may also want to consult an exotic animal veterinarian to ensure your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink is well and to treat any diseases, infections or parasite infestations.
Housing Your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are shy by nature and will need plenty of hiding places. Cork bark flats, flat pieces of driftwood, rocks – anything they can crawl under will make them feel secure in their new home.
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are not escape artists like many geckos and snakes. If you give them a good home, they will take advantage of their comfortable home without trying to break out and explore yours. A simple screen top will be sufficient to keep them in.
Because Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks do not climb, the length and depth of their home will be more important than height. A long tank will suit their needs better than a tall one. For a male/female pair, a 30-gallon long tank will give them room to explore and may even encourage them to produce baby Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks!
Heating Your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink’s Home
Because Papua New Guinea is close to the equator there is little seasonal change. The average annual high temperature is between 86 and 90 degrees, with lows in the range of 72 to 75. Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks will do best with a warm spot of 82 degrees and a cool area between 73 and 77 degrees.
You can achieve this warm spot with an under-tank heating unit or with a low-wattage ceramic heating bulb. Whatever solution you choose to heat your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink’s tank, make sure you use a thermostat. Your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink will do worse with an overly warm tank than a tank which is a couple degrees below ideal temperatures.
Lighting for your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink
Only 2% of sunlight makes its way past the thick canopy of Papua New Guinea’s rainforests. Unlike Bearded Dragons and Iguanas, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks do not need UV supplemental lighting to survive. But many Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink keepers provide 10 hours or so of UV light daily.
This helps keep their lizards on a day/night cycle. Their Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks may spend most of their time in their hides while the UV light is on, but that is to be expected. In the wild they are most active during the night and early morning hours. But the UV light may make their tank feel more at home, something that always helps when dealing with nervous reptiles.
An infrared light bulb will help you watch your reptiles at night when they are most active. And a fluorescent bulb will help you enjoy their beautifully decorated habitat in daytime hours even if your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink is hiding.
Lower-watt fluorescent bulbs are best. Remember, your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink’s Papua New Guinea home is a shady place. If you are keeping live plants in your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink’s home, you should make sure they have enough light. But if you are not your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink will be perfectly fine with the ambient room light.
Substrate for your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks do well on a 3-6” substrate of coconut fiber, orchid bark chips, leaf litter, sphagnum, cypress mulch, and soils free of manure and fertilizer. This gives them burrowing opportunities and helps keep the humidity in their container high.
Humid environments are a must for Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks, but too much humidity can lead to mold and disease. To keep their home from becoming oversaturated, you may want to create a slightly elevated false bottom with drainage holes, then place the substrate atop the false bottom.
Live plants can help boost humidity levels as well as provide humid microclimates within the space. Because they are small, non-destructive and thrive in a moist environment with lots of biomatter, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are excellent animals for a bioactive vivarium.
Dayaan (Reptiliatus) has an excellent set-up for his Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks – and their babies!
Water for your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink
In Papua New Guinea Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are often found near waterways or ponds. Some keepers have found that their lizards like a wide but shallow water dish partially hidden by leaf litter or bark. Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are excellent swimmers and will frequently bask or bathe in water if given a chance.
Make sure their water is fresh. You will probably do better with bottled water than with chlorinated or chemical-laden tap water. Change their bowl regularly and, if you have a small wading area, consider using an aquarium filter like the Fluval U1 Underwater Filter to keep the water clean and aerated.
While your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink doesn’t need a lot of heat, they definitely need high humidity. If you have a screen top for their home, consider covering most of it with a towel to keep as much moisture in as possible.
Misting your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink’s tank several times a day with a spray bottle will keep the humidity up. For more convenience and better misting, consider a fogger like the Exo Terra Mini Fogger. Hooked up to a timer, it can give your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink the morning mists they enjoy in their New Guinea home.
Feeding a Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink
Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks live on insects in their Papua New Guinea homeland. In captivity they eat roaches like Dubias, mealworms, small crickets and small red earthworms. Any prey you offer your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink should be no larger than half the size of its head.
Feed hatchling and young Crocodile Skinks 2 to 3 insects a day. As they become adults, feed them the same amount of appropriately sized insects every other day. “Gut load” your feeder insects by feeding them leafy greens for 24 to 48 hours.
Give your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink an hour to eat, then remove any uneaten insects. Stray insects may track droppings and bacteria through the cage and in the water bowl. And crickets can inflict painful bites on small lizards if left unattended.
Dust feeder insects with a supplement like Zoo Med Calcium With Vitamin D3 Reptile Food. This will provide your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink with the vitamins they need to metabolize calcium and keep their bones healthy.
Handling Your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink
Like some geckos, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks can vocalize. When they feel threatened, they will make a barking noise to scare off their opponent. Their protest would be more intimidating if it wasn’t coming from a scaly Pokemon character.
Even so, their bark is still worse than their bite. While they will make open-mouthed lunges, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks rarely if ever make good on their displays. Two male Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks will fight each other, but they will not attack a larger threat. Given a choice, they would rather hide than bite.
They may in time become accustomed to your presence and may even take a superworm or cricket from your fingers. But they will never become a pet you can handle like a Corn Snake. If you try picking them up, they may play dead or drop their tail. Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are display animals, not cuddly pets.
Do Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks Make Good Pets?
Preparing an appropriate environment for a Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink is more challenging than keeping a Leopard Gecko. Your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink will never become as tame as a Bearded Dragon. And though they are beautiful little animals when they are out and about, your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink will spend most of their time hiding away from prying eyes.
Like tropical fish, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are display animals rather than pets. You may get your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink to take food from your fingers like some Oscars or goldfish. But just as you wouldn’t take an Oscar out of its tank and pet it, you shouldn’t expect to play with your Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink.
For those reasons, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are probably best suited for pet owners with some experience keeping reptiles or amphibians. But a dedicated beginner who is willing to do some research and create a proper environment can successfully keep and even breed Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks.
Though they can still be hard to find in the pet trade, Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks are becoming increasingly popular with reptile keepers. If you want to watch a tiny dinosaur in action – and understand that it will not perform on command – a Red-Eyed Crocodile Skink may be a great addition to your reptile collection.