Sandfish Care: Everything You Need to Know

Different lizards exhibit varying degrees of specialization to their habitat and lifestyle.

Some – typically called generalists – can adapt to a variety of different habitats, adjust to a range of climatic conditions and feed on whatever prey is available.

These types of lizards are often excellent subjects for novice keepers, as they are capable of withstanding the keeper’s mistakes. They’ll adapt to enclosures that are, for example, a little too warm or a little drier than would be ideal. They’ll also typically eat a wide range of prey items, making it easier to keep these lizards well-fed.

On the other hand, highly specialized species often exhibit a number of adaptations to their habitat and way of life. They aren’t particularly flexible and have relatively specific requirements their owner must provide.

Accordingly, these types of species are typically best suited for keepers with a bit of experience.

We’ll look at one such specialist today. Colloquially known as the sandfish, scientists usually refer to the species as Scincus scincus (more on this later).

As you’ll see below, these lizards feature a number of adaptations that make them uniquely suited to their natural range and habitat, and therefore particularly fascinating to many reptile enthusiasts.


Sandfish Basics

Scincus mitranus

We’ll discuss some of the details of sandfish and the typical care regimens keepers use to maintain them below. But first, it is important to understand a few basic facts about these interesting lizards:

  • Sandfish are small to medium-sized lizards, who reach about 8 inches in length.
  • They primarily feed on small insects, arachnids and other invertebrates.
  • Sandfish are well-adapted to living in arid, sandy habitats.
  • These lizards are named for their habit of “swimming” in the sand.
  • Sandfish are not ideal for beginners, but intermediate and advanced keepers will find them pretty easy to maintain.
  • Sandfish exhibit a number of interesting biological adaptations that help them survive in their native habitats.

We’ll delve into these and other details of sandfish below, but these points should serve as a thumbnail-sketch for the unfamiliar.


The Sandfish’s Family Tree

Sandfish are members of the skink family (Scincidae) – one of the most speciose and diverse reptilian assemblages. Skinks range from tiny 4-inch-long ground skinks (Scincella spp.), who lead unassuming lives scurrying through the leaf litter to 3-foot-long nocturnal herbivores, like the bizarre monkey-tailed skink (Corucia zebrata).

Sandfish are considered a “typical” skink in many ways, and they’re often placed in the subfamily Scincinae, along with other “average” skinks, like the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) of North America.

Scientists currently recognize four different sandfish species:

  • Scincus scincus
  • Scincus mitranus
  • Scincus hemprichii
  • Scincus albifasciatus

All four species are relatively similar, though the only one you’re likely to see in the pet trade is the common sandfish (Scincus scincus).


Geography: Range and Habitat of the Sandfish

The various sandfish species inhabit slightly different ranges, but the group is native to the arid regions of North Africa, the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, and Western Asia.

Unlike many other lizards, who can inhabit several different habitat types and subtypes within their range, sandfish typically stick to sandy deserts. This is important, as it not only allows them to exploit habitats few other species are adapted for, but they’ve also developed adaptations (such as their ability to “swim” in the sand), which give them specific advantages in these habitats.

This doesn’t mean people living within the range of sandfish never encounter them outside of sandy regions, as they do occasionally turn up in areas along the periphery of their desert habitats. But this is the exception and not the rule.


Basic Biology and Natural History of the Sandfish

Sandfish are very familiar animals among some reptile keepers, but they aren’t especially well understood by biologists. The majority of the research surrounding these lizards relates to their unusual sand-swimming behavior. Questions about their reproductive behaviors, ecology and natural history abound (although we do know that they locate insects by feeling vibrations through the sand).

That said, in broad terms, sandfish are likely similar to most other insectivorous lizards of similar size. They rely on a combination of crypsis and speed to avoid predators, they feed on insects and other small invertebrates, and they alter their behavior over the course of the day to thermoregulate (maintain proper body temperatures).


Sandfish Care: Setting Up and Maintaining the Habitat

Because there are plenty of questions about their natural history and biology, sandfish force their keepers to be willing to experiment. There isn’t a commonly recommended “recipe” for maintaining these lizards. Different keepers often use different care regimens, and you must always be willing to learn more and adapt your approach as necessary.

Nevertheless, we’ll provide a basic overview of the care and maintenance these lizards require below.

Enclosure

You can use a variety of different enclosures for sandfish. Plastic storage containers will work if you modify them to allow for the use of heating and lighting devices, and commercially manufactured reptile enclosures will certainly work too. However, the majority of sandfish keepers likely utilize aquaria with screened lids.

Typically, keepers will use 10- to 20-gallon aquaria for a single sandfish, or perhaps a pair of animals. However, larger enclosures are preferable. If nothing else, larger enclosures make it easier to provide a pronounced temperature gradient, but they will also allow your pets more room to exercise and explore. Additionally, it is easier to decorate large enclosures, should you choose to do so.

If you use a glass aquarium, you’ll want to fit the top with a screened lid. This will not only prevent your lizards (not to mention feeder insects) from escaping, it will help keep the hands and paws of children and other pets from entering the enclosure.

Substrate

Substrate selection for sandfish is pretty straightforward: Sand works best. However, there are several different varieties of sand from which you can choose.

Commercially produced sands designed specifically for reptiles are typically the best choice.

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These types of sand are usually sifted several times to remove any large particles, contaminants, or sharp pieces. They are also quite attractive in many cases. However, you can also use children’s playground sand – just be sure to sift it several times with a fine piece of mesh to remove any large, rough, or sharp grains.

It is possible to use newspaper in short-term, quarantine situations, but it will prevent the lizards from employing their natural sand-swimming behavior. This may cause stress for the lizards, so most keepers simply use sand while they quarantine their pets.

Aspen or recycled paper pulp products would likely work in a pinch, but there’s little reason to use anything other than sand. 

Furniture

Sandfish don’t require a great deal of enclosure furniture. Climbing branches are likely to be ignored completely, although your pets may occasionally take advantage of hiding boxes or pieces of corkbark you introduce to the enclosure. Accordingly, it is likely wise to provide your sandfish with a small, lightweight object under which he can hide.

Some keepers like to place large, flat rocks under the basking lamp to help the lizards warm-up when necessary. However, it is important that all rocks you use rest directly on the bottom of the enclosure, rather than on top of a layer of sand. By doing so, you’ll prevent the lizards from burrowing beneath the rocks and triggering a potentially fatal collapse.

You can include decorations in your pet’s habitat, but these are largely for your benefit – your lizards are unlikely to care one way or the other. So, feel free to include small replica skeletons or skulls, artificial cacti, or anything else you’d like. Just be sure that anything you install is either too light to injure your pets or is placed directly on the bottom of the enclosure.

Humidity Level and Drinking Water

Even though they hail from some of the driest habitats on earth, sandfish still require water. In the wild, they likely get the bulk of their water from their prey, but it is also possible that they lap up raindrops or drink from puddles when the opportunity arises. Additionally, they may use damp microhabitats from time to time to help slow the rate at which they lose water.

In captivity, it is wise to provide them with a shallow dish of fresh, clean water. You may never see your pet drink from his dish, but it is an easy step that will help you prevent dehydration. Alternatively, you could lightly mist the enclosure a few times a week.

All of that said, you’ll want to keep your sandfish’s habitat dry as a course of practice. The combination of the enclosure heating devices and ample enclosure ventilation will typically keep the habitat dry enough, so it isn’t something you need to spend too much time monitoring.

There is one potential exception to this: If your sandfish routinely experiences poor sheds, it would be wise to dampen the area beneath one of his hiding places prior to shed cycles. This will likely fix his shedding difficulties.

Heating Your Sandfish’s Habitat

The natural habitats of sandfish are not only dry, but they are quite warm too (at least, during the day – deserts often become quite chilly at night). This, combined with the lizards’ ectothermic (“cold-blooded”) biology mean that keepers must use heating devices for their pet’s habitat.

The easiest way to heat your sandfish’s habitat is with heat lamps. Heat lamps not only provide heat from above in the same way the sun does, but they are affordable and relatively safe when compared to some other types of heating devices. Also, it is easy to adjust the amount of heat they pump into the enclosure by moving them closer or further from the habitat or changing the bulb wattage used.

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Radiant heat panels are also well-suited for sandfish maintenance, but they are much more expensive than heat lamps.

You can use heat tape or heating pads to keep your pets warm, but special care must be used to ensure that air is allowed to flow over or under the heating element to prevent a potentially dangerous buildup of heat.

Additionally, heating pads and heat tape are best used in conjunction with a thermostat (although some heating pads feature built-in thermostats).

Once you’ve decided which type of heating device you’d like to use, place it at one end of the enclosure – not the middle. This will help make a warm spot (often called a basking spot) directly above or below the device. Temperatures will fall with increasing distance from the basking spot.

This creates a range of temperatures, which your lizards can use to adjust their body temperature. Reptile keepers typically call this a “thermal gradient.”

Ideally, you want the temperatures at the basking site to be approximately 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperatures at the cool side of the enclosure hovering in the low-80s. At night, you can simply turn off all the heating devices, and allow the enclosure to fall to room temperature.

Lighting Your Sandfish’s Habitat

In addition to providing appropriate heat for your lizards, you’ll have to provide the right type of lighting as well. Sandfish live in wide-open, sun-bathed habitats, so you’ll want to be sure to provide very bright lighting for your pets.

This is best accomplished with the use of fluorescent light bulbs designed to mimic sunlight. This will not only help promote natural behaviors, it’ll help make your pets look their best too.

Many (if not most) desert-dwelling lizards also require their keeper to install lights that produce light in the UVB portion of the spectrum. The lizards use these rays to help utilize the Vitamin D and calcium in their diet; without it, they’re susceptible to a variety of serious health problems.

There are a variety of fluorescent bulbs on the market that will work, but Repti Zoo’s Desert Lamps are a good choice.

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Alternatively, you can use mercury vapor bulbs, which produce heat and UVB radiation – this will alleviate the need to employ different lights to provide heat and UVB light.

Now, it has yet to be conclusively demonstrated that sandfish require UVB like many other lizards, but it seems a good bet. So, this is a case in which it simply makes sense to be safe rather than sorry.

Make sure that you turn your lizard’s lights off late each afternoon to provide him with “nighttime.” It is wise to maintain a consistent 12-hour day/night cycle for these lizards, which is very easy to do with the help of a simple lamp timer.


Feeding Sandfish

Thanks to their insectivorous habits, feeding sandfish is pretty simple. Crickets should form the bulk of their diet, though roaches can also be a good option. Mealworms, super worms, wax worms, silkworms and other commercially reared insects can also be provided on a supplemental basis.

When possible, you’ll want to purchase these insects in bulk and establish a rearing enclosure for them. This way, you can gut-load the insects (feed them nutritious foods), and it’ll also ensure that you always have insects on hand for your pet. Additionally, you’ll find that buying insects in bulk will save you money in the long run.

Be sure to feed your sandfish insects of the appropriate size. As a rule of thumb, you want the insects to be no longer than your lizard’s head is wide. This will help prevent impactions and choking. This is primarily an issue with young sandfish or unusual feeder insects; adult sandfish can generally consume full-grown crickets with ease.

Most keepers will “dust” their feeder insects with calcium and vitamin supplements before offering them to their lizards. However, the schedule keepers choose to embrace varies. Discuss the issue with your vet, but as a rule of thumb, it is likely appropriate to dust the feeder insects with a calcium supplement three times a week and use the vitamin supplement once per week.

Once you’re ready to feed your pet, simply release a handful of crickets (perhaps one half-dozen) into your pet’s enclosure. You don’t want to introduce too many insects at once, as this may stress your pet. In fact, the crickets may even attack your sandfish as they grow hungry.

If your lizard eats all of the crickets you release quickly, you can provide him with one or two more. Then, wait a day or two, and offer him crickets again. Over time, you’ll learn to anticipate the approximate number of crickets your pet will consume in a feeding.

Use your sandfish’s body weight to guide your feeding frequency. If your pet is willing to consume crickets every day, and his body weight remains within the healthy range, you can certainly feed him on a daily basis. However, most will likely thrive best when offered food about five times per week. Juveniles would likely benefit from an every-day feeding schedule, but young sandfish are not commonly seen in the pet trade.


Handling and Interacting with Your Sandfish

In most cases, sandfish are relatively skittish lizards, who don’t enjoy being handled or interacting with their keepers. So, as a general rule, you’ll want to avoid handling your pet unless absolutely necessary.

Some particularly calm individuals may be willing to eat insects from your fingers but holding them in your hand is rarely something the lizards will tolerate. Most sandfish will struggle to slip through your fingers, and some will even bite their keeper’s fingers if touched. Their bites are harmless, but they may be startling to inexperienced keepers.

Nevertheless, you will find it necessary to handle your sandfish from time to time, such as when transporting him, inspecting him for health problems, or during habitat maintenance. So, it is important that you learn the proper way to do so.

Without question, the best way to do so is by scooping your pet up in a transparent container. This will avoid stressing your lizard unnecessarily, yet it will still allow you to address any issues or get a good look at your pet. Just make sure that you either use a container that has a lid or is tall enough to prevent the lizard from escaping.

If you must grasp your pet with your hands, try to do so gently. Slowly try to slide your hand beneath the lizard, and then lift him up. Once he’s in your hand, you’ll likely need to grip him gently to prevent him from scurrying free. Often, you’ll find this easiest to accomplish by (again, gently) gripping one of his legs. Just be sure to release the lizard if he begins struggling – this can lead to injuries.


Special Note for Wild-Caught Lizards: Work with Your Vet

Unfortunately, the vast majority of sandfish available in the pet trade are wild-caught animals. This is unfortunate, as wild-caught animals are often very stressed and full of parasites by the time they reach pet stores or importer facilities. Most otherwise-healthy lizards can survive with minor parasite infestations, but when combined with the stress of capture and importation, low-level parasite infestations can explode. This can cause your lizard to lose weight, refuse food, and generally fail to thrive.

Accordingly, it is wise to work closely with your vet while trying to maintain sandfish. Your vet will be able to determine if your pet has a belly full of parasites and provide a suitable treatment to eliminate them. Your vet will also be able to identify any wounds or illnesses present and outline a treatment strategy.

Admittedly, the cost of this type of veterinary care will often eclipse the amount you spend on the lizard. However, you are responsible for any pet you own, and that means you must secure veterinary care when necessary. So, be sure to factor veterinary expenses into the equation when considering picking up a pet sandfish. 


Conclusion

Sandfish are certainly not great pets for all keepers, and they’re likely too tricky for beginners in most cases. However, for keepers with a bit of experience, these lizards can make rewarding pets. Just be sure to set up the enclosure as discussed earlier and be ready to adapt and adjust your approach as necessary.

With hard work, a desire to learn as much as you can about these lizards, and a little luck, you’ll likely be able to have success with this interesting species.

Last update on 2020-10-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API