Chris de Beer – National Zoological Gardens

Let’s face it, the aim of most keepers is to be able to breed the Sungazer in captivity on a regular basis. For the majority, this feat has proved illusive. I hope with the exchange of information via this site this can become a more common occurrence in both zoos and private collections round the world.

For those individuals who have had success in breeding, correct conditioning of both males and females seems to be the single most important factor. After the winter period of inactivity, sexually mature males will develop viable sperm upon the onset of warmer weather. The increased daylight and large volume of rainfall during the spring and summer months seems to trigger the males into breeding. Females give birth to between 1 and 3 live young during the months of January – April. I have it on good authority that one exceptional female actually produced 5 young!! Research on wild populations would indicate that breeding takes place only every 2 – 3 years. The ability to lay down enough fat resource during the period of activity seems to determine whether the female will be physically able to reproduce the following season. Another possible reason for this low reproductive rate is that as a group-living lizard, survival rate is most likely greater than other non-communal living species and thus far greater resources can be invested into fewer young as neonates need not disperse to fend for themselves. Sungazers are ovoviviparous ( produce live young ) and produce young measuring between 11 – 15 centimetres (4.3 – 5.9 inches). Thankfully for the females, the young are born with soft spines that harden as they get older. Youngsters will remain under the protection of their mother and within the safety of her burrow for several months. Young animals have often been observed, both in the wild and in captivity, hitching a ride on the back of their mothers. It is not known for sure why they do this but what better place to soak up the sun or to avoid predation than on the back of your armour plated parent? Care must be taken as males have been known to cannibalise on youngsters, even their own!!

At the moment, I am unable to recreate the colony type environment this species would be used too, in an effort to redress this issue I have set up small mirrors in my lizards enclosures to give the impression that there are many ’other’ lizards in the area.

Male Sungazers are unique among other males of the Cordylid family in that they have enlarged scales on their forelimbs. In keeping with many other species, the male Sungazer also has larger femoral pores on the hind legs when compared to those of the female. Males may also secrete a waxy substance from their vent area. Otherwise males and females are similar in appearance both in terms of size and colour.

Adult Male – note the raised pores on the elbows.
Adult Female – note the absence of raise pores.
Adult Male and Female Side by Side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sungazers do not enter into elaborate mating rituals nor is there much fighting amongst colony members during the breeding season. The most likely reason for this lack of ‘show’ is that as Sungazers are, for the most part, tied to their burrow. Drawing the attention of predators as to your permanent whereabouts would be considered highly counter productive.

As stated by the late, Bert Langerwerf it would be a shame if Sungazers were widely available at a time when little was known on their captive requirements or reproductive stimuli. Now as we are beginning to understand their requirements, the species becomes virtually unobtainable. I would suggest a two pronged action plan for the long-term future of this species, firstly and most important is to halt the destruction of the native South African habitat in which these animals depend and second to increase the success rate of captive breeding programmes with the potential, if need be, for reintroduction. I am aware that this is both a difficult and controversial subject.