It goes without saying that every effort should be made to ensure that any captive environment replicates conditions in the wild as closely as possible. In the past it was suggested that these lizards be kept in a desert like environment – similar to that required by Dabb Lizards Uromastyx sp. this is completely incorrect and the majority of lizards kept under these conditions perished. As stated on the Wild Populations page, these lizards are subjected to a yearly temperature, light and humidity cycle.
The information contained within this section is based on information I have gathered over the years and my own research and observations. I have found these lizards to be pretty hardy and if given the correct conditions will thrive, they have after all been doing just fine, unaided by humans for millions of years.
OK, so first things first, the enclosure. It is worth mentioning from the outset that regardless of which type of enclosure you select to house your Sungazers, modifications may have to be made to achieve an optimal living environment for them. Although I am no ‘master craftsman’ I felt that commercially available vivaria were too rigid for my liking, so much so that, much to my wife’s horror, I decided to build my own indoor enclosure. Now although the enclosure itself may not win any prizes in the aesthetics stakes, I am pretty happy with it as it incorporates all the essential requirements so that my animals not only survive but thrive. The enclosure measures 1.2m long x 0.6m high x 0.6m wide (4ft x 2ft x 2ft) with the addition of a small chamber, connected to the main enclosure via a tunnel, on the outside being used as a humid chamber.
Having kept many different species over the last 20 years I know how important humidity is within an enclosure, especially while going through a shed cycle. I decided I wanted to offer my lizards this option while keeping the humidity in the main enclosure pretty low. To achieve this I have a small plastic box, connected to the main enclosure via a tunnel. In this box I have moist soil which is heated by a small heat mat. This ensures that this localised area always remains humid. Rather surprisingly, my lizards use this area of their living quarters almost on a daily basis, and actively seek it out.
So now you know the external dimensions of the enclosure, lets look at the internal features. In keeping with my aim of providing as natural an environment as possible for my animals I use grass turf as a substrate. Previously, the recommended substrate for use in the Sungazer enclosure was a mixture of gravel and rocks. As we know, Sungazers are not rupicolous (rock dwelling) so how this recommendation came about is anyone’s guess!! Being such a heavy animal, Sungazers are poor climbers and thus do not require any rocks in their enclosure, in fact the use of rocks within the enclosure should be discouraged as an animal could easily become trapped underneath. Schwier (2007) recommends a clay and sand mix with turf / sod on top. This is a far more natural substrate for your animals and is easily sourced at your local garden centre or DIY store. Despite my best efforts however, this turf does not survive long in an indoor enclosure and I have to change this every 3-4 weeks. A point to remember here, some rolls of turf are bound together with nylon twine. This is an obvious danger to your animals and must be removed before use in an enclosure. This top layer of turf can be cut in such a fashion to fit snugly into corners and over burrow entrances. Whichever substrate you decide to use just be mindful of the risk of ingestion during feeding times.
Speaking of burrows, individuals will become visibly stressed if a subterranian retreat is not provided. I use two building bricks and a flat roofing slate over the top. This provides a secure, sturdy and snug burrow. This configuration allows me easier access to the animal should it need to be caught or when routine maintenance of the enclosure is required. As the burrow plays such an important roll in the lifestyle of the Sungazer, they rarely venture far from it. For this reason the enclosure does not have to be huge and a 4ft x 2ft x 2ft is, I feel, more than enough for a pair.
The environment in which these animals are kept must be kept clean. To aid in this chore, Sungazers will select an area of the enclosure to ‘do their business’, this latrine makes spot cleaning that little bit easier. This behaviour is indicative with their communal living arrangements. Faeces scattered throughout a colony could harbour disease and infections and may even attract predators. It is much better and more socially acceptable, to have a, excuse the pun, designated dumping ground!!
Heliothermic (sun-basking) lizards, such as the Sungazer, require vitamin D3 to function properly. These lizards obtain most of this by spending many hours each day gazing towards the sun. Vitamin D 3 is obtained from the absorption of the ultraviolet wavelength UV-B, which is present in the suns rays. UV-A is also obtained via this method and this helps promote the general health of the animal. Once ‘fully charged’ Sungazers are active but deliberate in their movements so as not to waste precious energy. In captivity a good quality full spectrum Ultraviolet light is essential. I have used several different types of bulbs over the years and I am currently using the T5 bulb produced by Arcadia and really cannot recommend them highly enough. This UV light is connected to a timer and my animals are subjected to 14 hours of light in the summer months reducing to around 10 hours in the winter. I achieve a dawn/dusk period by having normal household bulbs scheduled to come on around half an hour before and remain on for a further half an hour after the UV lights go off. These bulbs, being less intense, give, I hope, the impression of a dawn and dusk period.
No matter how good an artificial light bulb is, it could never replicate exposure to natural, unfiltered, sunlight. After speaking at length with the late Bert Langerwerf, I decided to build an outdoor enclosure which would allow my animals access to beneficial UV during the summer months – yes, even Scotland has 1 or 2 sunny days per year!! The beneficial results have been nothing short of amazing and I would urge people keeping this species to provide such an enclosure if at all possible.
Providing optimum temperature and temperature gradients within the enclosure is vital. These micro environments will help your lizards to thermoregulate effectively. To attain and maintain the required temperatures within the vivaria, I use a standard 100 watt heat lamp. This lamp is connected to a good quality dimmer thermostat with a built in night time temperature drop. Consult the temperature table on the Wild Populations page for monthly temperature highs and lows.
Air quality is something that is often overlooked in an artificial environment. I want to avoid the air in my enclosure from becoming stagnant and I have installed a small air conditioning system to promote the circulation and quality of the air.
In captivity Sungazers should be offered a variety of insect food items. The most common are crickets, locusts, earth worms and mealworms. Superworms -Zoophobas morio are also eagerly consumed. These should be dusted with a good quality vitamin powder prior to being offered to your animals. Limit the amount of insects you feed, all should be eaten within about half an hour of being offered or, like me, feed your animals by hand to ensure each is getting enough food. Langerwerf (2001) reported that his captive animals seemed to suffer from re-occurring eye infections. This he attributed to a deficient amount of carotenes in the diet. This was rectified by gut loading feeder insects with carrots, sweet potatoes and leafy greens prior to them being consumed by his Sungazers. A friend of mine in South Africa confirmed that wild gazers also feed on carrion. I would suggest a simple explanation, the Sungazers are attracted to the insects that come to feed on the carrion – much the same way they do with cow dung. To simulate this, I offered my lizards some commercially available cat food. As movement seems to be the main stimuli to trigger a feeding response the cat food was ignored. Sungazers have a very efficient metabolism, and should be fed less than other lizards of similar size.
Another basic necessity is fresh water, this should be available at all times but must not increase the overall humidity of the enclosure. Fogel (2000) observed his captive animals using a water bowl with great regularity both for drinking and bathing. I can concur with this and often find my animals sleeping in the water dish. This behaviour may not be so alien as one might think as this species will, on an annual basis, experience substantial rainfall during the summer months. During the ‘wet’ season, I artificially spray the enclosure once in the morning and again in the late afternoon. Try to avoid spraying just before ‘lights out’, as I would not wish my lizards to settle down for the night still wet.
Captive Sungazers can be rather skittish, retreating into their burrow head first at the first sign of a perceived danger. Through time they should become more confident and less inclined to scatter. My Sungazers are actually really friendly while kept indoors. During the summer months, when kept outside, they revert back to a ‘wild’ state and become wary of me. Sungazers rarely bite, they can however wield their ‘club like’ tail to great effect, causing a painful wound for which I have first hand experience of.
As we know, Sungazers live in extended family groups and the aim of any keeper should be to try and replicate this. Care must be taken however when introducing a new animal to an established group. A new pecking order will have to be established and squabbles are to be expected. The larger the group the less likely this conflict is likely to occur as there are more individuals to disperse the aggression. New animals must be subjected to a period of quarantine to help prevent the transfer of pathogens between individuals.
Sungazers are long lived creatures with captive animals reportedly living in excess of 20 years. Once common in the pet trade, relatively few of these ‘original’ animals are still alive today due, mainly, to incorrect husbandry. Nowadays, when available, they command a very high price tag. In recent years (2008 – 2009) more and more animals have been imported into Europe and the United States, the legality of these animals is, on the surface at least, legitimate. How does one prove that the animals were born in captivity or were obtained legally? Unfortunately there is no way of telling an illegal animal from a legal one once it has the correct documentation. South Africa has very strict export laws and I would like to think that all animals being offered are legitimate. Should these animals turn out to be obtained illegally, their presence in the hobby does nothing to help in the conservation of this species in the wild.
It is perfectly legal to keep a Sungazer in captivity without any specific documentation. The only requirements for these CITES annex II listed animals is that the correct import and export paperwork be obtained. I would suggest asking for a copy of this document should you purchase directly from an importer. If you purchase from any other source, i would ask for a receipt confirming the origins of the animal. Although not an official document it does give some degree of protection if the legal status of your animals ever comes into question.