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The Chuckwalla – a Hardy, Personable Candidate for the Desert Terrarium – Part 2

Western Chuckwallah Please see Part I of this article for more on the natural history of North America’s second largest lizard, the Chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus).

Status in the Wild

Population levels appear stable as their preferred habitat is largely unsuitable for development.  The species S. varius, however, is limited in distribution to 3 islands in the Gulf of California and is listed on CITES Appendix I.


Mating takes place in May-June, with 5-16 eggs being laid (buried in the sand) in June-August.  In the wild, females usually breed every other year, but captives may lay a clutch yearly.

Diet, Natural and Captive

Chuckwallas are largely herbivorous, consuming the leaves, buds, flowers and fruits of desert plants.  Beetles, ants, caterpillars, spiders and other invertebrates are occasionally taken.  In common with similar lizards, juveniles consume somewhat more invertebrate prey than do adults.

Captives fare best on a varied diet of kale, collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, romaine, carrots, yams, peas, beans and seasonally available vegetables, along with occasional feedings of crickets, mealworms, beetles and other insects.

I’ve found dandelion flowers to be a great favorite, and usually mix some soaked Tortoise Pellets into the salad as well.

A Unique Defense

Common ChuckwallaChuckwallas spend a good deal of time basking on rocks to achieve their preferred body temperature of 100 F.

They rarely forage far from a rock pile, into which they retreat when threatened.  Once secure within a crevice, the Chuckwalla gulps air and inflates its body, thereby wedging itself tightly against the rocks.  Certain Native American peoples utilized the Chuckwalla as food, and extracted it from the rocks by piercing the body with a sharp stick to deflate the lungs.

I’ll cover the care of these most interesting lizards in the future. 


Further Reading

An interesting account of a field trip to see Chuckwallas and other California herps, along with interesting photos, is posted here.

A video showing a very eager Chuckwalla feeding from the hand is posted here.



  1. avatar

    I am very interested in having a chuckwalla. Where can I find some practical info about building a cage for it? which kind of lamps and accsesories do I need?

    thanks in advance for advice

    • avatar

      Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. Building your own cage is the best option for a chuckwalla…they can be kept in glass aquariums, but easily contract fungal infections due to damp conditions/poor air circulation. Please check out these plans for building a Tortoise Table. This type of enclosure will work equally well for a chuckwalla. A large cage will allow you to establish a thermal gradient…in smaller terrariums, the hot basking lights required will result in ambient temperature that is too high (i.e. away from the basking site, you’ll want 75-85 F, please see below).

      You’ll need to provide a basking site of 100-110 F and high UVB exposure. A mercury vapor lamp will provide heat and UVB and UVA (UVA is also valuable). A ZooMed 10.0 bulb will provide enough UVB if you can position the basking site within 6-12 inches of the bulb, but a mercury vapor is a safer choice. The ZooMed does not provide heat, so you’ll need an additional basking light as well.

      Please let me know if you need any further information…we can also discuss diet and care when you are ready. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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