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Collared Lizard Captive Care and Natural History

Collared LizardThe 8-14 inch-long Collared Lizard, Crotaphytus collaris, is one of North America’s most colorful reptiles.  Alert and active by day, Collared Lizards housed in planted desert terrariums make for stunning displays.  They also possess distinct personalities, accept gentle handling, and, being relatively easy to breed, are now available in a variety of interesting color phases and patterns.  The following information can also be applied to the related but less-commonly kept Leopard Lizard, Gambelia spp.

Taxonomy, Range, and Habitat

Nine species of Collared Lizard have been described.  In the pet trade, the name “Collared Lizard” is most frequently applied to Crotaphytus collaris.   Five subspecies of Crotaphytus collaris range from the central and southwestern USA to central Mexico.  The Eastern Collared Lizard, Crotaphytus c. collaris, is the subspecies most commonly kept in captivity.  Its range extends from southern Missouri through northern Arkansas and southwest to central Texas.  Different Collared Lizard species hybridize in captivity and the wild.

The related Leopard Lizards (3 species, please see photo) have been reassigned to the genus Gambelia.

Collared Lizards are usually found in rocky deserts, overgrown thorn-scrub and other arid habitats.


Wild-caught lizards are difficult to acclimate, but captive-born individuals usually take handing in stride.  If threatened, however, they will not hesitate to bite.  Collared Lizards can rise up on their hind legs when fleeing from danger, evoking the image of a tiny, colorful T-Rex.   They are extremely fast, and may quickly make use of escape opportunities presented when their enclosures are being serviced.

Collared Lizards are very active…foraging, territorial displays, moving from hot to cooler areas, and digging occupies much of their time.  Possibly in response to an “internal clock”, they sometimes refuse food during the winter, even if kept warm (please write in for further information).


Setting up the Terrarium

Long Nosed Leopard LizardThe Collared Lizard’s active lifestyle demands a great deal of space.  Youngsters can be reared in 20 gallon aquariums, while a single adult is best kept in a 30 gallon tank (a properly designed 20 gallon can work, but more space is preferable).  A 55 gallon terrarium will accommodate a pair or trio.

Due to the high basking temperatures required, large enclosures are necessary if a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) is to be established.  Thermal gradients allow lizards to regulate their body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas.  This behavior, critical to their health, is not possible in small cages.

Collared Lizards are ground-dwelling animals that use rocks as basking sites and perches from which to watch for danger.  Rocks should always be placed on the terrarium’s floor so that lizards cannot tunnel beneath them and be crushed in the process.  Stacked rocks should be secured to the glass or one another with silicone if tipping is a concern.

In addition to adding greatly to your terrarium’s aesthetic value, live plants will offer a sense of security and provide sight barriers that help to limit aggression.  Useful types include Climbing and Lace Aloes, Oxtongue and Snake Plants.

As air flow is especially important for animals native to arid habitats, your terrarium should be equipped with a screen top.


A sand/small rock mix is the most natural substrate for Collard Lizards.  Although impactions due to swallowed sand are rare, it is best to provide food in large bowls so that sand ingestion is limited.  Rocks small enough to be swallowed should be avoided.  Hatchlings are clumsy hunters, and tend to swallow a good deal of sand.  Newspapers, paper towels or washable cage liners  should be used until their skills improve.

Light, Heat and Humidity

Collared Lizards will not thrive if denied daily exposure to high levels of UVB light.  Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, and that fatal overheating can occur very quickly. If you use a florescent bulb, choose one designed for desert-dwelling lizards (i.e. the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb) and position the basking site within 6-12 inches of it.

Mercury vapor and halogen bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and also emit beneficial UVA radiation.  Be sure to provide shaded areas as well.

Collared Lizards require a basking site temperature of 95-100 F, but must be able to move into cooler areas (78-85 F) as well.  Temperatures can dip into the high 70’s at night.  Incandescent bulbs may be used by day; ceramic heaters or red/black reptile “night bulbs” are useful after dark.

Humidity should be kept low, and the substrate must be dry at all times.


Females and youngsters usually co-exist, but groups must be watched as dominant individuals may prevent others from feeding and basking.  Males will fight viciously and cannot be kept together.


Collared LizardThese voracious predators are largely insectivorous, but also take small lizards and snakes on occasion in the wild.  Their calcium requirements appear to be quite high.  Pink mice are a good calcium source, but should not be offered more than once each 7-10 days.  Rodents with fur should be avoided.

Roaches, waxworms, crickets, butterworms, silkworms, calci-worms, super mealworms, hornworms, sow bugs and other commercially-available invertebrates should form the bulk of the diet.  Crickets and mealworms alone are not sufficient.  Insects should themselves be provided with a nutritious diet for 1-3 days before being offered to your pets.

In order to increase dietary variety, offer your lizards canned grasshoppers, snails and silkworms via tongs.  Wild-caught insects, as long as you can recognize dangerous species and avoid pesticide-contaminated areas, should also be offered; moths, beetles, grasshoppers and many others will be readily accepted.  Please see this article for additional information on feeding insectivorous lizards.

Wild Collared Lizards consume some vegetation, but captives often reject non-living foods.  Adding live insects to a bowl of kale, dandelion and other produce may encourage acceptance.

Food (excepting pinkies) should be powdered with Tetra ReptoCal, Zoo Med ReptiCalcium or a similar product.  Vitamin/mineral supplements (i.e. ReptiVite with D3) should be used 2-3 times weekly.

Adults can be offered food 5-7 times weekly, while juveniles should be fed on a daily basis. 



Further Reading

Natural History in Arizona (excellent photos)

Stomach Contents Study (Texas)

Fire Management as a Conservation Tool


Collared Lizard and long nosed leopard lizard image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Daniel Schwen
Collared Lizard image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dakota L


  1. avatar

    Why some snakes have iridescence on their skin while others have’nt?What purpose does the iridescence serve?Does it attract a prey or intimidate a meddler?

    • avatar

      Iridescence is caused by the shape of individual scales; the colors we see result when the sun strikes them at certain angles. I’ve not seen any in depth studies on this. Many animals see in ways we do not – insects see flowers differently than do we; many birds see colors that we do not, etc., so perhaps communication is involved. A more likely explanation may be camouflage…even thought the colors ;look bright when we view the snake in captivity, in the wild they may serve to break up body form, blend with patches of sunlight, etc. Best, Frank

  2. avatar

    Great article on the Collared lizard Frank it was on my page from the reptile report.

  3. avatar

    I have 3 Madagascar swifts I rescued from a pet store and was told they were chuckwallas, they are very skittish little creatures but do allow after 6 months gentle handling and bathing. They are under a year old and I came home from to an egg last night and another this morning. If someone knows about these fascinating creatures and can help me I would so appreciate it. I need to learn all I can about their food needs, and now how to care for my girl during this delicate time as well as her potential hatchlings. I have pictures of 2 of them and was told they were Dumeril Madagascar Swifts if that helps. Someone, anyone I really need some advice to be the best lizard momma I can to them.

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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