The Uromastyx genus

also known as Spiny Tailed Agamas or Dab Lizards

If you are simply looking for basic information for keeping these fascinating animals then please click here for a Uromastyx caresheet. I trust, however, that you will read on as there is a great deal more to be said about this genus and its very special requirements.
Until the 80s, this group of lizards was little known in captivity and, indeed, captive breeding was almost unknown. Even most photographs available did them little justice representing them as rather dull, greyish and phlegmatic looking lizards. In practice, however, they actually include some of the most beautifully marked and coloured lizards one can find and behaviourally they are equally fascinating. But, being so well adapted to a desert environment, as has been said they have extremely special requirements which must be met to bring out those colours and behaviour and of course, to breed them. I have now been keeping them for many years and have been the first person to breed some species in captivity in the UK. Building from my experience this page is devoted to telling you more about these animals and how to care for them.

Uromastyx in the wild

There are probably now at least 16 species of Uromastyx recognised and with at least 6 subspecies possibly 8 if we include the validity of recent publications on the Uromastyx dispar grouping.

The distribution of Uromastyx covers North Africa and the Middle East. Pakistan and Northwest India form the furthest point East and Somalia the furthest point south. The 2 disk tailed species of Uromastyx princeps in Somalia and thomasi in Oman are found on these Southern extremes on either side of the Red sea.

Many of these species are virtually unknown in the hobbyist or Zoo world. Many live in politically difficult regions where wars and unrest have raged on and off in modern and historic times.

Currently the genus Leiolepis (Butterfly Agamas from Asia) are considered to be a sister group to Uromastyx. These pretty lizards appear on importers lists quite regularly but I know of no documentation on reproductive success.

I hope to add pictures of as many species as possibly in the future.
Uromastyx are primarily vegetarian (herbivorous), Agamid Lizards which live in some of the most extreme habitats and climates in the world. Their annual activity cycle and food intake, changes, sometimes drastically, and out of necessity, to survive throughout the year. Winter in the Sahara can be cold but fairly short, in North Africa. Feeding will normally cease at this time but on sunny days animals will be seen basking at their burrows for a few hours to warm up if conditions are right but on dull days they will remain underground to maintain their body reserves until the spring. Water is a rare commodity in the desert and everything relies on it. Plants often lay dormant until the rains come, normally late winter to spring. It is not unusual for rains to fail completely in some areas. When the rains do come then it is a time of plenty and females will take these opportunities to put on weight, mate and produce eggs.

During the warmer periods of the year, temperatures can be as high as 60C. These temperatures are lethal even to Uromastyx for extended periods. Activity temperatures in the wild are 28 to 45C. The burrow or rock crevice is the micro habitat where Uromastyx can get shelter from the extremes of heat, cold and dryness.

Uromastyx have evolved to survive these conditions by refining their water management. In nature it would be rare to find standing water. Moisture must be found in the plant material they feed on or the environment they rest in. Evaporation through the body is fine tuned to retain as much water as possible. In spring, when food may be plentiful more evaporation is allowed through the skin but when plant food is low in moisture much less is passed through the skin. The white deposits often seen around the nostrils of Uromastyx are waste salts which are expelled through the nostrils. When defecating, the faeces in the wild are quite dry. Water is removed and passed as a dry pellet which consists of very fibrous processed food, while the urine is passed as dry uric acid powder. Every ml counts. It has been recorded that a population survived for 10 years in an area with no rainfall before eventually dying out. As the year progresses vegetation will contain less moisture and animals will have to be more and more efficient to manage what little moisture intake they ingest. From mid summer to autumn animals start getting dehydrated. The long term survival of a colony is thus totally dependant on the local conditions.

Vegetable intake will remain the same but the moisture content will be much lower. Eating seeds, dried pellets of other herbivorous animals and possibly the odd insect will supplement the diet.
During the poor years breeding will often not take place. It is probably worth remembering this reproductive strategy in captivity, and may be why long term failure to breed animals consistently on an annual basis is often not possible.

Areas such as the Sahara Desert will have annual temperature ranges of 0C to 60C Their habitat is extremely arid. Uromastyx mainly live in rocky, gravely and hard packed sand areas where they dig burrows for protection from the heat and cold. Not in sand dunes where feeder plants would not survive. If the rains fail then there is no fresh food. They have to make do on dry plant matter, dry seeds and even woody fragments. Herbivorous mammals such as Gazelle leave droppings which also contain partially digested food which are another source.

Depending on the species and the local climatic conditions the annual seasons will shape the way they survive throughout the year. Some will remain active throughout the year while others will need to go into a winter rest to avoid less than sub optimal conditions. During cold periods that do not allow animals high enough temperatures to digest food and escape from predators, they will stop feeding and rest for about 2 months or more.

During summer high temperatures could be lethal in some regions if it were not for the refuge of the burrow system. It is important that the range and background of the species is checked before setting up the captive environment.

Long term survival of these species in captivity may depend on attention to these details and maintaining Uromastyx in captivity in the long term still remains a challenge.

NEXT:  Uromastyx in captivity
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