There are many species of lizards in the U.S. The chuckwalla is one that makes its home in the southwestern states. Chuckwallas are desert lizards, preferring to live in hot, dry climates. These critters are sometimes kept as pets, but breeding is limited in the U.S.
What Is a Chuckwalla?
Chuckwallas (genus Sauromalus) are a group of large lizards found mainly in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. There are five species of chuckwallas:
- Sauromalus ater: Common chuckwalla, northern chuckwalla
- Sauromalus hispidus: Spiny chuckwalla
- Sauromalus klauberi: Catalina chuckwalla, spotted chuckwalla
- Sauromalus slevini: Montserrat chuckwalla, Slevin’s chuckwalla
- Sauromalus varius: Piebald chuckwalla
The chuckwalla you’re most likely to find in zoos or aquariums is the common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater, formerly Sauromalus obesus). The common chuckwalla is a flat, stout lizard with baggy folds of skin around the neck, shoulders, and stomach. Their bodies are covered in hard scales, the largest of which are found between the nose and eyes.
The chuckwalla’s color will depend on its location, mood, surroundings, and temperature. Chuckwallas are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females of the species have distinct characteristics. Male chuckwallas typically have dark, even black, heads and front limbs while their bodies can be shades of black, gray, orange, red, and yellow. Juveniles have gray or yellow bands across their bodies, and female chuckwallas often keep these bands as they age. A chuckwalla’s tail is often a lighter shade than its body, usually a pale yellow with dark bands.
Adult common chuckwallas average about 15 inches (38.1cm), with males being slightly larger than females. About half of their length comes from their tails, which are thick near the base but taper to a blunt tip at the end. Other species of chuckwallas may be larger or smaller:
- The Spiny Chuckwalla (Sauromalus hispidus) grows up to 12.5 inches (31.75cm).
- The Catalina chuckwalla or spotted chuckwalla (Sauromalus klauberi) grows up to 6.9 inches (17.5cm).
- The Montserrat chuckwalla or Slevin’s chuckwalla (Sauromalus slevini) grows up to 8.2 inches (20.8 inches).
- The Piebald chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius) grows up to 12.7 inches (32.2 cm).
Chuckwallas are desert animals, and can be found in the southwestern U.S. in states like Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. They can also be found in northwestern Mexico near the Gulf of California. They prefer to live between sea level and 4,500 feet in elevation. The Mojave Desert in California and the Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California, and northwestern Mexico, have large populations of chuckwallas.
Common chuckwallas prefer scrubby, rocky deserts with plenty of good hiding places, like hardened lava flows, rocky hillsides, and outcroppings of rocks. They often spend their days alternating between basking on rocks and resting in shade to regulate their temperature. In winter, they may hibernate in crevices and underground burrows.
All chuckwallas prefer desert habitats, but different species live in different areas:
- The Spiny Chuckwalla (Sauromalus hispidus), also called the Angel Island chuckwalla, lives on northwestern islands in the Gulf of California.
- The Catalina chuckwalla or spotted chuckwalla (Sauromalus klauberi) is found only on Isla Santa Catalina, an island in the Gulf of California.
- The Montserrat chuckwalla or Slevin’s chuckwalla (Sauromalus slevini) can only be found on Isla Carmen, Isla Coronados, Isla Danzante, and Isla Monserrat in the Gulf of California.
- The Piebald chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius) is only found on Isla San Esteban in the Gulf of California.
What Do Chuckwalla Lizards Eat?
Common chuckwallas are primarily herbivores. They mainly eat leaves and fruits from plants like browneyes, the desert creosote bush, and ragweed. They get most of their water from eating plants.
In the wild, chuckwallas usually live to about 15 years old, although the oldest known wild chuckwalla lived to be 30. In captivity, they may live longer, usually more than 25 years, and the oldest known captive chuckwalla lived to be 65.
The average age of sexual maturity for common chuckwallas is around two or three years old. They usually breed during the summer. Females produce eggs every other year and usually lay 5-16 eggs at a time. They incubate the eggs in their underground nest until they hatch, usually after 35 days, but the incubation period can range from 33-50 days.
Hatchlings are independent immediately, and the mother does not need to provide any type of care. Only about 38% of chuckwallas make it through the first year. After that, they’re much more likely to survive.
Known predators of chuckwallas include coyotes, rattlesnakes, and some raptors. They may also be affected by parasites or mites.
Chuckwallas as Pets
Some people keep chuckwallas as pets, although the only state in the U.S. that currently allows the breeding of chuckwallas is Nevada. Juvenile chuckwallas tend to be more active and you may need to handle them to calm them down. Adult chuckwallas are more likely to be docile.
Habitat. Chuckwallas like to climb and hide, so your chuckwalla enclosure needs to have plenty of opportunities for both. They need an environment with high heat and low humidity. Their enclosure should have a temperature gradient that ranges from 75-95°F (24-35°C) during the day and 72-80°F (22.2-26.6°C) at night. Their basking area should range between 100-120°F (37.8-48.8°C). Common chuckwallas also need hiding places within various temperature zones.
Humidity should be kept low, between 15-50%. An open mesh top on their enclosure is a great way to keep humidity levels down. They get most of their water from eating plants, so a water bowl isn’t necessary, and in fact can cause the chuckwalla to become overly hydrated.
Chuckwallas need high levels of UV exposure. UV bulbs are a great option, but if possible, safe sunlight exposure is even better.
To keep your chuckwalla stimulated and entertained, provide options such as:
- Balls to play with
- Dig boxes
Diet. Like their wild diet, a captive diet should be made up mostly of plants, especially those high in calcium. You can also offer a small amount of fruits and vegetables. They like bright colors, like hibiscus petals. Juveniles may be willing to eat insects.