Armadillo lizards look like tiny dragons from a magical world.
These lizards are covered in an impressive armor of spiny scales. These scales, when combined with their small size and round eyes, make them look like a cute mythical beast.
The fact that they roll into a tiny ball by clamping their own tail in their mouth makes them even cuter.
Keep on reading if you would like to learn more about keeping armadillo girdled lizards. We share everything you need to know before buying one and how to keep one as a pet.
Armadillo Lizard Overview
Armadillo lizards (ouroborus cataphractus) are tiny armored lizards that live in sub-saharan parts of Central and South Africa. They can make excellent display lizards as most are covered in hard, spiky scales called osteoderms.
As a pet armadillos are fun to watch and are loved for their dragon-like spiky appearance and small size. They are active during the day and spend most of their time basking on rocks.
These lizards like to be out basking during the day and it is fun to watch them eat insects.
Another fact most beginner keepers enjoy is that most can be safely kept in groups when given enough space. In the wild armadillos are usually found living in groups from 2 to 60. Just be careful as males can be aggressive so should not be housed together!
Though these lizards are social with each other they are fairly flighty when it comes to humans, handling especially can be stressful for them. They will often try to curl up into a defensive ball by biting their tail when keepers attempt to handle them.
For this reason it is not recommended to handle them regularly. The best keepers enjoy these charming dragons from a distance watching them play and eat.
- Common Names: Armadillo lizard.
- Scientific Name: Ouroborus cataphractus.
- Family Name: Cordylidae.
- Range: Sub-saharan parts of Central and South Africa.
- Size: 4.7 to 6.3 inches long.
- Color: Dark brown with flecks of gold on their spiked scales.
- Lifespan: 25 years.
- Diet: Insects.
- Tank Size: 20-gallon long tank.
- Temperature: Basking spot of 115°F and ambient temperature of 80-85°F.
- Humidity: 45 to 55%.
- Price: $150.
Types of Armadillo Lizards
Armadillo lizards are from the Cordylidae family which includes all girdled lizard species. Girdled species all share the same armor-like scales to protect them from predators. Armadillos are most closely related to African Plated lizards, alligator lizards and knob-scaled lizards.
There are ten different subspecies of armadillo lizards.
The most commonly kept pet armadillos are the golden armadillo, Limpopo girdled, giant girdled and East African armadillos.
Armadillo girdled lizards (Ouroborus cataphractus) are also commonly known as golden armadillo. This species is the most popular pet species and is mostly found in semi-arid parts of Southern Africa. They are light to dark brown, usually with gold highlights on some of their spiked scales and measures 4.7 to 6.3 inches long. This species will curl up into a circle by biting its tail when threatened.
Limpopo girdled lizards (Cordylus jonesii) are commonly known as Jones’s girdled lizard. This species is native to the dry forests of South Africa and they are often found in trees or hiding under bark. They are more arboreal than other species and do not live in rock crevices. They are dark to light brown with a darker stripe sometimes running from their front legs to their back legs along the sides of their bodies. They can reach about 6.5 inches in length, but have narrower heads than the more popular golden species.
The giant girdled lizard (Smaug giganteus) is also known as the sungazer because they point their heads up towards the sun when basking. Their spikes are larger than other species and create a ring all the way around their necks. Babies are specked with a yellow that normally fades to a dark brown, with gold spots. Unlike other species they often live in underground burrows, instead of rock crevices. They can reach up to eight inches in length and have longer bodies and limbs.
East African Armadillos (Cordylus tropidosternum) are also very popular pets. Their range spans from Eastern and Southern Africa and also ranges north from Swaziland to Ethiopia. Their bodies are chunky and reach 6.3 to 7.5 inches long. They are usually brown on top, cream underneath and have a black stripe running from their ear to shoulder. They sometimes have a yellow blush on their sides and throats.
Pictures and Appearance
Armadillo lizards are usually dark brown or black with white or creamy colored bellies. Many species also have flecks of gold sprinkled along their spiked scales, sides and necks.
Their bodies are covered in thick, spiky scales from head to tail. These scales are called osteoderms and are actually a type of armor. This layer of protection is one factor that makes armadillo lizards so unique.
Armadillos use their armor as a form of protection from predators, but they also use these angled scales to slow down evaporative water loss in dry regions.
Depending on the species they can range from about 4.5 to 8 inches long (snout to tail) and have triangular heads, with blunt little noses. All of these dragons stay small and cute, hence their nickname “dragon armadillo lizard”!
Male and females look very similar, but there are physical differences between them. Males have wider and more triangular heads than females, but unfortunately it is only obvious when you can compare a male and female right next to each other.
You can sometimes guess their gender based on their behavior. Males will chase females and attempt to mate with them by biting the top of their necks. Males will also chase and attack other males, which is why they shouldn’t be housed together.
Females will occasionally chase each other around to establish a dominance hierarchy, but the mating behavior is not present.
Most female armadillo lizards are ovoviviparous like some species of snakes. This means their eggs develop inside them without a shell and they give birth to live babies.
Armadillo Lizard Care Sheet
Armadillos are hardy lizards that eat with enthusiasm and thrive when kept under the correct conditions.
Their care is simple, but these lizards generally do well when left alone. Human interaction seems to be quite stressful for them. Although they may tolerate some handling, they will generally run away and hide when a keeper tries to pick them up. If you do manage to catch one they will often curl up into a ball by clamping their own tail in their mouth.
An armadillo lizard is right for you if you are looking for an engaging pet that you can watch from a distance.
If you are looking for a lizard that you and your family can interact with and handle regularly, they are not a good fit. Instead take a look at the leopard gecko.
A single armadillo lizard can be housed in a 20-gallon long terrarium, but a larger tank is always better! If you decide to house a group then start with at least a 40-gallon long tank for two and then add 10-gallons for each additional animal. Remember that there should only be one male in each group.
Temperature and Lighting
Armadillo lizards need a range in tank temperature (thermal gradient) so that they can thermoregulate. They need a basking spot that reaches 115°F with a cooler ambient temperature of 80-85°F.
You can create a hot basking spot by arranging stable rocks on one side of the enclosure. Place the heat source such as a 60 watt heat bulb directly above these elevated basking rocks. Use a thermostat with a probe to make sure the basking spot does not exceed 120°F.
Nighttime tank temperature can drop to the low 60°Fs. If your house gets colder than this at night, use a 25 watt ceramic heat emitter connected to a thermostat to keep the tank around 65°F at night.
Since armadillo lizards in the wild spend their day in sunlight you need to provide them with a full-spectrum UVB light in their tank too. A desert 10.0/10% UVB tube light is a good choice and will make sure they are getting vitamin D3 to help them absorb calcium from their diet.
You should aim for a setup that has high basking temperatures, little humidity and lots of rocks and crevices. Including hides is also important and helps to provide a feeling of safety for your lizard. Place one hide on the warm side of the enclosure and one on the cool side. Make sure to add extra hides for each additional animal you add to the tank.
They should be house in a 20-gallon long tank with a humidity of 45-55%. Their tank should have a thermal gradient with an elevated basking spot that reaches 115°F and an ambient temperature of 80-85°F.
A water bowl should be placed on the cool side of the tank.
In their native habitat armadillo lizards live on loose sand and dirt. There is a concern that pet species should not be housed with loose substrate because of impaction, this is true for bearded dragon substrate too. Many owners are concerned that loose substrate could accidentally lead to impaction when a lizard is eating and picks up some sand along with its cricket.
For this reason if you choose to use a loose substrate make sure to feed your armadillo insects in an escape-proof food dish.
Some better alternatives to loose substrate are reptile carpet, newspaper, paper towel and tiles. Rocks should not be used as they can trap feces and cause bacteria problems in the tank.
Armadillo lizards are sit-and-wait predators like frogs. Instead of actively hunting their prey, they wait for their prey to come to them. In the wild their diet consists mostly of termites, along with other small insects.
Larger groups of armadillo lizards will eat a diet made up of more termites. Individuals living alone or in smaller groups eat a diet made up of insects with a much smaller ratio of termites.
Pet armadillo lizards can be fed a diet similar to leopard geckos as they are insectivores. The best choices are crickets and dubia cockroaches no longer than the width of the space between their eyes.
Babies and growing juveniles should be fed as many insects as they will eat in 5-10 minutes daily. This will usually be between 5 to 10 insects every day. Always remove any uneaten insects after 10 minutes to prevent them from biting your lizard when the light goes out.
Adults should be fed about five larger insects every other day.
Insects should be dusted on alternating days with vitamin D3 and calcium powder.
Out of curiosity these lizards will eat vegetables, but scientific analysis of wild armadillo lizard diets does not include a significant amount of vegetation, so it is best to stick to an insectivore diet.
Finally they should be provided with fresh, clean water at all times. Keep in mind that these lizards have fairly flat bodies, so they should be given flat, shallow water bowls. Many reptile bowls may be too deep for them. You should make sure the water level only reaches halfway up their backs so they can climb out comfortably. Food or salad reptile bowls are generally better for them.
Armadillo lizards can live for up to 25 years when given the right care and kept in a good tank setup. To keep them happy and healthy, minimize handling, house them in a 20-gallon long tank with UVB lighting and feed them insects every other day.
Mouth infections are one of the most common illnesses for this species. It is relatively easy to spot as you will notice a loss in appetite, swollen jaw and discharge from the mouth.
Femoral pore infections are also common with armadillo lizards. Signs of this include swelling behind the pores on the underside of their back legs, general swelling of the back legs and difficulty walking. To prevent this some keepers suggest adding sandstone in the tank so that they can scrape their femoral pores.
Parasite infection is a concern for all pet lizards. Signs of parasite infection are a loss of appetite, weight loss and bloody stool. Most parasite infections can be easily diagnosed and treated by an exotic reptile vet.
If you notice your armadillo lizard starts to become pale then don’t worry, it means they are about to shed. To help them shed properly make sure their humidity is at 55% and provide rough surfaces in their tank that they can rub against. If the shed doesn’t come off on its own after a few days, then soak them in a tub of lukewarm water that covers their toes for 15 minutes.
Armadillo lizards are a diurnal species that spend most of their time basking on rocks and living in groups from 2 to 60 lizards.
Most species live near rock crevices, however the giant girdled lizard often lives in underground burrows and the Limpopo girdled is arboreal and lives in trees.
Armadillo lizards as pets can be a bit skittish when you walk by their enclosure, but they make beautiful display animals as they are basking throughout the day. If you approach their tank too fast they will quickly ball up by biting their tail and show off their armored scales.
It is possible to keep more than one together, as long as there is only one male in the tank. You will need to keep an eye on hierarchies developing in your group of armadillo lizards. If you notice one lizard chasing another, you might need to house it in its own enclosure.
Where Can I Buy An Armadillo Lizard?
Since the 1980s many armadillo lizards have been taken from the wild to be sold as pets, but it is now illegal to collect most wild species without a permit. To discourage smuggling these lizards out of Africa it is best for beginners to find a pet armadillo lizard from a reputable private breeder.
Private bred lizards will be more expensive and difficult to find, but they are healthier and easier to care for. Buying captive-bred individuals will also help their preservation in the wild.
Because of illegal poaching species like the giant girdled lizard (Smaug giganteus) are now considered a vulnerable species. Most other species are classified as Least Concern or Stable.
Unfortunately some are still illegally smuggled for sale in the pet trade. In 2019 U.S. Customs and Border Protection discovered five armadillo girdled lizards in a box being shipped from South Africa to Florida. The lizards were confiscated and ended up at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
There are many factors that make these lizards hard to find in the pet trade. The most important one is there are limited numbers of armadillos in captivity and they have a very slow reproduction rate. They usually give birth to one or two very large offspring once a year, making their reproduction rate quite slow compared to other lizards.
Given their extremely limited availability the price of armadillo lizards can vary greatly.
Most species cannot be found at pet stores. Lots of detective work may be needed to find an armadillo lizard for sale when compared to many other popular pet lizards. The best place to find one is a reptile expo.
East African species are the easiest species to find as pets. They are significantly less expensive than other species and are available at about $20 to $150. If you have decided that an armadillo lizard is the right pet for you, this is the species to look for.
Armadillo girdled lizards are extremely difficult to find. One pair was recently sold for $9,000 and another trio for $5,400.
Giant armadillo girdled lizards are also difficult to find in the reptile trade. Individuals are often sold for between $4,000 to $5,000.
The Limpopo girdled lizard is virtually impossible to find for sale in captivity.
Armadillo lizards are beautiful display lizards with their dragon-like spiky appearance and tiny size. Most will grow from just 4.5 to 8 inches long and are covered in thick, spiky scales from head to tail.
There are many different species of armadillo lizard, but four are common in the pet trade. Beginners should look to adopt the East African species as most other species are expensive and difficult to find.
They need a 20-gallon long glass tank with a basking spot of 115°F and an ambient temperature of 80-85°F. Nighttime temperatures of at least 60°F are fine with a humidity range of 45-55%.
As babies these lizards should be fed as many insects as they will eat in 5-10 minutes every day. Adults should be fed 5 large insects every other day.
Adventurous beginners may choose to house a group of armadillos together. This is possible as long as there is only one male in the tank and you watch out for any hierarchies developing in your group.
The armadillo is a great pet for someone who wants a beautiful lizard they can watch from a distance.
Let us know your favorite armadillo in the comments below.