Photos by Michael McLarty
If you have ever seen the movie “Holes” produced in 2003 by Walt Disney then you have no doubt heard of the Yellow Spotted Lizard. In reality the, Yellow Spotted Night Lizard Lepidophyma flavimaculatum is neither as large nor as glamorous as the type of lizards featured in the movie. In my opinion, this incredible species definitely deserves a place in the avid collectors’ enclosure space. According to what I have been able to find through personal research there is very little known about the Lepidophyma genus in terms of their captive care. I discovered this particular genus purely by accident while shopping at a local pet superstore. As is always the case, when buying food for my own reptiles and mammals, I always “window-shop” the newer reptiles that have arrived at the store. This is done with a more than slight chagrin to my wife.
Nevertheless, while window-shopping I came across a label that said Nicaraguan Alligator Lizard. Now, I consider myself to be pretty well versed in reptiles and their care, both wild and captive. Because I didn’t recognize the common name of this particular lizard, I inquired as to what its behaviors and required care were like. The young man working told me that within this particular enclosure, were a pair of lizards, not only difficult to handle but more ready to bite than anything else. He explained that during routine maintenance, he had attempted to lift one and move it to another portion of the enclosure and it turned and bit him without hesitation. He explained that they definitely bite like our native Alligator lizards, but were most likely too small in the mouth to actually draw blood. He also confided in me that the rest of the reptile crew working in the store was afraid of them.
Thoroughly intrigued, I asked if I could see these creatures who instilled such fear in grown humans. The employee gladly opened the enclosure and moved the half hide log to reveal what I now consider to be some of the most interesting lizards I have seen in captivity. At first glance, I thought maybe I was looking at another species of Elgaria ssp. Alligator lizard with which I was unfamiliar. After watching them for a moment I asked to handle them and the employee smiled saying “Go ahead, be my guest.” I tried for about three to four minutes to capture one of the lizards quite unsuccessfully, and rather than stress them out any further, resigned my self to just observing them.
Rather than take something home that I might not be able to care for, I decided it best to do my usual routine before purchasing any animal. I drove home and immediately scoured my personal library for anything on the “Nicaraguan Alligator Lizard”. To my dismay, and the happiness of my wife, I found nothing at all about this peculiar species. I looked on the internet as well, but still found nothing with the name that they had given me at the pet store.
Then it dawned on me like a light from above. In all my excitement, I had never thought to look for the Latin name for the “Nicaraguan Alligator Lizard”. What a fool I was! I immediately found the number for the store and called only to be dismayed. They couldn’t find the Latin name either! I asked them to check with the shipping paperwork, it would most assuredly be there. However, according to the manager I spoke with, the shipping paperwork only listed the lizards as “Nicaraguan Alligator Lizards” as well.
I asked for the name of the company that had sold them the lizard or the importer that they had purchased the lizards from. They gave me name of the company, which luckily, had a website that I could access. I went scrolling through their availability list and most of the species were ones that I could easily recognize. The others I immediately looked up on the internet, and finally found the same lizard that I had seen earlier at the pet store. However, even the wholesaler had it mislabeled as a Honduran Night Bark Lizard or Lepydophma flavimaculatum, which I discovered after looking up the Latin name, which was misspelled in fact it was still misspelled the last time I checked, before this article was written. I feel it is crucial to mention here, that because the Google® search engine corrects spelling, I was able to finally find what I was looking for. The correctly spelled name of the particular species is the Lepidophyma flavimaculatum or Yellow Spotted Night Lizard.
The Yellow Spotted Night Lizard Lepidophyma flavimaculatum evokes memories of our native Elgaria multicarinataCalifornia Alligator Lizard. Both have similar plated and scaled narrow heads with an unblinking stare that makes them appear to be quite dangerous. The body however, is covered in a completely different scale pattern for Lepidophyma flavimaculatum Yellow Spotted Night Lizard than it is for the native E. multicarinata Alligator Lizard. The dorsum of the L. flavimaculatum is covered with tiny spine like tubercles. These look more “fearsome” than they really are though, and the texture of the skin is much softer than it appears at first glance. The dorsal region feels somewhat like 80 grit sandpaper, very rough and grainy.
The ventral area of the lizard is covered in a scalation that is once again similar to the native Alligator lizards, as they are both covered in smooth singular bands. The singular bands stretch from one side of the midline to the other, and never go beyond this point. The tail starting at the base just after the cloaca is covered in what appears to be overlapping bands of sharp scales, as well as the spine like tubercles as found on the dorsal region, until the end of the tail where they taper off to a rounded tip. The tail does not have the same spine like tubercles that are found on the dorsum, they instead have scales similar to the smooth bands of the ventral area. However, these scales are sharp looking at the edges where they overlap the next ring.
The name Yellow Spotted Night Lizard Lepidophyma flavimaculatum quite accurately describes this particular creature. Generally, they have a black to brown ground color, with yellow spots interspersed at regular intervals on both sides. The color on the ventral side is a subdued yellow color, and I have read statements that it can range, from yellow mustard to a cream color. The dorsum and tail are dull in color, while the ventral areas tend to be much shinier and brighter.
The Yellow Spotted Night Lizards have a range that is quite extensive throughout most of Central America. They seem to be particularly found most in Nicaragua on both the coastal region and the higher inland areas. Reportedly, they have also been described in Costa Rica, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Panama. All of the regions where they are found are described as Sub-Tropical areas where the average temperatures are about 86˚ F and rainfall is somewhat common. Humidity within the areas that they are found are not exact and do fluctuate from one area to another. One particular report claims L. flavimaculatum are found in the Broadleaf and Pine Forests Belize.
Typical temperature averages for all the places where they are found are between 71º F at the lowest end with the highest being 75º F on average. We must understand that these are averages for the areas where they are found and the temperatures may fluctuate somewhat between regions. If possible, I would recommend that you speak directly with the importer in an attempt to find out what country/state the lizards originated from. If this is not possible then the best thing to do would be follow the guidelines that I will put forth and had success with. The humidity in their particular regions range between 70-85% during different parts of the year typically speaking the average would about 75% humidity on any given day.
Within most forested regions we would expect to find leaf litter and rotting logs or timber. In most reports of their wild habitats, which are extremely few on this particular saurian, it is noticed that they are in fact microhabitat specialists. This means that they actually pick one particular log or patch of leaf litter and spend most of their time there if not their whole lives within this one area.
Keeping in mind what was stated above; most people would be inclined to presume that they are an ambush predator. This is not completely true however as they are known to venture out to forage for food. No one is quite sure or at least, has not yet documented the home range of Yellow Spotted Night Lizards L. flavimaculatum to my knowledge. What is known is that in the wild they are known to consume ants, spiders, and scorpions.
When it comes to the captive care of these fascinating creatures there is no real great place to find information. Due to their “secretive nature” there has been little information published that is readily accessible to the average keeper. A colleague and fellow herper once said that the words “secretive nature” when referring to any reptile means that we as humans know close to nothing about them. This is true to the extreme when we are speaking of L. flavimaculatumYellow Spotted Night Lizards.
While there have been studies done there is really no useful information unless we want to spend the average $50 to gain access to a biology report which might not reveal any useful information at all. From the abstracts I have read there is a lot of information about the sexual diversity but nothing that would warrant paying money for information on the environment that I can find through a simple search engine. There is was one care sheet, which related some useful information on the web but it was not particularly easy to find and evidently no longer exists. http://www.freewebs.com/jinkusu/caresheets.htm is where the care sheet used to be found. The care sheet itself also tells the reader that they should search further via the internet.
The following guidelines for care are based on personal experience and research that I have been able to obtain from various parties and websites. What I am about to explain is the current set-up for the pair of lizards that I have currently. This should in no way be taken as the end all solution to care for these lizards but keep in mind that the materials I have used have kept the lizards alive and apparently thriving. As far as I know these have yet to be bred in captivity except in zoos from 1981 to 1995 at the Fort Worth Zoo.
All those that are sold today should be presumed to be imported as wild caught. As with any wild caught species of reptile, you should take it to a reputable veterinarian to be examined for parasites and overall health. Typically, wild caught reptiles have at least some type of parasite load that they have picked up in wild. Occasionally, as is the case with my pair you will end up with perfectly healthy lizards that have no parasites what so ever. After it is determined whether or not treatment for parasites is needed or not you can then proceed to treat the lizard as directed or just bring them home to your enclosure which should have been set up prior.
The word above may be familiar to those who are versed in the Whiptail Cnemidophorus sp. For those who are not it is simply explained as an entire female population of animals that are able to reproduce clones of themselves without a male present. I personally had a baby born while I have kept these but it soon died. Why it passed and what conditions caused the birth is still under scrutiny by my family and myself.
The enclosure for this particular species of lizard is basically a 15-gallon aquarium or reptile tank, which measures 30” by 12”. This size of an enclosure more than allows for a general rule that I follow that the enclosure should be 3 times the length and twice the width of the particular lizard in question. Within this enclosure I keep a pair of lizards, so in my opinion a 10 gallon would be sufficient for a single lizard. I personally bought a 15 Gallon fish tank. To this, I added a screen lid with side clips to prevent escape of the lizards.
There are many different substrates to choose from when shopping. I try my best to match the substrate to the natural environment as much as possible. This even means mixing different substrates on a trial and error basis to see which is best. According to what I have read most sources cite that L. flavimaculatum are found mostly in a broadleaf and pine forest type of environment. When speaking with someone who was familiar with the area they said there was more “low lying jungle vegetation and the trees were shorter than what would be found in California forests”[ii].
So essentially this means we would want a soil that would retain moisture but not be constantly wet per se. There would undoubtedly be large and small pieces of limbs or larger pieces of bark mixed in with rotting leaves and other such debris as you would find covering a forest floor. When I originally purchased the lizards that I now keep, I used a substrate called Jungle Bed made by T-Rex®. It was made from ground coconut and other such materials.
What I have personally observed with this type of bedding is that the top layer definitely retains moisture very well but the lower layers remain somewhat dry. The lizards when introduced to this substrate did not seem to have any problems with it nor have they developed any since. As matter of fact one in particular seems to enjoy burrowing occasionally. This particular substrate in my opinion would be best used with plants which would allow the lizards undoubtedly to feel like this was a more natural environment.
When it comes to décor for the night lizards I have kept this to minimum. The reason being is that I want to keep an environment that would best represent their natural home. I would also place a few cork tubes or half log hides in the enclosure; as well as one or two sand blasted grapevine branches for climbing. The only other décor that I would add would be terrarium safe plants. These will be covered in detail later in the article.
I have read that UVB lighting is not necessary for this particular species due to it being a nocturnal lizard. My experience has been very different from the others. One of the pair actually comes out from the hide and basks on a regular basis. Therefore, while they may be called “night” lizards it should not be assumed that they are completely nocturnal.
I have provided my personal pets with a fluorescent light with a 5% output of UVB. This would insure that they are probably getting enough UVB without overdoing do it. Most desert species would use an 8% or higher because they are a basking species which spends most of their time basking in direct sunlight. Jungle and tropical species are exposed mostly to indirect sunlight due to the canopy above blocking most of the light. As far as fixtures are concerned I use a hanging shop-light fixture, with two bulbs of which one is the UVB and the other is a regular fluorescent or plant bulb purchased at the same home improvement store where the fixture can be bought.
I attach the light fixture to an inexpensive household timer which can be purchased anywhere from home improvement stores to the local drug stores, to make sure the lights are on a 12 hour a day cycle which follows the normal day and night cycle of nature. This allows the lizards to keep a normal circadian rhythm as they would in the wild. It is unknown to me personally at this point; due to no known reports of breeding success or failure whether or not the day and night cycles would have any influence on breeding. I am sure altering the cycle will at least have some influence over behaviors that are observed.
Heating can be problematic in way. This is due to the longtime belief that reptiles can not see red wavelengths in light. Some manufacturers actually make the claim right on the package that their bulbs can be used at night because the reptiles won’t be disturbed by the light being on. Therefore, most people that I know of use a red heat bulb to heat all of their reptiles.
This has recently been proven to be incorrect by studies done which show that the reptiles can see the red wavelengths in light. In fact some can see further into the red wavelengths than humans can. Therefore, when it comes to heating your Yellow Spotted Night lizards L. flavimaculatum and all your reptiles for that matter I recommend and use only ceramic heating elements these do not put out any light at all. Under Tank Heaters are another option to the Red heat bulbs however, they are only capable of raising the ambient temperature by about 10 degrees. This may or may not be enough to produce a basking spot or area within the vivarium. I would recommend a 50 watt ceramic heating element placed 12” away from the basking site.
While this may seem to solve all the problems it is very important that you check the basking area temperature on a regular basis. The digital thermometers that are stuck on the walls of the vivarium can’t do this. This is due to the fact that these are measuring the ambient temperature on that side not the actual basking area. This has come to my attention while researching for a book that I was writing. I came across a website in which the person tested different heating elements in a controlled environment. The results of the test were staggering to say the least.
For this reason I recommend either investing in a thermostat or at the very least a digital temperature gun which can read the heat at the basking site. While this may sound like a technical, not to mention expensive piece of equipment but it really isn’t. They usually cost about $25 and are very easy to use. These can mean the difference between cooking your reptile and making them happy. Another device I have used is a digital thermometer with probe, which can read and save minimum and maximum temperatures. You can place the probe under the basking area and leaving it for a day then copying down the temperature. Repeat the process for the cool side; this should give the average temperature within the enclosure and also allow you to make any needed adjustments.
Clean water should always be available in a shallow dish large enough for the lizard to completely enter and soak itself should it want to. It has been my experience that they will soak on a daily basis for at least an hour or more. Except for the cooler winter and fall months in which they seem to go in a type of brumation, which coincides with the shorter day lengths and cooler temperatures. They do this even when the enclosure has been sprayed down heavily. I always use reverse osmosis water for watering and spraying because it doesn’t leave water spots on the glass.
It is reported that they will defecate in their water but I have as yet to have this happen with my lizards. I spray the cage early in the morning very heavily which the lizards seem to enjoy. They actually leave the hide to stand against the glass and drink the water droplets or come out and lick the drops from their heads. They never run from being sprayed at all and will actually move into the area being sprayed. I have only seen L. flavimaculatum drink from standing water on a couple of occasions they will more readily drink from water rivulets on the tank glass.
I have had good luck buying plants at a small Dollar store near my home. I have purchased a variety of vivarium safe plants and placed them within the enclosure. Some of the ones I have used are as follows. Pothos sp, Dracaena sp, and Chlorophytum comosum are all ones that I have grown within the enclosure as well as other houseplants of varied sorts and varieties. I would check the web and books that are currently available to get more ideas on what plants work and which don’t. When you do use live plants make sure that you use a full-spectrum UVB light source of type. Another benefit to using plants is that they hold the humidity within the enclosure very well.
Another benefit to the vivarium is that it would be a more natural setting for the lizards to react and interact with their environment as they would in the wild. I am still as of this writing documenting different basking, dominance, and feeding behaviors in the pair I currently keep. I hope that this will lead to new and interesting information being revealed later and shared with the herpetocultural community.
As mentioned earlier in the wild they have been observed eating ants, scorpions, and spiders. In captivity it has been reported that they will consume crickets and small mealworms. My lizards eat mostly crickets and occasionally I have offered them wax worms as a treat. The crickets are dusted with a calcium supplement prior to feeding them to the lizards. The lizards will sometimes wait at the entrance to their hide and ambush the crickets as they pass by. The size of the crickets should be no wider than the widest part of the jaw. I feed crickets every three days and then only about ten are released into the enclosure at a time.
This particular species of Night lizard as with all the Night lizards I am familiar with do not enjoy handling in the least. They will squirm and attempt to claw their way to freedom. I have heard that the Yellow Spotted Night Lizard L. flavimaculatum will bite and have personally experienced such behaviors. I would not recommend trying to handle this type of lizard simply due to the stress factors that are involved. They are an acutely aware lizard that I would suggest to “Hands-Off” keeper interested in keeping a new species.
Cleaning & Maintenance
Basic maintenance is all that is required for this species to thrive in captivity. Change the water daily as well as spot cleaning the substrate on a daily basis, this will keep the environment from going sour. About every 3 to 4 months, I personally pull all the plants and décor to thoroughly clean the entire cage. At this time, I keep a small amount of the old plant soil around the roots and replant them in the new substrate with the old soil as to prevent shock. Each time the substrate is changed as it is added back to the enclosure I spray each level so as to moisten the entire substrate. This will increase the humidity in the enclosure as it dries.
[ii] Personal Comment South American Native