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Caring for red-headed agamas

I have recently acquired what I was told was a red-headed agama. Please could you advise me on the best way to look after this lizard, as its previous owner didn’t give me much information. It looks similar to a bearded dragon – should I look after it in similar way? It seems very nervous and I cannot hold it at all. Do they live in groups, and if so, how should they then be accommodated?

The red-headed or common rock agama (Agama agama) is a species of lizard with a wide distribution across Africa, south of the Sahara. Males become much more colourful in appearance at the start of the breeding period, developing their orange head and a similar band of colour on the tail, with the body itself being a dark bluish shade, although there are regional differences. Young and females remain brownish in appearance throughout the year.

Both sexes grow to a similar size, reaching a nose to tail tip length of about 30cm (12in). They live in highly organized social groups in the wild, with each animal maintaining its own place in the territory. This lizard is not commonly bred in collections, and has also proved difficult to establish in vivarium surroundings, for a variety of reasons. These include its territorial nature, which can led to disputes, as well as a tendency to keep them beneath their optimal temperature, and they also require a high UV index. In addition, as you have found, red-headed agamas can also be very nervous.

Spacious housing required

This species needs space! It cannot be kept like a bearded dragon and will never settle down to behave as such. Any group of red-headed agamas requires spacious surroundings so that they can live together without the risk of constant challenges from each other, which causes serious stress. I would suggest that an enclosure measuring 1.8×0.6×0.6m (6x2x2ft) is about right for a trio comprised of one male and two females. They need plenty of room to exercise and will readily run up and down for large portions of the day, assuming they are healthy and well-energised, in terms of warmth and suitable light exposure.

I would also suggest that rocks or decorative bricks and branches are used to build up an escalating basking platform at the hot end of the vivarium, which will account for around two-thirds of the entire enclosure space. Using a type of “fake wall” with holes and crevices will give female agamas plenty of space and the opportunity to find shelter and security away from the male. A good size enclosure can also be planted with grasses and succulents that are safe for reptiles.

Red-headed agamas will in fact graze periodically on these plants so they may need replacing. A soil/sand-based substrate can be used and they will scratch about and dig here determinedly, with females using this area as a nest site for their eggs. When settled in their quarters, they will lay several times a year. This is a species that has a high reproductive rate, reflecting its vulnerability to predators in the wild.

If this becomes problematic, the male will need to be removed so that the females can rest and build up good mineral reserves once again. Hatchlings should be kept separate from the adults or they may be eaten. This species is also inclined to brumate during the winter and as such, you need to make sure that they have had the chance to store the essential fats and minerals that they will need to get through this season without any problems.

When it comes to keeping this species successfully, getting the technology in the enclosure right is imperative, to recreate its natural environment. Red-headed agamas really do need it hot, so set the thermostatically controlled heating system to 30-35°C (86-95°F) at this end of the enclosure. Place a solid rock below the heat source as well, so that these lizards can obtain natural belly heat by lying here on occasions. The rocks will also store heat built up through the day and release it during the cooling down period at night.

In this size of vivarium, I would use a twin 12% HO-T5 system. Fit the first lamp right into the hot end and in the corner between the roof of the vivarium. The front plate should be above the door with its reflector. Then measure 15cm (6in) behind lamp one and a similar distance in from the far hot end wall and place lamp two with its reflector here. This will provide a useful wide spread of light, with the lamps crossing over at the basking spot and leading off into shade. Then build up your decoration so that the distance between the lamp and the agamas is between 30-35cm (12-14in). This will re-create the average UV (ultraviolet) index within the range of the species at this basking point.

Where the agamas will move downwards through the vivarium towards the cool end, place more hides and rocks in this area, so as to allow them to self-regulate their own level of exposure. This is of course the so-called ‘light and shade method’ that allows animals to find the level of solar energy that they require, as and when they require it in vivarium surroundings. There should be no lighting used during the period of rest at night. An LED moonlight could be used safely just for an hour or two after the main lighting is turned off, if you want to keep a watch on the lizards at this stage in the day.

Feeding matters

When you have arranged the lizards’ heating and lighting, the next step to consider is their diet and hydration. Wild-caught individuals can be very heavily burdened with parasites, and they should be gently treated as a matter of urgency. Not only do parasites cause an animal to be out-of-sorts, impacting on its appetite, but they can also decrease the beneficial gut flora and have adverse effects on food absorption too. Tests and treatment should be arranged with a specialist reptile vet.

I like to use Verm-X to help in maintaining the intestinal health of my lizards. It is particularly useful for newly-acquired individuals, being supplied as a powder that can be administered over food. Red-headed agamas need a full and very varied diet. I would include crickets, hopper locusts, dubia roaches, waxworms, calciworms and silkworms in the mix of live foods, and I would also offer things like dandelion flowers and leaves, as well as more exotic options that you can buy from reptile suppliers, such as hibiscus flowers. These agamas will also take grasses and arid plants, especially when young, as mentioned earlier.

A good broad-based supplement such as Vetark’s Nutrobal should be used regularly, at the correct dose, with calcium being offered at every feed. As reptile keepers, I often feel that we really do not consider hydration, given water’s critical role not only in the D3 cycle but also in terms of ensuring all the internal organs function properly. I would spray the vivarium first thing every day, mimicking the effect of dew, and also provide water in a bowl.

In order to help your lizard to settle down in its quarters with minimal stress, place it in a well-designed set-up with plenty of retreats and cover the front loosely with sheet of some kind. This method allows agamas to adapt to their new environment without fear of being stared at from outside. The cover can be slowly removed, bit-by-bit over a period of about two weeks, by which time the animals should be wellestablished in the enclosure and will feel confident to use the retreats if they wish.

Watch them carefully but discretely, making any changes in the design of the enclosure that seem appropriate. Keep an eye out for signs of aggression and remove any individual that you are concerned about, so its condition should not deteriorate, if it is being bullied. Established agamas may eventually allow some basic interaction with their keeper, but it is worth emphasising again that this is not a pet species.

Good luck – hopefully, you may be able to breed your lizards in due course!

© John Courteney-Smith Taken from “Practical Reptile Keeping” magazine

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