Emerald Swift

Emerald Swift Sceloporus malachiticus

Natural History

These beautiful lizards are indigenous to the high altitude cloud forests of extreme southern Mexico and much of Central America. Emerald swifts get their common name as a result of the magnificent bright green and blue coloration exhibited by mature males. Female swifts are not as ornately colored, but still an attractive lizard nonetheless.

Despite being touted as difficult to maintain, these lizards actually do quite well in captivity if kept as described below. Even though nearly all emerald swifts available in this country are of a wild caught origin, captive birth, and less frequently, captive breeding is not unheard of.

Size and Longevity

Emerald swifts are fairly small lizards, rarely exceeding lengths of 7 or 8 inches. Males are typically bigger, and easily identified by their vibrant colors, both dorsally and ventrally.

Because most of these animals are acquired as adults, it is difficult to determine an average life span. However, when properly acclimated and cared for, life spans approaching 5 years are not out of the question. Animals born in captivity may be expected to live nearly a decade.


As a result of their need for high levels of humidity, emerald swifts do best when housed in all glass terrariums with a screen lid, or molded plastic enclosures such as those manufactured by Vision Herpetecultural. Both options provide a variety of sizes to choose from and both will provide acceptable levels of temperature and humidity control.

Though not physically aggressive, these lizards are territorial, and no more than one mature male should be housed in any given enclosure. Instead, consider a male/female pair, or one male housed with multiple females.

The minimum enclosure size for a single adult or small pair should be equivalent to that of a standard 20-gallon "long" terrarium. While such a tank will provide adequate space for thermoregulating and normal activity, larger enclosures are recommended if space permits. Additionally, larger terrariums will be required when housing larger colonies of these lizards.

Heating and Lighting

The cloud forests from which these lizards hail are typically cool, and have only limited sunshine. As a result, the best way to keep these lizards in captivity is as close to 75 degrees as possible, while still providing access to a localized basking spot that reaches 90 degrees during the day.

Such a thermal gradient allows the animals to rest in comfort at the cooler temperatures that they are used to, and the ability to bask until a desired body temperature is reached. Always use a high quality thermometer to monitor terrarium temperatures, preferably one on both the cool and warm ends of the terrarium.

Heat may be provided in a number or ways. Standard incandescent heat bulbs, infrared (red) bulbs, heating pads, and ceramic heat emitters are all acceptable choices.

Even though emerald swifts are exposed only to intermittent sunlight in the wild, the use of full spectrum lighting in captivity has proven highly successful in rearing this species. Fluorescent bulbs designed specifically for reptile use, and that provide light in the ultraviolet B (UVB) range are ideal.

The light produced by these bulbs replicates the rays of the sun and plays a vital role in vitamin D3 production and calcium absorption.

Substrate and Furnishings

The substrate used for emerald swifts must be one that promotes high levels of humidity without harboring mold or fungus. Cypress mulch or orchid bark are excellent choices, and with the addition of green sphagnum moss provide a perfect combination to maintain adequate humidity levels.

Emerald swifts are mostly arboreal, and should be provided with ample climbing and basking perches. Appropriately sized sticks, logs, and rocks should be used to provide a network of climbing structures.

In addition to the aforementioned decor, a combination of live and plastic plants should be utilized to provide hiding place for the lizards as well as an additional source of humidity.

Water and Humidity

As with any tropical herp, emerald swifts must always have access to clean, fresh water. A large, shallow bowl is recommended to provide the animals with easy access as well as to provide maximum surface area for evaporation and a subsequent increase in humidity.

In addition to a standing source of water, the emerald swift enclosure should be misted with room temperature water twice daily. It will take a small amount of trial and error to determine how much misting your set-up will require to maintain an appropriate moisture level. The substrate should be damp but never soggy, and should be nearly dry prior to the next misting.


Emerald swifts are insectivores, and in captivity will thrive on a diet consisting of appropriately sized crickets, mealworms, waxworms, and roaches. Appropriately sized prey items should be no longer than the distance between the lizards eyes.

Adult swifts should be fed every other day, with each feeding consisting of as many prey items as will be readily consumed in 15 to 20 minutes. Avoid allowing excess, uneaten prey to linger within the enclosure. The average adult emerald swift will consume between 15 and 20 medium to large crickets weekly.

Dietary supplementation is important with these lizards. Emerald swifts should receive a high quality calcium/vitamin D3 supplement at every feeding. These supplements are sold in the form of a powder and can easily be dusted onto the prey directly prior to feeding. Additionally, a reptile multivitamin should be used once weekly to avoid deficiencies over time.


Emerald swifts are quick and agile creatures that will rarely tolerate handling. They are not aggressive, and rarely if ever attempt to bite. However, they will wiggle and squirm if restrained, which may result in stress over time.

Brief, gentle handling that may be required for regular physical exams or terrarium maintenance is acceptable. But avoid handling in excess. These are not lizards that should be tamed, rather they are beautiful creatures that should be admired through terrarium glass.