Captive Husbandry of the Fire Skink
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Captive Husbandry of Fire Skinks
By Jennifer Greene
Fire skinks, or Riopa fernandi, are arguably some of the cutest lizards out there. With big, doe-like eyes set on a cute little face, bright colors and little legs on a long body, they are capable of making even non-reptile lovers squeal about how cute they are. Their common name arises from the vivid red coloration on their sides, which connects to red strips down the side of their neck and up into bright red cheeks. They typically have a black base color with a white checkered chin, and their backs are often a golden tan, with some individuals having a redder color instead. They are on the smaller end in size, with mature adults reaching between 14 and 20” depending on tail length. Their relatively small adult size compared to other pet lizards, in combination with their adorable faces and ease of care, make them quite delightful pets to keep. Captive bred skinks can be downright outgoing, often coming out to see their owners and check for more food. As rewarding as these little skinks can be, they are not often kept, or not kept for extended periods of time. They are seen as either too difficult for the beginner (not the case!) or too basic for the more experienced keeper. My hope is to help the beginner embrace these adorable creatures, and to highlight the rewards of keeping them to encourage more herpers to give them a shot.
Most fire skinks available to reptile keepers today are wild caught in origin, with most originating from a handful of countries in West Africa, often the same countries that baby ball pythons come from. A small number of keepers have successfully bred their fire skinks (myself included), so captive bred babies can be available on occasion – it just takes patience sometimes to find them. Wild caught skinks are not usually difficult to get acclimated to captivity, especially when set up properly and given time to settle in. Captive bred babies do tend to be more outgoing than their wild caught cousins, but regardless of your skink’s origins, their care is the same.
I prefer to keep them in a relatively large cage, as they can be extremely active and will utilize all the space. You can maintain one or two in a cage as small as a 20 long, but I highly recommend a cage at least 36” x 16” x 16”. I keep my adult pair in an ExoTerra terrarium that measures 36” long by 24” tall by 18” deep, and I routinely see them using the entire cage. In a cage like the ExoTerra one that I use, you can offer them a nice thick layer of substrate to burrow into, which they will love. I use a combination of cypress mulch, Eco Earth, and orchid bark to achieve a nice, natural looking appearance that maintains humidity well and does not require frequent changing of the substrate. I check the cage daily for feces, and once a week stir up the bedding and add fresh water to keep it moist.
I rarely actually see my skinks in their water bowl, but I do find fresh feces in the bowl about every other day. Because they are prone to pooping in their water dish, I prefer to offer them a bowl big enough for them to climb into, and for mine I use a ZooMed Large Corner Dish. I furnish their cage with a variety of items for them to climb on and around, and they really seem to love clambering up inside of cork tubes to bask under the lights. I have a large tube on each side of the cage, and a few large and medium pieces of cork flats piled throughout their cage. In addition, I added some fake vines to provide some foliage in the cage and visual barriers for them. Using fake or live foliage helps make the cage look a little nicer, and provides cover for your skinks to hide behind and feel safe within their cage. You may even see them peeking out at you from under the leaves!
One of the most important things about skink housing is something that doesn’t even get placed directly in the cage, but instead over the top: lighting! As terrestrial skinks, these little critters don’t require exceptionally intense heat or light, but they do need heat and UVB provided during the day. In the large cage that I use, a 100 watt powersun bulb provides all the basking light and UVB, and to illuminate the rest of the cage I use the new ExoTerra Ion bulbs. I really like using the Powersun bulb on larger cages to provide heat and UVB, as the skinks really seem to thrive with the ability to get close to the light as needed. The new ExoTerra Ion bulbs are nice, extremely bright bulbs that do not put out measurable amounts of UVB, making them ideal for illuminating reptile cages that already have a source of UVB. Putting too many UVB lights on one cage has the potential to irritate the eyes of your reptiles, and does not give them the option to escape UVB exposure if they feel the need to. The Ion bulbs are super bright, and that in combination with their low cost makes them ideal for illuminating just about any cage you have.
Basking temperatures can reach up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit as long as the cool side remains below 80 degrees. How you achieve these temperatures is up to you; I use only the Powersun bulb in my cage during the day, and at night my skinks have a 75 watt infrared bulb to keep cage temperatures from dropping too low. Exactly what wattages you use for your own cage at home is something you may need to tinker with to get it just right. A warmer home (75 to 80 degrees) will not require as hot of a basking light, nor would it need a night time heat source. A cooler home (65 to 70 degrees) would probably require higher wattage bulbs. Using a thermostat or rheostat to help monitor temperatures within the range you prefer can make your life much simpler, rather than switching out multiple wattages depending on the time of year. I also use a Zilla Power Center Digital Timer, which makes my life immensely easier because it switches all my lights on and off on its own. All the lights are automated, which just leaves the daily maintenance to cleaning out the water and feeding my skinks!
Feeding your skinks can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of their care – they are often very enthusiastic feeders, and readily consume most live feeder insects. The staple of the diet can consist of primarily crickets and mealworms, with full grown adult skinks easily consuming 1” crickets, giant mealworms, or superworms. In addition, I highly recommend including roaches in your skink’s diet. Mine happily eat dubia and hissing cockroaches, and I do not doubt that they will consume just about any species you can order online or find at your nearest reptile expo. Waxworms, reptiworms, silkworms, and hornworms all can and should be added to your skink’s diet whenever possible, as the variety in their diet will help your skinks grow and thrive their best. On top of all that, they will often also eat canned insects, such as canned caterpillars, grasshoppers, and even snails, so there is no excuse for not providing a varied diet for your lizards!
Whenever offering live insects, it is also important to dust them with a high quality reptile calcium and/or multivitamin. I use and highly recommend either the ZooMed Reptivite (with D3 for lizards kept indoors), or the Repashy Calcium Plus, as both have a great balance of calcium, multivitamins and vitamin D3. While you may be making quite the effort to provide your skinks with as varied a diet as possible, it does not come close to approaching the dozens or hundreds of different insects and small animals they would consume in the wild. For this reason, it is important to dust your skinks’ food at least every other feeding, or as per the instructions on your calcium or multivitamin supplement.
When it comes to handling your skinks, it really depends on your skink and how well it reacts to your presence. This is where it can pay off to pick up a captive bred baby, as they are often already well-accustomed to human interaction and handling. Certain long term captive skinks mind it less than others as well, and even originally skittish skinks can become habituated to their owners with time. The key is patience and time: feeding your skinks well and letting them get used to you for several weeks or months will give them time to settle in and learn that you are not going to harm them. Once they are well established and feeding well for you, you can attempt to coax them out or handle them for short periods of time. Not all skinks enjoy handling, especially at first, and they can be extremely squirmy and fast, so you may want a spotter around for the first few handling sessions in case your skink escapes! Most skinks are perfectly happy if they are rarely, if ever, handled, so do not feel as though you need to handle your skinks for them to do well. If anything, they would probably love to be left alone entirely, and instead will come out to check out their surroundings and watch what is happening outside their cage.
Fire Skinks are cute, brilliantly colored little lizards that can be incredible pets for the keeper looking for a smaller species of lizard to display in their home. Their sturdiness and ease of care coupled with how frankly adorable they are makes it hard not to love them as a fantastic beginner lizard or fun side project for the experienced keeper. Breeding them is also fairly easy and straightforward, and once established they can be extremely prolific. Check back with us next month to see a Breeding Spotlight take you through step by step on how to condition, breed, incubate, and raise Fire Skinks of your own!