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Choosing a Whiptail Lizard

Whiptails are nervous lizards that seem to possess the energy of a toddler and the speed of a lightning bolt. The many species of whiptails are all diminutive relatives of the various tegus (family Teiidae). In one species or another, whiptails occur over much of North, Central, and South America, as well as in the West Indies. Known for their long-tails, alert demeanor and nervous movements, whiptails are hardy but not particularly long-lived.

There are two types most commonly seen in the pet trade; the large “giant” whiptails, often referred to by their generic name of Ameiva, and the smaller tiger and rainbow whiptails in the genus Cnemidophorus.

The Ameivas tend to lack a well-defined lined pattern and have more than eight rows of scales on the belly. The smaller members of the genus Cnemidophorus usually have a well-defined pattern of stripes, spots, or both, and only eight rows of belly scales.

Some species are clad in earthen tones but others, such as the rainbow whiptails, are brilliantly colored in yellows, greens, and blues. None of these lizards are commercially bred. All that enter the pet trade are collected from the wild. Depending on the species, whiptails sell for from $10 to $40 each and live an average of 1 to 3 ½ years.


Whiptails and racerunners are sleek and slender, long-tailed lizards. The term “racerunner,” is used mostly for species of the eastern United States, and it aptly describes the movements of all: when startled they race to safety. When not frightened, they move in short, rapid, flurries of motion, stopping to dig at the ground with one or both forefeet, in search of burrowing insects. The body scales of all are tiny and granular and the belly scales are large, platelike, and arranged in rows. The scales of the tail are intermediate in size and arranged in whorls.


These lizards possess a nervous energy that never runs low. They move in fits and starts, they dig with quick, nervous motions of the forelimbs for secluded insects, and males chase males with dashes of dizzying speed. Even when they are complacently basking in the noonday sunshine, whiptails seem fully aware of all motions and noises around them. With gentle, slow and persistent overtures, captive whiptails can become accustomed to the everyday movements of their keeper, but never become really tame.

Although they can climb, whiptails are essentially terrestrial. They dig and use burrows beneath rocks, in embankments or among the root systems of cacti. These are lizards of desert flats, eastern grasslands, forest edges and rock-strewn arid lands. All bask for long periods in the sunlight and, when at optimum body temperature, move back into the shadows.


Whiptails will eat roaches, crickets, mealworms, king mealworms, waxworms, trevo-worms, silkworms, and an occasional blossom. Feed only healthy, gut-loaded insects. Whiptails will also lap a vitamin fortified honey-pureed fruit mixture. (To make this mix 1/3rd water, 1/3rd pureed apricot baby food, 1/3rd honey, add a little powdered calcium-D3 additive, mix well, refrigerate what is not immediately used.) Fresh drinking water should always be present.


Whiptails are fast and active lizards. The minimum floor space one or a pair of the smaller forms should be 12×30 inches, the size of a 20-gallon long aquarium. If a greater number of specimens or a pair of the larger species is being kept, a 40-gallon terrarium should be the absolute minimum in size. A 75-gallon terrarium would be better. Cage furniture should be carefully arranged and secured so it cannot shift and trap, injure or kill your lizards. A sandy substrate is fine. Whiptails bask extensively but usually do so while sprawled on the sand beneath the full-spectrum heat lamp. An illuminated area of the sandy substrate, or the surface of a flat rock, should be heated to a surface temperature of 110 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The cool end of the cage can be in the mid 80s. Nighttime temperatures can be a little cooler and, of course, the basking light is turned off.

Winter temperatures, including that of the basking spot, can be allowed to drop a few more degrees (mid-60s night, low 80s day, 95 to 100 F basking spot). If hiding areas are not available between the rocks, provide corkbark or other commercial hides. A shallow dish of fresh water must always be available.

Medical issues

Little is know with certainty about the medical aspects of whiptails. Fortunately, providing the lizards are given ample warmth, food, and water, they seem quite trouble-free, even if short-lived.