The giant girdled lizard - Spiny, loveable sun-worshipper

The sender on the crate, “Pure Venom Reptiles, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa”, warned you to be careful, yes, but what crawled out of that crate in April last year was not poisonous but quite enchanting. And above all it was the fulfilment of a long cherished hope. It was six young South African giant girdled lizards (or giant girdle-tailed lizards, Cordylus giganteus), offspring from exactly that reptile farm with the scary name, that crawled out in high spirits to take a look at their new home, after a long journey and an even longer amount of red tape. While the spiny lizards, as youngsters black, red and gold striped, waited for the veterinary surgeon’s “Okay” in the quarantine ward, the keepers revamped two terrariums, turning them into a South African landscape with plenty of digging possibilities for the digging fans, the girdled lizards.

Girdled lizards belong to the family of the Cordylideae. This family only occurs in South Africa and Madagascar – hot habitats, where ground temperatures of 45 degrees centigrade are not uncommon. The lizards dig themselves deep holes, where they do not only spend the nights but also the hottest hours of the day. In the terrarium they also need to have the possibility of digging, and the temperature range ought to be as close to that in the natural habitat as possible. Great heat is easy to produce – lowering the temperature at night to 20 degrees is more difficult (in particular in really hot Stuttgart summers). And because, of course, our giant girdled lizards have certain obligations towards our visitors, we shall look for an alternative programme for the visitors during the lizards’ period of winter rest ….

When fully grown giant girdled lizards reach a length of 40 centimetres. Their striking colours when young rapidly change to a mixture of ochre, brown and grey tones, which serve as excellent camouflage for the animals on a sandy and stony background. Characteristic for this species are the ridged, strong scales on the head, neck, sides, back and tail, which look like armour and give the animals a spiny appearance. Unlike many other lizards they can be kept in groups – as long as there is enough space for the necessary amount of cavities. Two animals do often live in one cavity, but not every lizard can get on just as well with each of the others. They need the possibility to avoid contact if they so wish.

The spiny lizards feed on all kinds of arthropods (insects, spiders, scorpions) and small mammals. They are not choosy in their diet – they will eat anything they can catch. Occasionally they will also eat a little morsel of vegetarian food. In adaptation to the lack of water in their habitat, they can absorb water through their skins, thus making use of the morning dew. Giant girdled lizards are viviparous, that is, their young are born live, not in eggs. Their mating season begins in the spring, after the winter rest. In summer, when the gestation period of 120 to 130 days is over, usually two young ones, which are already twelve centimetres long, are born. Growing rapidly, they are sexually mature when around three years of age. If they avoid their enemies and the general circumstances are not too bad, giant girdled lizards can live for over 20 years. At Wilhelma the enemies are scarce and food (in the shape of suitable animals) is plentiful, so we assume, of course, that our spiny little friends will live to a great old age. And if they make a little contribution to the preservation of the species, then we would not mind at all ….

Isabel Koch