Expert Care Tips For The Red Tegu

REPTILES magazineThe red tegu (Tupinambis rufescens) is one of the most awesome tegus available in the pet trade. I have bred them for the past 14 years, and although I've worked with many monitors and other reptiles, I now only work with different types of tegus. These intelligent lizards are rewarding pets, and many of mine are friendly and even seem to seek out human contact. Because of their large size, intelligence and carnivorous diet, tegus are often mistakenly assumed to be members of the Varanidae family. As the largest of the Tupinambis species, red tegus can grow up to 4 1/2 feet long and can exceed 20 pounds. Their dorsal scale count ranges between 84 and 103 scales.
Wild Tegus
In the wild, their broad range extends through the tropical and subtropical regions of South America. They can be found in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay. These hardy, diurnal lizards are more of an arid land species. You can find them in a variety of habitats, including primary forests, dry forests, secondary forests, savannas, grasslands and even deserts. They have also been seen living close to humans, often near towns and suburbs throughout their range. They have been known for begging for food from fishermen, as well as begging in parks.

Tegus feed on a large variety of insects, fish, small reptiles, amphibians, eggs, invertebrates and small mammals.
All tegus are terrestrial, meaning they prefer not to climb. However, they have been observed climbing trees in the wild to raid bird nests. Red tegus are also strong swimmers; they will not hesitate to cross water. They are capable of excavating their own burrows, but they commonly take refuge in burrows made by other animals or in natural cavities.

Red tegus are not known to venture out of their burrows or hides at night. They will also go into hibernation for up to seven months during the South American winters. Red tegus are not territorial, and there may be several individuals that have the same home ranges in the wild. Males most often follow receptive females and guard them against competing males.  

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Red Tegu
The red tegu's appearance can vary from region to region; reds found in central Argentina are seen to have a larger size and mass, as well as deeper color, than reds found in the more northern regions.

Colorful Lizards
The red tegu's appearance can vary from region to region; reds found in central Argentina are seen to have a larger size and mass, as well as deeper color, than reds found in the more northern regions. In general, hatchlings are a dull reddish brown color, but as they mature, the shade will become brighter. They generally develop their adult coloration around 12 to 24 months of age, with the primary color being red, maroon or even pink as a base color. However, other colors can be seen in these animals as well, such as gray, lavender, black and even white. Females tend to be smaller than males, and they often do not get the bright coloration seen in the males.
Room to Roam
I house my red tegus in large outdoor enclosures, and in north Florida, the weather is perfect for outdoor housing year-round. My enclosures measure 8 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet high for my babies and juveniles. For adults, cages are taller at 8 feet long, 8 feet wide and 4 feet high. Some of the adult enclosures are even larger at 8 feet long, 16 feet wide and 4 feet high. Cages need to have smooth sides or tops to prevent escape, as well as good wire mesh 6 to 12 inches beneath the substrate to prevent digging. Inside enclosures need to be at least 3 feet wide by 6 feet long for adults. Height is not a problem, because tegus are not arboreal.

Reproducing Reds
Females can lay 10 to 60 eggs in one nest. Hatchlings reach sexual maturity around 2 years of age; however, a full-grown adult is closer to 3 to 4 years old. Breeding starts in mid spring, and eggs are laid about 10 to 14 days after copulation. Females build their nests in underground burrows. Gathering debris with their feet, they push and pull vegetation, dry leaves, dirt and sticks from the surrounding area.
A female will remain with her nest and guard her eggs throughout the incubation period, which is between 58 and 62 days. Some have been known to stay with the babies even after they hatch and will fight to the death to protect them.
Males play no part in parental care. They are not known to devour young tegus, but eggs are fair game, and they will consume them if given the chance.

Babies can do fine in a 20-gallon long aquarium or even a 55- or 40-gallon breeder aquarium. Just keep in mind that you must have a larger adult enclosure. I recommend a minimum of 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. For substrate, I recommend cypress mulch, orchid bark, eucalyptus mulch and coconut coir. I avoid cedar, pine and spruce, because these contain oils that are toxic to reptiles. Substrate should not be dusty, dry or soaking wet. Make sure it is not tacky, as it can stick to tegus' feet.
Temperature and Humidity
Full-spectrum, ultraviolet light  is a must for tegus. Ultraviolet lighting is important in the production of vitamin D3, which is necessary for calcium metabolism. Some keepers of other lizard species add vitamin D3 to the diet as a substitute for UVB, but I have found that with tegus, this does not work. They respond best with UVB lighting.

Provide a basking spot with a temperature up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and a cool side in the mid-70s.
Tegus require a humidity level between 60 and 70 percent to promote proper shedding and health. Mist the enclosure daily to control humidity, and provide a fresh water bowl at all times. I use water dishes large enough for my lizards to soak in and replace the water every day.

Defensive When Nesting
Red tegus begin spring with courtship behavior. Males pursue females, shake their heads and move their jowls, in addition to dragging their cloacae along the ground. Females also display dragging behavior, swaying back and forth, while at the same time dragging the back half of their bodies. They also swing their tails from side to side, holding the front half of the body higher. I have noticed that red females tend to head bob, but I have not seen this in the Argentine black-and-white females.

Some females will get along with all the other tegus, while some will attack any other tegu in an enclosure; however, most squabbles are between females. After breeding and while nests are made or being made, they are at their most defensive. Nesting females will sometimes tolerate a male, but I have never witnessed them tolerate another female. Most will not allow any other tegus near the nest. Nesting females have been known to attack and kill other tegus if they venture too close. Regardless of how tame they were before nesting, they will also attack their keepers at this time. This often continues long after eggs are laid and collected and the nest is gone. Most of the females will stay in guard mode until hibernation takes place, and the aggression does not cease until the following spring after hibernation is over.

Carnivorous Young 
Tegus are carnivores as hatchlings. I do allow my tegus to eat as much as they want to, except for rodents. I feed them rodents or whole prey items once or twice a week and make sure they are a size that can be swallowed without any trouble. I recommend feeding only pre-killed rodents. The rest of the time, I feed my hatchlings crickets, captive-raised roaches, mealworms, super mealworms, ground turkey, pinky mice, and scrambled or hard-boiled eggs.

As for my adults, they get the same diet, except I do not feed them insects. They stop eating insects as they get larger; the tegus just get too large to chase them. I do not feed my adults fruit or vegetables, but some tegus will take fruit. Tegus will eat squash, berries, mangos, peaches, kiwis and just about any soft fruit except citrus. As a once-a-month treat, bananas are fine, but not as a staple.
I do not feed much fruit, but some adults will take soft fruit; most prefer meat or eggs. I feed all of my tegus daily, except in bad weather and during winter hibernation. They get one whole rodent, chick or duckling once or twice a week. However, my tegus do hibernate up to seven months each year. Even if you have a tegu that does not hibernate, you can still cut back on the frequency or amount of the lizard's feedings. If not hibernating, you can reduce the feedings to every other day. Just keep an eye on body weight, and inspect the tail to make sure it has a fat, round base. If your tegu begins to lose body mass, you can always add more food.

Please remember to remove any uneaten food after your tegu is finished. Also note that tegus can get aggressive when in their cage and may begin to associate their keeper with food. There are a couple of ways to keep this from happening. The first is to feed your tegu in a separate cage or area other than the primary enclosure. Have the food already there when you place the lizard inside. Another option is to feed at night or when the tegu is in its hide. Then it will not see you with food. Also, remember to feed in an area that does not lead to the tegu ingesting substrate along with food. You do not want to risk an intestinal blockage.

Red tegus are one of the most intelligent reptiles found in our hobby. They get quite tame and are rewarding to keep. As with any animal, it is best to do your research before purchasing one. By providing them with the right habitat and diet, you can ensure that your captive will remain healthy for many years to come. REPTILES


Bobby Hill is the owner of Varnyard Herps, Inc. Visit him online at and Visit his forums at


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