Keeping and Breeding Moroccan Uromastyx
The Moroccan uromastyx (Uromastyx acanthinurus nigriventris) is more commonly known in its homeland and in Europe as the Moroccan dabb or “eyed” lizard. The eye refers to the eye-like spots commonly found on the backs of most members of the Uromastyx genus. Like all uromastyx, it is a predominately vegetarian, ground-dwelling lizard and occupies the semi-arid to near-desert scrublands common to northern Africa. It is a relatively large, robust species that on first impression reminds many people of a tortoise without a shell, sporting a spiky tail.
The tail in particular is what most people first notice. Making up a little over one third to just under a half of their total body length, the tail is often dorsolaterally flattened to 2½ times as wide as it is thick. It is edged in distinct rows of up to quarter- to half-inch-long rosebush-like thorns, with the spikes being longest along the sides. This tail is articulated to allow the lizard to twist and angle it to best fend off its main predators: ground snakes and birds of prey. The tail can even be pulled up into a forward half-curl and then raked down the sides of a restraining mouth (or hand) to great effect! The tortoise-like head sports heavy jaw muscles suitable for both biting off tough vegetation or delivering vice-like bites to perceived threats. While the bite can be quite painful, uromastyx have short teeth, designed more for cutting than tearing. Thus, while their bites are certainly unpleasant, they rarely actually draw blood. Think of it more like getting your hand briefly caught in a car door.
Douglas Dix, Ph.D
To properly care for captive Moroccan uromastyx, you’ll need to duplicate the exceedingly hot, dry environment to which they are adapted.
Moroccan uromastyx live semi-communally in burrows that they dig themselves in the weathered, granite-based caliche soils they prefer. While they rarely, if ever, willingly share burrows, they do prefer to be within sight of other uromastyx, and given enough space, they are reluctantly tolerant of each other’s presence. As the name suggests, they are most widely distributed in the North African country of Morocco, with additional populations existing in adjacent portions of Tunisia, Algeria, Western Sahara and northern Libya. Currently, two subspecies are designated under the species U. acanthinurus: U. a. acanthinurus and U. a. nigriventris. While both have been imported under the common name “Moroccan uromastyx,” U. a. acanthinurus is more correctly known as the Algerian uromastyx and is predominately found in that country. Of the two, only U. a. nigriventris actually occurs in Morocco and is the only subspecies the average reptile enthusiast is likely to come across in North American collections.
Both subspecies represent some of the larger members of the genus Uromastyx, with most free-ranging adults approaching 15-plus inches in total length and 300- to 500-plus grams in weight. Individuals reared exclusively indoors from the time of hatching tend to mature a few inches shorter but are still impressively bulky. While both subspecies look nearly identical as hatchlings and juveniles, the adults are readily discernable. Algerians are highly sexually dimorphic, with mature males being predominately black bodied from tip to tip, with dorsal white frosting and speckling. Algerian females mature into some shade of golden tan, with only minimal dorsal black speckling. The backs of both sexes are overlaid with small, black-outlined ocellations, sometimes randomly dispersed, sometimes in a banded pattern. In contrast, only a few subpopulations of the Moroccan uromastyx are truly sexually dimorphic. Most populations produce the same tan-colored, spotted juveniles, but both sexes eventually mature into flashy adults, sporting full-body pigmentation of various shades of orange, dark red, yellow and/or gold to go with the typical black-outlined ocellations occurring in various patterns along their backs. They usually sport minimal white in the color scheme and much more moderate levels of black. However, the degree of sexual dimorphism (or lack thereof), as well as the amount of black in the overall color scheme, varies by locale, with three to four distinct types seeming to exist.
Large stretches of open sand and sand dunes effectively form impassable barriers to most uromastyx. Thus, most populations experience some degree of genetic isolation from one another. In talking to trappers from northern Africa, at least two of the variants we’ve noticed in the Moroccans coming into the pet trade have semi-isolated locales associated with them. The first distinct type is the Werneri Moroccan. These generally match the above description of a non-sexually dimorphic Moroccan, but with a distinctly shorter and wider tail. These individuals reputedly came primarily from the Tunisian subpopulations of U. acanthinurus at the northeastern range of the species.
The other somewhat regionalized type is the high-black race, or southern Moroccan uromastyx, found primarily in the southern end of the range. At first glance, these look like Mali uromastyx (U. dispar maliensis) with one key exception: They have predominately yellow tails and often a yellow crown on their otherwise black heads. The rest of their bodies are predominately black with broad yellow washes overlaying the center of their backs.
Next are the two more common types: the typical classic bright, non-dimorphic individuals mentioned previously, as well as a somewhat duller, mildly sexually dimorphic race. In this last group, both sexes are noticeably less bright than the classic Moroccan, with the females being exceptionally so. While adult coloration of the classic Moroccan is useless for determining the sex of an individual, in these duller races, that is not the case, as the females often mature into very dull, ruddy browns and washed-out yellows. No set locale has ever been designated for these two types of Moroccans.
One last oddity exists in regard to Moroccan pigmentation. They also tend to come in two primary distinct color types: predominately yellow and predominately orange. Only one other uromastyx species does this, the Saharan uromastyx (U. dispar), a close relative of the Moroccan. Unlike in the Saharan uromastyx, individual Moroccans may also show a mix of the two colors. However, the majority of the individuals that originally came into the U.S. displayed essentially only one color or the other as their base coloration, almost as if they were different species.
The first significant numbers of Moroccans entered the U.S. pet trade in the 1980s and were an equal mixture of the classic bright, non-sexually dimorphic type along with the duller mildly dimorphic race. These importations were brief, and Morocco was soon closed down to further exportation. Later, in the 1990s, animals from the southern portion of their range began showing up in shipments of Mali uromastyx. These were marketed as yellow-tailed Malis, but in fact, they were the southern race of the Moroccan.
With the closure of Mali to export in the late 2000s, the last exportation of wild-collected Moroccans was largely shut down. Since then, a few ranchers in Jordan and Egypt have reputedly set up captive pens of Moroccans and a few other Uromastyx species to produce hatchlings for the export trade. These tended to be representative of yet another race. The majority imported to date have been non-sexually dimorphic but still a much paler yellow than the classic Moroccan. They also take much longer to develop their color, are much slower growing overall and mature to a slightly smaller adult size. Most notably, they possess a distinctly different personality, being much calmer and outgoing than other races of U. acanthinurus. We refer to these as “French Moroccans” in the trade because the first individuals to enter the U.S. pet trade were animals that were confiscated from French tourists who were returning from Moroccan vacations.
As a pet species and herpetocultural subject, Moroccan uromastyx are intriguing. On the negative side, with the exception of the French Moroccans, they tend to be one of the more aggressive species of Uromastyx. They tend to be nippy toward each other and toward humans. Some bloodlines tend to be much less aggressive than others, so obtaining a good pet is still possible. Just figure that some individuals may end up being a look-but-don’t-handle type of pet. They also start life with a very boring tannish coloration, with only a minimal darker-gray ocellated dorsal pattern to break up the color scheme. On the plus side, this shy ugly duckling matures into a stunningly brilliant kaleidoscope of colors that, unlike most reptiles, only gets better with age.
Equally noteworthy, Uromastyx species are one of the few lizard groups that I would argue have distinct personalities and “thinking” minds. Being a semi-social species with a relatively long life span (12- to 18-year average) spent in a harsh environment, they have evolved to be dependent more on learning and less on instinct. They seem better able to discern individuals from each other and remember their past experiences with them. You can almost see the wheels turning in their heads as they examine you, trying to figure out what it is you’re up to. While most are painfully shy as hatchlings, with maturity and handling, many will eventually eat from your hand and become interesting, interactive companions.
To properly care for captive Moroccan uromastyx, you’ll need to duplicate the exceedingly hot, dry environment to which they are adapted. Uromastyx need to reach a core body temperature of around 103 degrees Fahrenheit in order for their digestive and immune systems to function efficiently.
To best accomplish this, you need to establish four distinct temperature zones within their terrarium. These include a base ground temperature of 95 to 100 degrees over the majority of the cage floor. Somewhere inside it, you’ll need to set up a hotter basking area with a surface temperature of 115 to 120 degrees. Then, in an area farthest away from the hot spot, you’ll need to set up a day shelter/cave with an internal temperature of 85 to 90 degrees. Give them a 12-hour day/night light schedule and shoot for a nighttime shelter temperature of 70 to 80 degrees.
Please note these values are all surface temperatures, not air temperatures. You cannot use a stick-on-the-wall thermometer to determine these temperatures! Non-contact thermometers, such as the infra-red temp guns, are the most accurate and the easiest means to monitor temperatures. Alternately, digital thermometers with long external probe sensors are acceptable. With these, however, you will need to repeatedly move the probe to various spots along the cage floor to check all the key temperature zones.
The smallest terrarium in which you can reliably establish this temperature regime is a 20-gallon, long-style aquarium, but these tanks are only appropriate for hatchlings and juveniles. Moroccans will need at least a 40-gallon, breeder-style tank by the age of 2 years. If you’re building a custom habitat, an enclosure measuring 4 feet long, 27 inches wide and 18 inches tall works well for singles or pairs.
Place a large, flat rock off to one side of the terrarium for the basking spot and a small cave or other form of low shelter at the opposite end to serve as a retreat and sleeping chamber. A large piece of driftwood or other visual barrier should also be placed diagonally inside the tank. While both sexes are generally territorial, with a little care during the introduction process, many do well whether housed singly or as pairs. While they often can be housed with other Uromastyx and chuckwallas (Sauromalus), they cannot be kept with most other reptiles due to differing environmental needs and or interspecies conflicts. Bearded dragons, in particular, are not safe cagemates. Most beardies will eventually give in to their carnivorous instincts and view your uromastyx as a potential food item. This usually leads to a uromastyx with a crushed skull.
Hatchlings smaller than 4 inches long should be kept on paper towels or bare-bottomed tanks. The most commonly used bedding for larger uromastyx is a thin layer of washed playground sand. Make sure it is natural sand, as contractor’s sand is deadly as a substrate! Its jagged edges interlock when jumbled in the intestinal track and slowly build into a solid, immobile mass. Sand particles must feel round and smooth between your fingers to be safe as bedding. Do not make the sand layer deeper than half an inch, as it is not a safe tunneling material. If you wish to allow your Moroccans to dig burrows (a natural behavior), then either mix clay or a product such as Zoo Med’s Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate into the sand.
We use a very shallow layer (one-fourth of an inch deep) of millet, a small, round bird seed, as Uromastyx bedding. It is edible, inexpensive and easy to work with. Avoid calcium-based sands and ground walnut shell beddings, as both can cause digestive and/or respiratory health problems in uromastyx.
Uromastyx like a brightly lit environment. We prefer clear (white light), infra-red heat bulbs for the basking site in conjunction with any bright cool-white, full-spectrum fluorescent as the main background lighting. A source of UVB light is also a good idea, but finding a safe, effective bulb can be problematic. At present, we are recommending using one of the newer T-5 HO fluorescent bulbs, such as those Zoo Med and Arcadia offer. Note that you must turn all lights off at night and allow the cage temperatures to drop below 90 degrees. If the cage would otherwise drop below 70 degrees at night, use a ceramic heat emitter or rheostat-regulated, under-tank heating pad at night to supply additional heat.
Uromastyx are primarily herbivores. While some will take insects if offered, you’ll have fewer health issues if you limit insects to less than 2 percent of their diet. The ideal diet consists of a daily offering of damp, mixed leafy greens with endive, dandelion greens and commercial spring mix greens forming the base. We dust the greens daily, alternating between a light sprinkling of a calcium/mineral mix (we use Repashy Hy-D Calcium) and a broad vitamin mix (Repashy Super Veggie Dust), both of which have added vitamin D3 for proper calcium utilization. We also provide a shallow dish of juvenile iguana or tortoise pellets.
Uromastyx will also accept non-leafy vegetables, such as peas, cut green beans, grated carrots, summer or winter squash, and quartered cucumbers. Blooms are a delicacy, and the easiest to grow yourself are nasturtiums, dandelions, rose, hibiscus (hardy hibiscus, such as rose of Sharon), hollyhocks, squash/pumpkin, and violas (miniature pansies). We offer a daily mix of the above when they are in season. In addition to these foods.
Uromastyx acquire water from their food, and because they require a dry environment, you should never leave a water bowl inside a uromastyx enclosure.
Their appetites vary from day to day and season to season. Many uromastyx will skip eating on random days and most are much less vigorous eaters during the winter months. Uromastyx normally lightly brumate all winter in the wild, so they are somewhat programmed to lose their appetites during the winter anyway. As long as they are maintaining their weight, do not become overly concerned if they tend to eat a lot less during this time.
The Moroccan uromastyx holds the distinction of being the first Uromastyx species successfully bred in captivity. Unfortunately, the closure of their importation as described earlier was quickly followed by the opening of the importation of a multitude of other Uromastyx species. Thus, those interested in working with uromastyx mostly moved on to other less-expensive and more readily available species, rather than attempting to establish a viable North American breeding population.
This lack of foresight is reflected today in the general rarity of the Moroccan uromastyx in North American collections. Luckily, a few dedicated breeders both in the U.S. and in Europe have kept this species from disappearing completely from herpetoculture. There really is no reason for its continued rarity, as we have found Moroccans to be one of the hardier species of Uromastyx, and in general, they are well-suited to herpetoculture.
Sexing Can Be Tricky
Determining the sex of your prospective breeders can be somewhat tricky. Both sexes of Moroccan uromastyx possess femoral pores (in many lizard species, only the males have noticeably enlarged femoral pores), and coloration is not a reliable indicator of sex, either.
The safest method is to look for the presence of hemipenal bulges under the tail. To best see them, arch the tail over the back to mimic the look of a scorpion’s stinger. Now look at the underside of the tail just behind the vent opening. In females, you’ll see the base of two ligaments, one on each side of the vent, angling down toward the tip of the tail. Just their base is visible, so it will look like a small, upside-down V is sitting just above each corner of the vent. In males, the hemipenes sit on top of these ligaments, largely masking them, and the pattern shown looks more like two parallel lines sitting just above the vent, pointing toward the tip of the tail.
Preparing for Reproduction
Moroccans are safest set up as single pairs per cage. If you start your breeding efforts with hatchlings, maintain them under a 12-hour day/night cycle and at the previously mentioned temperature regime for their first full year of life.
Most Moroccans will not be mature enough to breed until after their third winter, but you should introduce them to their natural brumation cycle during their second winter. Starting in mid to late fall, begin to lower their day length by one hour each week. During this time, also decrease their daytime temperatures by about 10 degrees lower overall. Also slowly drop their nighttime temperatures to consistently fall below 70 degrees.
Continue to offer food for the first few weeks of this process, but significantly decrease the amount offered each feeding and begin skipping some feedings altogether. Once you are down to providing eight hours of daylight, offer only one small feeding a week, consisting of some high-water-content green, such as romaine. Once you’re down to four to six hours of light per day, stop all feedings.
At this time, your Moroccans should be experiencing only about two to three hours per day where the temperatures get up to 85 degrees. At least half their daily temperature cycle should remain below 70 degrees but stay above 60 degrees. Moderate deviations are fine, but shoot for these averages and avoid prolonged exposure to temperatures below 60 degrees. They do best if maintained under near-desert humidity conditions (less than 30 percent relative humidity). Avoid high humidity while brumating them.
After four weeks at four to six hours of daylight, reverse the process, adding one extra hour of daylight each week while gradually increasing the average habitat temperatures, too. If they’re mature enough to bred, most male Moroccan uromastyx that have been successfully cycled in this fashion will begin producing femoral pore wax by the time you begin the warming process.
For breeding-age pairs, prior to beginning the warming process, replace one of the hides in the cool end of the enclosure with a nest box in the corner. A completely self-enclosed tub, such as a 10-gallon Rubbermaid Roughneck soft plastic tub with the lid intact, works well. Cut a 4-inch-diameter hole in the lid and attach a similarly sized, flexible drain pipe to the hole; make it long enough so that you can bend it over to allow entry into the nest box from ground level. Fill the box two-thirds of the way full with a 50/50 mix of washed playground sand and peat moss. Adding 10 percent excavator soil or similar caliche soil will make the nesting area more attractive to the female; add water until it is just slightly moist to the touch.
Moroccans uromastyx will usually breed right before you reach the normal 12 hours of daylight. Gestation lasts an average of four weeks, and a single clutch of 10 to 20 eggs is the result.
Remove the eggs, as well as the nest box, from the cage as soon as the female finishes burying her eggs. Prepare incubation media well in advance using slightly damp vermiculite or Hatchrite incubation media cut with activated charcoal and 10-percent dry perlite. The media should just barely feel damp. Fill a small Tupperware container two-thirds full with this mix, and put it in an incubator set at 92 degrees for at least two weeks before you are expecting eggs. The egg container should have no air holes, and this pre-cooking of the media will allow you to get the moisture levels correct and greatly increase your odds of success.
When moisture levels are correct, you should see just a hint of mist forming under the Tupperware lid. If droplets form, pop the lid, wipe them off and then reseal the container. If no mist forms, add some water to the media, mix, reseal and check the container again in a few days.
Once you have eggs, partially bury them in the media, put the lid back on the container and incubate at 92 degrees. Don’t worry about maintaining their initial orientation while placing them into the incubation medium, but don’t alter their orientation any further once they’re settled in it. Pop the lid briefly once per week for air exchange and to remove any obviously bad eggs. Otherwise, do not touch the eggs—every time you move or handle the eggs, you cut their chances of successfully hatchling in half.
Baby Moroccan uromastyx hatch after 60 to 80 days and require the same housing/feeding conditions as the adults. The only modifications we make are to replace all substrate with paper towels, and we add a very shallow water dish (less than a half-inch deep) to the habitat for the first two months.
The Moroccan uromastyx is an excellent species to work with, and with a little effort, it could be much better represented in herpetoculture. Presently, it is steadily becoming increasingly rare, and without some effort on our part, it may soon disappear from North American herpetoculture. That would be a great loss of what many of us who specialize in uromastyx consider one of the showiest species in the genus.
Douglas Dix is a Ph.D. wildlife toxicologist, who specializes in breeding Uromastyx and similar desert reptiles. He has worked with every species of Uromastyx currently in captivity in North America and has or shares the first recorded North American breedings of five of them, successfully hatching some every year since 1995. He and his wife, Kim, run Deer Fern Farms (deerfernfarms.com) in coastal upstate Washington, where they currently breed banded, Moroccan and Mali uromastyx; chuckwallas; various species of tortoises and blue-tongued skinks, among other smaller wildlife breeding projects.