A Guide to Keeping Desert Iguanas


  • Author Derrick Anderson
  • Published November 11, 2011
  • Word count 585

As with chuckawallas, desert iguanas are not often available in the pet trade. Only Nevada allows the commercial exportation of this lizard. Several states allow a few individuals to be collected with a hunting license. Not many herpetoculturists work with this beautiful species of lizard but hopefully more will do so to ensure that captive-born animals are available.

Taxonomy and Natural History

The desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) is the only member of the genus Dipsosaurus, and is a very attractive whitish colored lizard that is 4-5.25 inches (10-13 cm) snout to vent length. The tail is almost twice the length of the body and is ringed with keeled scales. Males usually have more angular and broader heads and larger femoral pores than females. Both sexes may develop pink areas on the sides of the belly during the breeding season.

They are most often found on sandy plains but also occur along rocky stream beds, lower slopes of hills, and silty floodplains. In the northern part of their range, they are found in association with creosote bushes, whereas in the southern portion of their range they are found in sub-tropical shrub areas. They seek shelter in rodent burrows where they will often plug the burrow at night, possibly to secure it from predators.

Desert iguanas are diurnal and often not found abroad early in the morning. Their body temperatures have been recorded at 108°F (42°C), which is the highest known active temperature for reptiles. They are active when most other lizards have retreated from the heat.

Care in Captivity

Desert iguanas should be kept in a desert environment with some kind of burrow constructed of plastic or clay pipe. These lizards like it hot, so an end of the cage should have a hot basking area with temperatures in excess of 120°F (49°C) and the other end should get no hotter than 95°F (35°C) during the day.

Ultraviolet light should be provided by exposure to the sun or through full spectrum bulbs. Research shows that desert iguana behavior is influenced by ultraviolet light (Alberts 1993). Their femoral pore secretions are illuminated by UVA that then allows other members of the species to locate them. These secretions are messages between lizards that probably indicate territories and advertise the presence of a male in breeding condition.

Desert iguanas are omnivores and consume the buds, flowers, and leaves of desert plants including the creosote bush. In the northern part of its range, the spring diet may be composed predominately of creosote flowers which they will climb into the shrub to find. Insects, other arthropods, and its own fecal pellets form significant parts of the summer diet. In captivity, they can be fed the salad and insects such as crickets or super worms several times per week.


Desert iguanas should be hibernated for 3 to 4 months to stimulate reproduction. In the wild, desert iguanas can often be found in pairs from April through mid-July and breeding occurs in April and early May. Females usually retreat underground in June to lay three to eight eggs that hatch in August.

Moist sand and dirt should be placed at the end of the cage away from the basking light so the female can construct a burrow and deposit her eggs. The eggs should be incubated in slightly moist vermiculite. Hatchlings should be fed the same diet as adults with special attention given to appropriate calcium supplementation during the first year. Hatchlings that were not hibernated reached sexual maturity in 1 year (personal communication, 1998, Tom Greb).

Legacy Cages produces some of the industry's favorite pet cages. Visit their website to find lizard cages for your Iguana or a metal dog crate to keep your reptile safe during play time.

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