Certain species of skinks can make great pets particularly for reptile beginners or children keen on getting a reptile pet. They are among the best lizards to handle, being relatively docile and easy to tame. They are also playful and agile, providing hours of entertainment for those watching. Care is much the same as for other lizards, although careful thought must be given to housing as skinks can grow to a substantial size. The two most popular species that are kept as pets are the blue-tongues skink and the Berber or Schneider skink.
The Blue-Tongued Skink
These skinks originate from Australia and New Guinea, with a natural habitat that ranges from open woodland to semi-deserts. They can grow to quite a large size – 30 inches long – and are heavily built, with broad bodies, short legs and a large, blunt, triangular head. Their most distinctive feature is the brilliantly blue tongue in their wide pink mouths. Their most endearing feature is their docile nature which makes them extremely easy to tame and handle, even by small children (although adult supervision is still advised).
Due to their large size at adulthood, blue-tongued skinks need to be kept in at least a 40-55 gallon tank. In addition, they would normally range over a wide territory in the wild and so cope much better in captivity if given larger enclosures. The substrate should be dust-free, such as clean pine or aspen shavings (not cedar) or cypress mulch. You should also provide an area of slightly damp substrate or a humidity retreat box, which is easily accessible, filled with damp sphagnum moss or even just a loosely piled damp towel. This is particularly important during periods of shedding. Blue-tongued skinks are quite agile and enjoying clambering about their environment so providing them with lots of different level branches and logs on which to explore will help to keep them happy and healthy. Remember though to have a secure lid on the top of the tank and to make sure that the tank is deep enough so that they cannot easily climb out. They will also need some hiding spaces to make them feel secure.
Light and Heating
Like all reptiles, blue-tongued skinks need an artificial source of heat to maintain a temperature gradient in their enclosure, ideally from the 75-85 degrees F. A basking area, such as under a radiant heat source, must be provided and the temperature of this is dependent on the particular subspecies of skink and its wild habitat. Some like it as hot as 100 degrees F, others as cool as low 90s. Make sure the night time temperature does not fall below 70 degrees F. You should also provide a UV light as regular exposure, especially to UVB wavelengths, is advised.
Blue-tongued skinks are omnivores and so need a range of different foods. Ideally, they should be fed on a mix of 60% plant and 40% animal matter. Plant foods can be a mixed vegetable salad which include things such as beans, squash, parsnips and leafy greens. Avoid excessive corn and carrots as these contain a lot of sugars. Also avoid too much cauliflower and broccoli as they can lead to impaired thyroid function. Fruit is a good addition to the diet, in the form of berries, peaches, pears and even a bit of banana.
For the animal side of things, try feeding low-fat canned dog food, supplemented by mealworms, crickets, earthworms and even mice. Most blue-tongued skinks can be fed about 2-4 times a week and they will exhibit clear signs when hungry, such as keeping their mouths open and looking ready to pounce on any wriggling fingers near their enclosure! Make sure also that they have fresh water available at all times although like some other reptiles, they may defecate in the water dish so always check and replace regularly.
Berber (Schneider) Skinks
These are smaller, growing only to approximately 18 inches with almost half of the length being tail. They are also easily tamed and very playful and can live for up to 20 years in captivity. Originating in northwestern Africa and Asia, they live in dry areas and rocky steppes, with brushy vegetation.
As they are smaller, Berber skinks can be housed in smaller tanks – usually 30-40 gallon although larger is still better as it allows for more natural behaviours and prevents stress from overcrowding. Since they are primarily terrestrial, provide them with some low rocks to climb on and bark slabs to hide under. Unlike the blue-tongued skinks, Berber skinks prefer a mostly arid environment, with sand as the main substrate. This should be at least 4 inches deep as Berber skinks are burrowers by nature an especially like digging deep down at night.
While they do not like too much humidity, it is still good to provide a small area where the sand is mixed with orchid bark or cypress mulch and can retain moisture, to provide a humid microhabitat. Note that males can be territorial and may fight if kept together.
Light and Heating
Like the blue-tongued skinks, Berber skinks need to have UVB lighting for about 12 hours a day. They should also have a temperature gradient in their tank from low 70s to mid 90s in the basking area. Night time temperatures should not be allowed to drop below 65 degrees F.
Berber skinks are more carnivorous, eating mainly insects and other invertebrates such as gut-loaded mealworms and crickets. Larger adults may also relish some canned dog or cat food and pinkie mice. However, they will also benefit from some plant matter and so you should try offering leafy greens and small pieces of ripe fruit a few times a week. It can also be a good idea to dust their food with a reptile calcium/vitamin supplement once a week. Make sure that you place their water dish at the cool end of the tank to prevent water evaporating and producing too much humidity in the atmosphere. As these skinks will regularly get sand in their water, you will have to give them fresh water daily.
Like all reptiles, skinks can carry the Salmonella bacteria and so care must be taken after handling them – make sure you that you wash hands thoroughly and supervise young children to make sure they adhere to hygiene practices.