Glass Lizards of the Ophisaurus genus
Level of Difficulty: Intermediate, mainly because of their size and somewhat fragile bodies.
European (Russian) Glass Lizard a.ka. Sheltopusik (O. apodus)
Eastern Glass Lizard (O. ventralis)
Slender Glass Lizard (O. attenuatus)
Island Glass Lizard (O. compressus)
NOTE: There are other species of Ophisaurus, but they are rarely seen in captivity and very little known of them. Also, from this point on, with the except of the Sheltopusik, glass lizards will be abbreviated simply as “GL”
GLs are called such because of their ability to drop their tails as a means of defense, often in more than one piece. These separated pieces wriggle under their own power, distracting predators and leaving the lizard to escape and eventually regenerate a new tail.
The Sheltopusik is the only European member of this genus (also extends into central Asia), while the other three species discussed here are native to North America. The Eastern GL is found in most areas of the southeast United States. Slender GLs are found everywhere in the country except the Northeast, and the Island GL only inhabit small islands off of Florida.
The Sheltopusik prefers a fairly dry environment, found anywhere from rocky hillsides to open plains. Eastern GLs inhabit somewhat damper and more humid conditions, in forest meadows and hardwood hammocks. The Slender GL is similar to the sheltopusik, and prefers praires and grasslands. The Island GL is more specialized and dwells on sand dunes.
Sheltopusik – between 4-5 ft
Eastern GL – around 3 ft (longest lizard native to the United States)
Slender GL – nearly as long as Easterns but more slender (obviously)
Island GL – 15″-24″
Disposition varies with each individual animal. Most are quite squirmish at first, and a few will resort to biting, but most tame down fairly quickly and are calm enough to be handled regularly. Also, many GLs, when handled, may repeatedly push their snouts into their handler’s arm or hand. While this is often interpreted as an attempt to bite, it is merely a natural response to a new situation, as these lizards use their heads to push a way into the ground to burrow.
Under optimal conditions, most species can easily make it to 10 years and some Sheltopusiks have even exceeded 20 yrs in captivity.
GLs are primarily insectivores, and in captivity will take crickets, mealworms, earthworms, and most other feeder invertebrates. Their diet can also be supplemented with canned monitor/tegu food, low-fat canned dog food, and/or pinky mice. Raw eggs can be offered as a treat.
Being a temperate group of reptiles, GLs don’t like it super hot. A daytime average of 70-80’F is fine, dropping no lower than 60’F at night. In most cases, an undertank heater placed beneath one side of the enclosure should be sufficient. These lizards do not seem to bask very often, but a heat lamp may be needed to maintain the proper temperatures. GLs seem to fare fine without UVB lighting, being active mainly in the twilight hours, but it maybe beneficial for the Island GL and also for any attempts at breeding these species. Photoperiod should approximately 10-12 hrs.
Moderate humidy is best, anywhere from 40%-65%, probably more for the Eastern GL.
Minimum Required Space
For the three larger species, I would recommend a 30 or 40 gal Breeder tank for one specimen as the minimum required space. These lizards, while snake-like in appearance, are not nearly as flexible and need a lot of room to move around. And they do move around a lot; In my experience, they do occasionally raise up their heads to observe their surroundings, so height may be an issue. A 20 gal Long woud suffice for one Island GL.
Any dry, loose substrate will do for the Sheltopusik, Slender GL, and Island GL, as long as they can burrow easily in it. I prefer aspen shavings, but you can also loose soil (unfertilized, of course), Bed-a-Beast, sand, walnut litter, coconut chips, cypress bedding, Repti-bark, or any combination of the above. [NOTE: from experience, I’ve noticed that the dust from ReptiBark and cypress bedding sometimes stains these lizards and turns them brown. Sand also seems to chip and scuff the scales. I’ve never kept the Island GLs, and sand is what they’re normally found on, so this may not be an issue with this species.]
For the Eastern GL, I recommend a damper bedding, like Bed-a-beast, cypress bedding, or simply damp soil. It still needs to be loose though, for easy burrowing.
Other Cage Furniture
A large water bowl is required, as these lizards occasionally enjoy soaking. Also, an appropriately-sized shelter or cave should be used, the rounder, the better. Depending on what substrate you use you may want to include other decorations. These lizards move about mainly by pushing their bodies forward off of obstacles in their path, so if the litter is too frictionless for them to get a purchase on, their locomotion is hindered.
Most species breed between April and May, although breeding rarely takes place in captivity. GLs are oviparous, and around 60 days after mating, can lay between 7-17 eggs, although for smaller species, four may be the most in a clutch. A trait rare among lizards, but found in all the American species, the female will coil around and incubate her eggs, similar to pythons. Approximately two months later, the eggs hatch and the babies, usually colored more vividly than their parents, are left to fend for themselves.
So far, the most common ailment I’ve noticed on GLs is raw snouts and scuffed scales, most often caused by newly-acquired animals placed in cramped conditions and inproper substrate, such as plain sand. As mentioned before, these lizards require a lot of space and loose bedding for a healthy lifestyle.
Suggested Reading [books/printed articles/etc]
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians – Behler and King
Other Useful Websites