African Fire Skinks (Lepidothyris fernandi)

African Fire Skinks (Lepidothyris fernandi)

Fire skinks are an intelligent, clever animal whose personalities vary from skink to skink. These skinks are a brightly coloured reptile with a bronze back, black, red, and white flecked sides and a black and white checkered throat and underbelly. When approaching a shed, they will turn a dull pinkish colour. This care sheet will give you the basics to provide the best care for your skink.

Behaviour

The personalities of this species vary greatly between specimens. Typically, they are very secretive and will burrow as they hear your approach. However, nearly all can achieve some degree of tameness as they are a very intelligent animal. Some will even learn to come out on to your hand; while others will have to always be dug out.

While handling, it is best to not grip the skink tightly as this frightens them and they will struggle and bite. Instead, hold loosely and allow to crawl over your hands until they understand you mean no harm. Most skinks are wild caught from Africa and imported; if it is a captive bred specimen the person offering it should tell you. Most skinks imported in the 30g range are a year old; skinks reaching the 50-60g range are adults and about 2 years old.

Enclosure

Fire skinks need a lot of space and are very active. They enjoy burrowing and exploring and will utilize the space their tank. For a single skink, 20-gallon tank will be sufficient. A pair or a trio can be comfortably housed in a 40-gallon breeder tank.

Substrate should be a mixture of peat moss and reptile bark. Topsoil is acceptable as long as there are no fertilizers added; if using potting soil read the label carefully so as to avoid this. Make sure there is at least 15cm of depth for burrowing.

Place a water dish in the tank for drinking. They don’t swim so it doesn’t have to be deep. Skinks live in dense jungle area of West Africa, so they prefer a lot of hiding spots for the most security possible. I like to densely plant my tanks; live or artificial will be fine. They also benefit from hides, I place cork bark and rounds about the enclosure, basic reptile hides are also acceptable. Collecting wood locally is a cheap alternative to expensive store-bought materials and can add a lot of character.

Temperature, lighting and humidity

Since they are native to a jungle type area, fire skinks need a relatively high humidity and should be about 70% in soil. The cold side of the tank should be in the 20s and the hot spot should be in the 30s. Place a flat portion of bark or stone under the basking light for them to lay out.

Mist the enclosure 1-2x daily to maintain humidity. You may notice that the top layer of soil dries out in between misting- this is normal and due to the heating element. Below the top inch the soil should be moist. If not, mist more heavily or supplement with monthly watering. The moisture of the soil is important- they burrow to shed, and without adequate moisture may have difficulty shedding and loose toes. As long as the humidity of the soil is maintained at an acceptable level, surface humidity may fall to 40%

Fire skinks are a diurnal species (active during the day) and need UVB to process calcium. You can achieve this by having 2 bulbs (one for uvb and one for heat) or a dual bulb such as a solar glow that is a 2 in one. They should receive 10-12 hours of light daily, dropping to 8 hours in the winter months.

Diet

Fire skinks are voracious feeders and will eat anything that moves. Crickets are an excellent staple, as well as super worms and roaches. To have healthy skinks, it is best to vary the diet as much as possible. Some skinks will eat from tongs; some from a dish. Many skinks are very secretive so the only way to monitor eating is to weigh them periodically. You can do this with a basic food grade scale that weighs by grams.

Sexing

Sexing the difference between male and female skinks is a very subtle art. Healthy male will express jowls, which is a bulge about the jaw just under the ear. The base of a male’s tail is thick and stout in comparison to the female; her tail will taper immediately past her hips. This method of sexing can be difficult when the female in question is large and gravid as she will store more weight on her tail.

Males are slightly larger than females; typically weighing between 70 and 100g. Females will weigh in between 50 and 70g while gravid.

Breeding the Fire Skink

By Jennifer Greene

Step one: Breeding

In writing this article, I will be making the basic assumption that you, the fire skink keeper, are already familiar with the care and husbandry of successfully maintaining your fire skinks. Breeding is the natural next step in husbandry once you have successfully established your pair or group of skinks. Sexing Fire Skinks is at best an exercise in educated guesswork, especially if you have young or lean skinks. Most skinks available at pet stores are not old enough or established enough to develop the very subtle characteristics that allow for an attempt to be made at sexing them. For this reason, I highly recommend feeding your skinks well for at least a month before attempting to guess at the gender of your pets, as all fire skinks generally look like females when they are first acquired. Females are slightly slenderer in the head and body than males, and lack in anything resembling hemipenal bulges. Males have a slightly broader head and are built a little more “beefy” than females of a similar size and age, and develop very slight jowls with age. When mature, breeding adults are compared side by side, a careful eye can distinguish the genders, but even an experienced keeper can find it difficult to accurately sex fire skinks.

Feeding your skinks well will result in a healthy, robust pair that breed easily and often. My adults feed on large crickets, super worms, giant mealworms, dubia roaches, hissing cockroaches, and pinkie mice once the female has laid eggs. They also eat canned insects with gusto, with canned caterpillars being a particular favourite of my pair. I emphasize again that a good diet is a major part of successfully breeding your skinks and getting multiple, fertile clutches. Healthy, well fed skinks can and will lay between 3 and 5 clutches of eggs a year without any problems whatsoever. However, a malnourished or underfed skink may experience egg binding, parasite blooms, or crash from lack of calcium or other nutrients used to make her eggs.

Alright, so your skinks are eating a varied diet and are as fat and chunky as the ones you see pictured here. Great! They will take care of the rest. You may not see actual copulation, but it will take place without any encouragement from you as long as temperatures are warm enough. Fire skinks tend to breed whenever ambient temperatures stay above 25, and daylight hours last longer than 12 hours. This means their breeding season starts in the early spring, and can last until mid-autumn. Females are capable of retaining sperm, although they do not seem to lay more than one clutch when they do so.

Step Two: The Gravid Female

Once your skinks are breeding, and your female is starting to look even plumper than before, it’s time to make sure you are diligent about keeping up on a nice, varied diet and providing her with adequate supplementation. Your female skink may appreciate a slightly warmer basking area if yours is typically only about 30℃ to 33℃. When my skinks are breeding, I offer them a basking zone with the warmest area reaching temperatures of about 33℃. The female will seek out the warmer temperatures to grow and develop the eggs within her, and this also helps to ensure her appetite stays up – she’ll need lots of food to grow all the eggs she’ll be laying!

Fortunately for the fire skink keeper, care for gravid females is not much more difficult or different than for non-gravid females. More care needs to be given to ensuring that she is eating a rich diet that is well supplemented, but for the most part she will take care of her needs on her own.

Part Three: Egg Deposition and Incubation

After about 30 days, the female will look fat enough to burst, and at this point her appetite is likely to be next to nothing. She’ll start digging and exploring throughout her cage for a suitable place to lay her eggs, and it’s at this time that you need to pay close attention to the cage to make sure you catch when she lays her eggs. You’re extremely unlikely to actually see her laying the eggs, as they are very secretive about it, but you should be able to notice when she has suddenly lost a significant amount of weight.

Once you notice that the female seems to have abruptly lost half her body weight, carefully dig through the cage to find the eggs. They have excellent taste in nesting sites, and will select a nice moist (but not wet) area to lay their eggs in. Most often, mine laid their eggs under their water bowl or under cork rounds on the humid side of the cage.

Clutches range in size from 3 to 6 eggs on average, with clutches of up to 9 eggs not being uncommon. If you maintain your cage well with bioactive substrate (see The Art of Snake Keeping for information about bioactive substrates), you can actually leave the eggs in the cage until they hatch. I did this the first time entirely by accident, not realizing my skinks had already begun laying eggs – the first set of babies were a very pleasant surprise! Adults can and will cannibalize the offspring, so do not leave them in the cage once they hatch.

To incubate your eggs in a somewhat more professional manner, remove them carefully from the substrate once you have found them. Marking a dot on them with a permanent marker can help you ensure you keep them oriented upright in the position they were laid. From there, place them in your preferred incubation medium. I use Hatchrite, as it’s a nice, clean looking material that holds moisture well, comes pre-mixed, and I’ve had good success with it. I keep my clutches in the incubator in 12cm deli cups with lids, and write the date I found the clutch on the lid. Bury them about halfway into the incubation material, and then leave them for as long as it takes to hatch!

When incubated at 30℃, most clutches hatch at 55 to 65 days after being laid. I leave the babies in the cup until they’ve all hatched. While I have not seen a study on fire skinks in particular, I know for other species of lizards it has been shown that the activity of the first babies to hatch climbing over the eggs of their unhatched siblings encourages the babies still within their eggs to hatch. It does not hurt them to remain in the incubation cup for a day or two while their siblings hatch, so leave them in the cup and let them do their thing!

Part Four: Caring for Neonates

Set up the new hatchlings in a cage similar to the adults, just on a smaller scale. My adults are in a 90cm x 45cm x 60cm terrariums, and I raise babies in a 90cm x 30cm x 30cm terrarium. I provide my babies with a 100-watt power sun to bask under, which results in healthy, fast growing and chunky little babies. Humidity is important for babies, and I highly recommend providing them with a thick layer of substrate you can easily add moisture to. I often pour water directly into the substrate, especially directly under the heat light, to ensure that the babies are able to burrow at the moisture level they prefer.

Diet for babies is simple to start with, as there are not many prey items small enough for hatchling fire skinks. Small crickets 3mm of an inch to 6mm of an inch are small enough for them, and once they are a couple weeks old they are usually big enough to start eating regular sized mealworms as well. Waxworms can also be added to their diet, which can help keep them full if you notice your babies are nipping at each other’s tails. Hungry babies will consume the tails of their clutch mates, and the easiest way to prevent tail nipping is to simply keep them fed! I always leave a dish of regular mealworms out for my hatchlings, and offer 5 to 10 small crickets per baby every other day. On this regime, your hatchlings will be large enough to go to a new home within the first month.

The fire skink is an energetic and personable lizard when kept in an environment that promotes its sense of security. Hardy and visually stunning, it is a rare combination of exotic and easy that makes it an ideal choice for an enthusiast of any experience level. Continuing to promote their success in the hobby currently requires a greater awareness and understanding of what makes them thrive in captivity. Real knowledge is still being driven by experienced keepers who are documenting their success and taking an outspoken stance to help others in securing Fire skinks’ place within the hobby. Those currently keeping them have the rare chance to contribute to a growing body of knowledge about this amazing animal.

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