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Sailfin Lizard Care

Last Updated: 11/12/13


General Information

Sailfin Species

The sailfin dragon is also called the sailfin lizard, Soa Soa, and hydrosaur. Hydrosaurus amboinensis is from New Guinea and Indonesia (Moluccas and Celebs). Hydrosaurus pustulatus is from the Philippines. (Note that at least one of my sources spells it as Hydrosaurus pustulosus.) Hydrosaurus weberi, or Weber's sailfin lizard, is from the Moluccas. I had a Hydrosaurus pustulatus. The pet store said she was a Hydrosaurus weberi; a breeder who saw my lizard's picture on this page said H. pustulatus which I have verified by photo comparison. The May 1998 issue of Reptiles magazine had the first color photos I had seen of all three Hydrosaurus, and this seemed to confirm that I had a Hydrosaurus pustulatus. Weber's sailfin lizards are the most colorful. They are bright green with black marks.

The Philippine's sailfin lizard, Hydrosaurus pustulatus, begins life mostly as a brown lizard. Later, they develop highlights around the mouth and upper dorsal sailfin (back of the neck) that are blue or purple as can be seen in pictures of my sailfin. Both sexes have these highlights. The tail crest on my female was pretty impressive. Her laying an egg though proved her to be a female. Males have even more blue around the lower mouth and larger crests than my female.

While Philippine's sailfin lizards get a lot of purple and blue, H. amboinensis does not get much color. Most of the sailfin lizards coming in to the USA in the late 90's and early 00's were H. amboinensis while during the early 90's, it was H. pustulatus. Both are often mistakenly called Weber's sailfins which are in fact a totally different species although many people disagree. The Philippines no longer allows the exportation of H. pustulatus.

Size and Behavior

Males can grow to 3.5 to 4 feet but three feet is an average, including tail. Females are a few inches smaller than males. Weber's sailfins are a bit smaller. Because they are fairly delicate, prone to mouth rot and parasites, and like to smash into the tank (flight behavior), they are not good for beginners. Sailfin lizards not only will beat themselves silly trying to escape cages and bounce around like imbeciles but will rub their noses raw in extreme cases. When Einy did this, I said she was having a spasm. This is "normal" for sailfins. It is important not to have much of the cage sides see-through since the lizards think they can get through. This said, I was a beginner to reptiles when my mother brought our surprise new pet home on a whim. One excellent quality that sailfin lizards possess is that they do not normally bite. At least Einy and a sailfin lizard belonging to one person who e-mailed me have never tried to bite us.

Sailfins can appear to walk on water by running on their back feet. They also have a vestigal third eye on top of their head. This eye cannot actually see but can sense light levels.

Lifespan

Sailfins live 10 years or more. Einstein lived to almost 15 years old! There was a documented Hydrosaurus amboinensis that was more than 15.5 years old. Angela Goodson whose e-mail is AGoodson@Tax.State.ID.US has/had a sailfin lizard who is/was 14 years old and 4 feet long as of 4/29/00. Her sailfin is/was a female named Arnold (like Einy, she thought Arnold was male until the eggs arrived) but she is not sure which species of sailfin that she is. Arnold has run of the house!

On 1/12/13, Phyllis let me know that she has a pair of Philippine's sailfin lizards that she has had since July of 1995 so that they are about 18 years old. They have free run of the basement!


Cage

Larger cages are best since sailfins grow to 2 to 3 feet for Weber's sailfins and larger for other species. Large glass tanks with mesh lids or custom made wire and wood cages all work well. Be sure to include a large container for water. Sailfin lizards LOVE to swim. They also prefer to defecate in their water so it must be changed often (daily) and/or filtered. I have heard that two sailfins will not get along unless they are a breeding pair in a large cage. It is hard to find any tanks suited for semi-aquatic lizards. Such a tank must hold water, have bottom drains, vents, holes for electrical lines, ramps, sturdy mesh lids, and a lot more. There are "lizard tanks" but these cannot hold water! There are aquariums but these cannot be drilled! I ended up just getting a 120 gallon aquarium and living with the inconvenience. An ideal cage would be about 5 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 6 feet high for a single sailfin. If you can find such a cage for sale, please e-mail me!


Sexing and Breeding

Males have larger sailfins on their back and tail, enlarged nasal knobs, and larger pre-anal and femoral pores. Juveniles can be sexed by probing (only if you know what you are doing). Sexing is determined by the size of the sail and femoral pores, with males' being larger. It helps to have color photos or live specimens for comparison. Males also may have more green and/or blue coloration.

Apparently, sailfins are not the most willing breeders. Thus, if you can get your sailfins to breed, you are lucky. Not only will you increase their numbers, decrease capture of wild specimens, and enjoy them, but turn a nice profit too. They used to sell for about $70-150 each depending on species, availability, sales, etc. but now expect to pay many hundreds for one. Females need a dirt-like substrate to lay eggs. They should be incubated elsewhere at about 82-85 degrees F for about two months or 65 days. Females start laying after the age of two. They lay about 8-11 eggs once a year in the late spring after breeding a few months earlier. Find the book, The General Care and Maintenance of Green Water Dragons, Sailfin Lizards and Basilisks by Philippe de Vosjoli, Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1992 for more information on breeding or contact another breeder. I can also give you the e-mail addresses of a few people who have actually bred sailfins if you need to contact them, or better yet, join the Yahoo sailfin group. Many sailfin lizards are still taken from the wild where their numbers are dwindling so that captive breeding needs to increase if people want to buy them.


Lighting and Heat

Sailfin lizards prefer a range of temperatures from the upper 60's during nights in the winter to the upper 90's under their heat lamps most of the year. One source I have says a gradient of 76 to 88 degrees F during the day and 70 to 75 degrees F during the night. Another source says 84 to 88 degrees F during the day and 75 to 80 degrees F at night. They require sources of heat. These should include incandescent spot or heat lamps and a bottom source of heat. Either a hot rock or undertank heater will work. Lizards can get burnt on hot rocks so be careful. Adding slate on top can help prevent this. One can also cover three sides of the tank with cardboard to retain heat. Obviously, cages with metal bars will release most of the heat to the room. In that case, either heat the room or hope the lizard knows to go to the heat sources. Besides light for heat, they also need full spectrum lighting to thrive. In addition to making them feel awake and alive, the full spectrum lighting helps them manufacture and/or process vitamins (Vitamin D).


Humidity

This is the area where I had the most difficulty, trying to keep the humidity high. Sailfins are tropical and come from areas with high humidity. Their humidity should be 65% but they may tolerate as low as 35% short term. Ways to increase humidity include large water dishes, aeration of the water, increasing heat, partial covering of the lid (or sides in an open cage), water drippers, heating the water with a heater or undertank heater, and frequent misting. I tried all of these but the humidity never got above 25% and only when Einy spilled a lot of water. Usually the humidity was under 10% even though almost half the tank was a 10 gallon vat of water to swim in. Because of this, Einy lost four or more of her toes. When she shed, the skin dried and cut the circulation off.

On 6/24/05, Wade suggested that one can make a humidity pan using peat moss in a pan with a few cups of water. The damp moss holds water for a while and raises the humidity.


Other Supplies

There should be some sort of substrate. It can be something like CareFresh (see rabbit bedding), shredded newspaper (can stain), wood chips or bark chips (most frequently used), pebbles, corn cobs, or carpeting. I use tight carpeting (sold as reptile carpeting or turtle turf) even though I have heard that it is bad since the lizards can get their toes stuck in it (Einy never did). It was easy to scrub down every few weeks, and I replaced it twice a year. I mentioned the water pool which is essential for drinking, swimming, and defecating. Smooth (no sharp edges) rocks, driftwood, logs, fake grass and plants, and some live plants should be added so the tank is not boring although none of these are necessary except for a place to hide. Sailfins will beat themselves against the glass in attempts to escape from people. Mine felt safest in and slept in her log when young. Also, three sides of a glass cage should be covered with either aquarium backdrops, cardboard, etc. on the outside. This makes slamming into the glass occur less often. Sailfins also need a dish for their plant food. As Einy matured, she decided that anything that looked like a plant should be eaten, even if it was plastic so be sure to remove fake plants and ornaments if the lizard decides to eat them.


Food

Sailfin lizards are omnivorous. They should have about one half animals to eat and one half plants to eat as adults. Alternate animal feedings with plant feedings. I alternated every other day. Hatchlings eat about 30% plants and 70% animals. Adults eat about 50/50 plants and animals.

Animal Foods:

The animals include a lot of crickets, king mealworms (sometimes called superworms but really beetle larvae), and perhaps others. The others, some of which I have tried but which Einy did not attempt to eat, include regular mealworms, wax worms, small fish (goldfish, guppies, or rosy red minnows are all sold as "feeders"), and pinkies (baby mice which I refused to try). Before giving crickets and king mealworms to the lizard, shake them around with some reptile vitamins. I used two kinds together which taut different uses. I did not kill or incapacitate crickets or king mealworms before feeding. Some people do this to ensure the insects do not bite or harm the lizard. I never had this problem. I have never been bitten by a cricket or mealworm either but I was warned that I would.

A number of people in the Yahoo sailfin group said that their sailfins enjoyed a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving 2004. They liked turkey and sweet potatoes. I gave Einstein a piece of turkey on 11/28/04 (we had an extra Thanksgiving that day). After a short while, she picked it up but then dropped it and never ate it.

The sailfin group mentioned roaches enough that I decided to buy some for Einstein. You can read about how that went and all about roaches on my roach page. Einstein ate the first one I gave her and then basically never again. Some sailfin owners also buy butterworms or silkworms for their lizards but I have not tried those. The year of the 17 year locusts, Einstein enjoyed eating those cicadas.

Plant Foods:

Plant foods include probably hundreds of species of fruits and vegetables. I routinely gave grated carrot, squash, and zucchini; torn up kale, collard greens, spinach, and romaine; cut up apple, pear, grapes, cucumber, strawberries, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, and other berries and melons; and others when I have them for the other animals. Grapes were by far Einy's favorite; I had to peel and chop them for her! Grated carrot was the only plant that Einy got every other day no matter what (since I have rabbits). One sailfin owner says her lizard eats wheat bread.


Housing, Feeding, and Breeding Crickets and King Mealworms

Check out my mealworm page for information on regular and king mealworms.

Check out my new cricket page for information on crickets.

Insect Care:

I kept about six dozen crickets and four dozen mealworms at a time in two 2 gallon plastic aquariums as well as other cages when there were adults and babies. On 1/19/05, I actually had seven insect cages. Larger cages and 10 gallon glass aquariums are good. Kept in too small containers, they will die and/or you will have to clean up often. Provide pieces of cardboard egg crates, toilet paper rolls, and paper towel rolls for them to stand in and hide. Crickets and king mealworms eat dry powder foods that you can buy from reptile suppliers. They much prefer fresh fruits and vegetables. Basically, any of the plants that I listed above for the lizard can be fed in smaller portions to crickets and king mealworms. The king mealworms like a carrot to bore into. To provide water, wet a paper towel and ball it up, removing most of the water. They will suck water out of it. If you provide water in a dish, they will drown and make a mess. Without water, both insects will die shortly.

Cricket Breeding:

My crickets bred on their own in the lizard's cage which was warm and moist. Warmth and moisture are the keys to breeding crickets. Baby crickets left in with the lizard grew up fine (until I went to clean the cage) but if I tried to raise them separately; they grew super slow (perhaps it was too cold). My female crickets liked to lay their eggs in the carpet in my lizard's tank. Putting a small piece of carpet (not plush, dense and short) in their breeding cage would probably work very well. The eggs are white/yellow and not see-through. They are very long but not wide. The female will lay them in clumps from her ovipositor in a damp (but not wet) and dark spot. The newborns are easy to overlook or think to be some minute pest. In my experience, crickets grow pretty slowly. Read more on crickets on my new cricket page.

My Success Breeding King Mealworms:

Occasionally, one of my mealworms will pupate into a beetle. I had a male beetle for almost a year before another beetle developed. These two beetles did mate (I witnessed this; the male's apparatus protrudes) but the female either did not lay, or I tossed the eggs out during the weekly cleanings. The male died soon after mating (he was a year old). I had not previously had any luck getting baby mealworms until I read to use cork bark on which for them to lay. I began collecting rolled up king mealworms when I cleaned Einy's cage. They pupated, and I soon had about six adult beetles. They were put in a 2 gallon plastic cage with egg crate, damp paper towels, food, and a piece of cork bark. Every week, I checked the bottom for any sign of life. Finally, I began seeing itty bitty worms. I poured them into a 1 gallon plastic cage and put in a generous helping of cricket food (basically oatmeal and such). They hid and ate and grew bigger and bigger. After a few months, some became large enough to pick up.

You will note that I did one thing very different from the typical method for breeding. I did not put the larvae (big worms) into individual containers and cool them or otherwise try to induce them to pupate. I simply fed them very well, provided wet paper towels (changed every two days), and put them into the lizard's tank. As she did not eat them all, some bored into a log I have in with the lizard and chewed some wood. Then, they hid in a dark spot under the rug or behind the log and rolled up. I used to think these rolled up worms were dead! Then, I finally realized they were in the first stage of pupation (they will NOT move then). Once white pupae, they do wiggle if you touch them. I put any rolled up mealworms or pupae in with the other beetles. After a few weeks, the beetles emerged. I have yet to see that moment! The newly emerged beetles are brown/white and soft. After a few days, they turn totally black and hard.

Update: By late 2001, I now have plenty of adult king mealworms in with a ton of adult regular mealworms. There are a lot of beetles! Weekly, I dump all the uneaten feed into my baby container. Eggs and newborns are in the floor debris. Since it is hard to see them, I just put it all into the container. The baby cage is crawling with mealworms of all sizes but mostly the regular mealworms. I still have to buy king mealworms every once in a while.

To read the updates on my breeding program and more on mealworms, see my mealworm page.

Web Sites:

Breeding crickets

Housing and Feeding Invertebrate Prey


Maintenance

Daily, you need to feed the lizard, change his water, mist him and the tank, and be sure he looks okay. I also misted my lizard with a vitamin spray. Clean the lizard's cage completely at least every two weeks. Put him somewhere else while you work since he will get overly excited. Sailfins can take being chilled for short periods so unless it is really cold (below 50 degrees F), they do not need heat while waiting for their cage to be cleaned. As the lizard's stuff starts to stink, soak it for 20 minutes in a 1:20 solution of bleach and then for 20 minutes in clean water with a dechlorinator before drying and setting back up. Only soak inert and non-porous things in dilute bleach; do not soak wood for example as it will absorb and retain the bleach. If you use a substrate other than carpet, change it totally while you clean. Avoid using bleach or window cleaner inside the tank. There are safe cage cleaners on the market including through That Pet Place. I changed my lizard's carpet twice a year as it started to become hard to clean.



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