A Complete Guide to Red-Headed Agama Care

The red-headed agama is a lizard that’s both inexpensive and fairly easy to keep. Finding a pet red-headed agama isn’t hard although captive-bred specimens are not as common as their wild-caught counterparts. Here’s a helpful guide to keeping red-headed agamas and why they make such fine pets.

The Red-Headed Agama

The red-headed agama is an extremely affordable lizard that caught my attention back in the mid-90s during my second pet shop job stint. At the time, a company called Bronx Reptiles was dealing reptiles and amphibians to pet stores far and wide.

Actually, this company became quite infamous a few years later due to the illegal importation of animals but that’s another story. In happier times, I paid Bronx Reptiles a visit representing the pet shop I worked for. The idea was to cherry-pick healthy reptiles without snake mites. Yet again, this is another story for another time.

During my first (and last) visit to Bronx Reptile

I picked up three or four red-headed agamas which were dirt cheap and looked extremely interesting due to their beautiful coloring. They also had a certain look in their eyes that hinted of intelligence.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay with this pet shop for very long due to money constraints and other issues so I only had a couple of weeks with them. Since then I always remembered them and hoped to keep them again someday. Years later, I got heavily into a collared lizard breeding project which didn’t leave me much time for keeping other lizards.

After wrapping that project up I thought why not try to track down some red-headed agamas. I was patient and kept my eyes open for captive-bred hatchlings and eventually, I had fulfilled another ambition of mine. I found that besides being extremely inexpensive (even with captive-bred specimens), these lizards are very easy to keep.

While flighty, they quickly tame down with regular handling

I find them to make excellent pets with an impressive intellect and great personalities. A spacious desert set-up like that of bearded dragons is all you need to get started. I’ll go through everything else that you’ll need for success during the course of this article. This is a lot of fun so let’s get started.

Happy - the red-headed agama
Happy - the red-headed agama.

Red-Headed Agama Video

Place of origin

The red-headed agama is fairly common throughout their natural rage in Africa. They’ve also been introduced to South Florida when pet captives were intentionally, or unintentionally released in the wild. Much like the curly-tail lizard, the red-headed agama seems to thrive in certain locations of South Florida.

While extreme South Florida is known for its tropical climate, the agamas range in Africa is much arider and even hotter. The only place these lizards aren’t found is in the Sahara desert. So it seems these lizards thrive in both arid and humid conditions. Still, I recommend replicating a desert set-up over a tropical one for keeping captives. Basically, the setup for bearded dragons, collared lizards, and blue spiny lizards will also work for the red-headed agama.

The discrepancy over their common and scientific names

There is some discrepancy over the common and scientific names of these lizards depending upon which source you read. For example, most sources agree that the red-headed agama’s scientific name falls under agama, agama. Still, common names such as rainbow lizard, spider-man agama, and rock agama are sometimes listed under agama, agama.

Others, such as the spider-man agama are sometimes listed with the scientific name agama, mwanzae. Ultimately, like the uromastyx, the red-headed agama covers a wide range and different locations produced different phases of the lizard. To further complicate matters, the colors of these lizards change depending on age, time of the year, mood, and also the breeding season.

The appearance of the red-headed agama

The males are the most brilliantly colored. Females are always more drab, even as adults. Hatchlings are also darker in color, including the males, until they reach sexual maturity.

Some books I’m using as sources for the confusion between subspecies or phases include the following.

  • Guide To Lizards by Robert G Sprackland
  • Field Guide To Snakes And Other Reptiles Of Southern Africa by Bill Branch
  • The Lizard Keeper’s Handbook by Philippe de Vosjoli
  • Agamid Lizards by David J. Zoffer

A search engine query brings up even more confusing results.

Even so, I’m 100% sure that the lizards I have in my possession are the true agama, agama.

A young captive bred red-headed agama.

Handling and temperament

In my experience, the red-headed agama is an intelligent lizard that can easily be conditioned to handling with patience and consistency. Normally, they are flighty by nature, no question about it, but similar to the spiny lizards (Sceloporus family) of North America, once they are on your hand or arm, they hold on tightly and rarely flee.

Never with-strain the lizard, allow it to freely walk from your hand, up to your arm, and to your shoulder if it so chooses. Allow the lizard to feel it’s in control when really you’re the one manipulating its movements.

For example

If the lizard crawls up your forearm and you make direct eye contact with it, it’ll either move further up or sideways out of view. If this happens and you feel like you’re losing control over the lizard, take your opposite hand slowly around the side and it should anchor itself back up on your arm where you have better control over it.

Again, be gentle and consistent. I’ve never had a red-headed agama bite me. That doesn’t mean they won’t, depending on stress or individual personality. Generally, I find these lizards rather docile, just a bit jumpy, especially when young or those not used to being held.

Never pull or hold on to your red-headed agama’s tail because they may drop it in defense. The tail will grow back but it won’t be as nice looking.

Choosing a red-head agama as a pet

I always recommend captive-bred over wild-caught or field collected. With this particular species of lizard, wild-caught specimens are far more common. I waited a while to get my captive-bred specimens but I’m seeing them available from time to time which is promising. Keep an eye online for captive-bred specimens.

These lizards are also sometimes available at reptile shows. Usually, a seller is honest when it comes to telling you if they’re wild-caught or not. Note that while wild-caught agamas can still make good pets, acclimation might be harder. While I like raising my lizards up from hatchlings, it’s an extra challenge getting them “well started”, so inexperienced lizard keepers may want to start out with an adult or subadult.

Wild-caught red-headed agamas might be infected with parasites

Most wild-caught lizards (and reptiles in general) harbor parasites. When the reptile is healthy, parasitic loads are kept under control. When a lizard is extremely stressed and dehydrated due to importation, a parasitic infection may become more serious because of the lizard’s weakened immune system.

The remedy for this is simple. Take all wild-caught reptiles to a reptile competent veterinarian and have them treated for parasites. Brings some of the animals fresh stool with you too as the veterinarian may want to test it to see what kind of parasites might be active in your animal.

When choosing an agama as a pet

Look for an energetic specimen with good body weight. Avoid excessively thin lizards or if they have blisters, sores, or mites. Check around the mouth and mucous membranes for dried, crusty or even wet residue.

Red-Headed Agama Facts

  • Experience level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Docile
  • Family: Agamidae
  • Scientific name: Agama, agama
  • Average adult size: 12 to 16 inches tail to snout
  • Lifespan: 5 to 10 years
  • Hardiness: Hardy (captive-bred), relatively hardy (wild-caught)
  • Stress level: Moderate to low
  • Food: Omnivores. Insects, occasional mouse pinkie, sweet fruits, seeds, flowers, some occasional greens
  • Reproduction: Egg layer
  • Breeding level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Average Temperature: 85-90°H/74°L ambient, basking 100+°H
  • Humidity: 40-60%.
  • Habitat: Terrestrial, semi-arboreal
  • UVB lighting: Full spectrum lighting is required
  • Enclosure size: Medium (2x3 feet) for one lizard, large (3x2 + for more than one
  • Average price range: $15 to $25

Size

The red-headed agama grows to a decent size, about that of a bearded dragon only not as stout in the body. We’re talking about eight inches from snout to vent and sixteen inches from snout to the tip of the tail. That’s not saying all specimens will get that big but it’s their potential.

The red-headed agama is somewhat lean, slightly muscular, and athletic looking. Males are always more colorful than females and tend to get bigger. As hatchlings, these lizards are delicate so be very careful with them.

Fingers and toes are as thin as a thread when first out of the egg. It takes some time to get them started but the same is ultimately said for other lizards as well.

Enclosure

Red-headed agamas are a fairly active lizard. For a single adult, I recommend an enclosure no smaller than a 40-gallon breeder tank which is thirty-six inches (three feet) long. If you keep a male with two females, you’ll need the length of a 55-gallon tank (at least).

This is especially important if you plan to breed them. Agamas need their space so the more you can give them, the better. Don’t try sticking even one adult specimen in anything under three feet in length.

A 20-gallon long tank is only proper for hatchlings

Have at least one hiding place where the lizard can escape all external stimuli and feel completely secure. It is vital to have an enclosure big enough for you to offer a warm area, a basking site, and a cool area at the opposite end of it.

I use some plastic plants for both visual appeals and for the lizard to frolic in. Note that such extra props allow feeders such as crickets a place to hide. Remove all crickets and other uneaten food from the enclosure every evening before you turn the lights off. This is to avoid injuries to the lizard while it sleeps.

When in doubt, leave a few leafy greens for the insects to munch on overnight.

Loose crickets and roaches will also use the greens as a water source which is a much better alternative to picking at your lizard. Remember that getting the proper set-up for any kind of lizard you acquire is absolutely imperative to successful keeping. Always have your set-up completely ready to go before purchasing a pet lizard. Trust me on that.

Substrate

There are many types of substrate to choose from. They include sand, wood chips, mulch, coconut husk, pulverized walnuts, and some others. Since this particular lizard frequents scrublands and savannas, keeping the substrate moist to lock in humidity isn’t as vital as other tropical or monitor lizards. In fact, keep humidity below 60% when keeping red-headed agamas.

Certain substrates are dusty while others have certain odors. Not necessarily bad odors, but a smell you’ll recognize as something different from a normal smelling room. If dander and odors are an issue, you can keep them on paper towels. They are absorbent, have no odor, and change out easily.

Keep hatchlings on paper towels to avoid compaction

I especially recommend keeping hatchlings on paper towels to avoid impaction. If you’re trying to breed your red-headed agamas, paper towels are not going to work. Use sand (specifically sold as reptile bedding), or pulverized walnut shells so the female can deposit her eggs.

Lighting and heating

The red-headed agama and closely related species require full-spectrum lighting including both UVB and UVA. These lizards like it warm so keep daytime ambient temperatures toasty with a basking site which gets even hotter. Also, include a cooler area in the enclosure so the lizard can thermoregulate by escaping the heat.

I use two hiding caves in the enclosed for the lizard to use as a perch. They are strategically placed directly under the lights. When it comes to heating, there are many options. All options generally achieve the same results which come down to a matter of preference.

My preference

I use two separate lighting domes, one for the UVB and the other for the UVA. There’s also UVB bulbs that are tubes which lay horizontally at the top of the enclosure. In all the years I’ve been keeping reptiles, I’ve never taken this approach. That’s not to say it’s wrong, I just have my preference.

The other option is using a mercury bulb which has it everything in one. This includes UVB, UVA, and it also produces a lot of heat. I do use mercury bulbs in certain situations but not presently with my agamas.

Under-the-tank-heat-mats

I also use an under-the-tank-heat-mats which I always leave on. Use a thermostat to control the temperature. Avoid heat stones because they’ve been known to burn reptiles. There’re other heating options like having a nighttime bulb that’s either black or blue. Reptiles cannot see this spectrum of lighting so it won’t keep them up at night. I never choose this particular option.

The last alternative is something I do occasionally use, ceramic heating bulbs which give off infrared heat. They get quite warm and work well for nighttime heating if necessary. It’s important that your lighting domes are suitable for the wattage of bulbs you use to avoid a serious fire hazard. Both domes and lights are clearly marked in terms of wattage capabilities. Don’t ignore them.

Bulb wattage for reptile keeping

Bulb wattage for reptile keeping depends on different factors. Ultimately, it comes down to the species of lizard that you’re keeping and how far away the bulb is from the bottom of the enclosure.

Some terrariums are dramatically taller than others. A taller terrarium generally requires higher wattage while a smaller one calls for less wattage. Do not exceed the wattage limitations of the dome you use.

Life span

You’ll get the most out of your red-headed agama if you buy it as a captive-bred hatchling. Wild-caught adults may have lived most of their lives already. They may live about five years on average. Those acquired as hatchlings which are captive-bred have the potential to live at least ten years, perhaps longer.

Since captive-bred specimens are somewhat new to the pet trade, we’re still learning the full potential life span of the red-headed agama.

A Complete Guide to Red-Headed Agama Care

Feeding and supplementation

The red-headed agama is technically an omnivore meaning they eat both vegetation and meat. They definitely lean more towards being a carnivore, but they’ll also take sweet fruits, seeds, and possibly a small number of leafy greens.

I have a pair of uromastyx so every morning when I’m making salads, I take a small bit of the greens and whatever fruit I’m using to make the agamas a small plate.

Greens range from collard, turnip, and mustards while fruits are anything from various berries to guavas, papaya, or mangos. They don’t chow down hard on fruits and vegetables but they will occasionally pick. Besides having a shallow dish of water available at all times, I also add some water to the bowl of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, they’ll drink from it.

Carnivorous needs

As for the red-headed agamas carnivorous needs, insects make up the vast majority of protein taken. These lizards eat various bugs on a daily basis including black soldier fly larvae, butter worms, crickets, roaches, silkworms, small hornworms, and occasionally mealworms, super worms, and waxworms as a treat. To make waxworms and mealworms more nutritious, dust them with vitamin D3 calcium powder and a quality multivitamin.

Younger lizards need more vitamin D3 than adults. The same is also said for gravid females. Use the vitamin D3 supplement three to four times a week for adults and daily for hatchlings. Multivitamins should only be offered once or twice a week. Just be sure to gut-load your feeder insects with quality fruits, vegetables, and roach food or tropical fish food flakes. This makes your lizards food as nutritious as possible.

Avoid metabolic bone disease in your lizard by doing this

Metabolic bone disease occurs in lizards (and certain other reptiles like turtles) kept in captivity when genuine sunlight isn’t available for an extended period. This is easily remedied by having full-spectrum, UVB lighting and a quality vitamin D3 supplement in powder form. Simply take the insects you intend to feed the lizard and place them in a plastic baggie.

Add some powder, seal the bag and shake it up until the insect is completely covered by the powder. Then, offer the calcium-rich feeders for your lizard to eat. By combining vitamin D3 supplementation and UVB lighting, you should never have an issue with metabolic bone disease.

As for snakes

Snakes usually don’t need such supplementation because they meet their calcium needs through digesting the bones of rodents. Remember, calcium is good, keep phosphorus limited.

The main staples – Crickets, roaches, and black soldier fly larvae

The main staple for insectivorous lizards is a diet of crickets and/or roaches. Roaches are far easier to keep. Hardly any of them die off compared to the massive loss of keeping crickets for a week or two. Cockroaches also don’t smell like crickets and are much easier to breed and maintain. You can choose one over the other. Perhaps you want to get away from crickets altogether. That’s fine if you use roaches alternatively.

The only other option for the main staple is the highly nutritious soldier fly larvae. Soldier fly larvae are naturally high in calcium so no need to supplement them with powder. Keep the container in the refrigerator along with butter worms and mealworms. Also, keep a small piece of carrot or raw sweet potato so the bugs have both a food and water source.

Even though they go into hibernation, they will eat and consume some moisture during this time. Adults can also take an occasional mouse pinkie. Don’t use mealworms or waxworms as the main staple.

Remember that offering a variety makes a healthier lizard. This goes for both insects and vegetation alike.

Shedding problems solved

Red-headed agamas don’t usually have shedding issues. Keep humidity between 40 and 60%. The only shedding related issue I’ve found is one that I’ll address now. Like many other lizards, sometimes old skin sticks to the bottom of the tail after shedding is complete. This is problematic when old skin stays on too long. It cuts blood circulation to the tail. This results in the tip of the tail eventually dying and falling off.

I have a simple and highly effective solution for this predicament

If you see that the lower part of your lizards tail is darker and it’s obvious that it didn’t shed-out properly, get some all-natural mineral oil. I use the kind of mineral oil intended for treating occasional constipation in humans. While I’ve never used this product for its intended purpose, it isn’t harmful if swallowed. I then dip the affected part of the tail into the mineral oil a few times. Only do this once a day.

I see results after one treatment but if any dead skin remains, treat again the following day. I’ve never had to do this for more than three days in a row. The next morning after the first treatment, the tail looks better and by day three the problem is always solved.

Breeding

Breeding red-headed agamas shouldn’t be hard when the right conditions are effectively met. In the wild, contrary to many other lizards, the dominant male red-headed agama may share territory with not only one or multiple females, but he’ll also share his space with other weaker males and juveniles.

This isn’t necessarily the approach to breeding these lizards. I suggest one adult male to two adult females in a very spacious enclosure. Use at least a 55-gallon long tank and if you can go bigger, go for it! Having juveniles and less dominant males in an artificial enclosure is too close in captivity in my opinion.

Use sand or pulverized walnut shells

The best substrate to use during breeding is sand four to six inches deep. Keep one of the corners damp with a misting bottle. This is where the female deposits her eggs. I have more details on breeding lizards under similar conditions. They’re on my collared lizard page and my curly-tail lizard page.

I get far more into creating a photoperiod and other tips you’ll need to get your lizard breeding project started. You’ll also learn how to take care of the eggs. The red-headed agama is an egg layer, they don’t bear live young. Don’t let that intimidate you though, incubating eggs is easy and if I can do it, so can you!

A related question from across the web that I haven’t covered

Are agamas poisonous?

No, agamas are neither poisonous or venomous. They don’t have fangs or produce any venom. Unlike some amphibians, the red-headed agama doesn’t produce defensive toxins through their skin. Treat a bite from a red-headed agama by washing the affected area with soap and warm water. An antibacterial cream can also be added to help prevent infection.

Conclusion

The red-headed agama is an underrated pet lizard. They’re extremely affordable, even when captive-bred. Of course, keeping just about any lizard as a pet requires more maintenance than keeping a snake. Still, the experience is highly rewarding. The red-headed agama is easily handled, intelligent, and entertaining.

Most of the rules for keeping them mirror bearded dragon care. Males also have extremely attractive coloring when they fully mature. They make truly great pets, just make sure to have your set-up complete and ready to go before purchasing them. This makes success much easier in keeping all reptiles (and amphibians). Good luck!

Do you have any questions or comments about the red-headed agama?  Let us know in the comments section below!

A Complete Guide to Red-Headed Agama Care

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