A Helpful Guide to Fence Lizard Care

The eastern fence lizard is still common in most of their range. They’re a small lizard that is both easy to care for and doesn’t take up much space. Although they’re not a great pet to handle, they make entertaining display animals. Here’s all you need to know about keeping fence lizards as pets.

Classification 

Fence lizards are from the Sceloporus genus and the Phrynosomatidae family. This extensive group of lizards includes but is not limited to the following specimens.

  • Western fence swift 
  • Granite spiny lizard
  • Yarrow’s spiny lizard 
  • Rose belly lizard
  • Florida scrub lizard
  • Texas spiny lizard 
  • Canyon lizard
  • Sagebrush lizard 
  • Green emerald swift 
  • Prairie lizard
  • Crevice spiny lizard 
  • Blue spiny lizard

Fence lizards are often referred to as swifts or spiny lizards. This article features the eastern fence lizard specifically which is broken up into two locales. These include the eastern and southern fence lizards respectively. Care is similar for all of these lizards although certain tweaks in husbandry apply depending on locale. 

Range 

As the name implies, The eastern fence lizard is from the eastern United States. They range from the middle of Florida up to South New Jersey (the Pine Barrens) and southern Pennsylvania. Their range also expands westward as far as Texas and Oklahoma. This is also where many other kinds of Sceloporus occur. 

It’s interesting to note that two colonies occur in the state of New York although one area might be past tense. Several decades ago the eastern fence lizard was purposely released in Staten Island, New York. They were found there for a very long time. It’s possible that a colony still exists in Staten Island today but it’s unconfirmed. 

The other colony occurs in Putnam County in upstate New York. They are still found in a specific area of a mountain range that sits along the shore of the Hudson River. I wish I had known about this colony when I lived in New York as I would have searched diligently for them. 

The eastern fence lizard’s presence in New York is special since not many Squamata is found there other than the five-lined skink. The five-lined skink is also limited to specific colonies.

Habitat 

Eastern fence lizards are found in pinewood forests, forested hills, and mountains. While having a water source nearby such as a pond, lake, or creek maybe even more suitable habitat, I’ve observed southern fence lizards in fairly dry locations.

Acquiring a fence lizard 

Fence lizards are not a staple of the reptile industry. As such, they’re not readily available (usually). I do see them for sale now and then throughout the year but they’re wild-caught specimens.  Breeding them is easy but they’re not in high demand nor are they pricey. 

Some use fence lizards to feed certain lizard-feeding snakes due to their low price. While I’m a snake lover at heart, I couldn’t see myself feeding fence lizards to snakes. I’d much rather switch them over to rodents. 

How to successfully catch fence lizards 

Fence lizards are easily caught by taking a long stick similar to the size of a fishing rod. The longer the stick the better. Tie a piece of fishing line at the top of the stick looping a noose. Carefully approach the lizard without scaring it off. They usually depend on their camouflage and remain still. 

Simply place the noose over the lizard’s head and allow it to tighten. You should easily catch the lizard. Be sure to loosen the noose as soon as possible. One can gather several specimens in a fairly short period of time. Just remember to never keep two males in the same enclosure. 

Size

The eastern fence lizard is a small to medium-sized lizard leaning more towards small. They don’t get as big as their family members including the blue spiny lizard or the crevice spiny lizard. Still, every now and then I come across a large specimen. These lizards range between four to eight inches (including the tail) but the average is about five and a half inches. 

Enclosure 

When it comes to keeping lizards, the bigger the enclosure the better. The same is said for fence lizards but this is one of the few smaller species you can keep in a ten-gallon tank (the bare minimum). Still, I’d recommend larger terraria. Nevertheless, if room for keeping lizards is extremely limited, a ten-gallon tank does the trick. 

Decorate the enclosure similar to a forest scene. As the name implies, fence lizards like hanging out on wooden fences and on tree trunks. They also like to sit on fallen branches and firewood piles. These lizards like to climb although I wouldn’t necessarily categorize them as arboreal. 

Heating

I avoid heat stones like the plague. Heat stones have a tendency to burn pet reptiles. Alternatively, I recommend under-the-tank heat mats controlled by a thermostat and monitored by a thermometer. Keep air temperatures in the 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day reducing them to the 70s at night. 

Depending on your location and climate determines what you need to achieve these goals. For example, a reptile enclosure in the state of Florida is easier to keep warm than one in Wisconsin. This is due to the ambient temperature of the home or building. 

Lighting 

These lizards need full-spectrum lighting in order to thrive. This includes UVA and UVB. UVB provides ultraviolet radiation while UVA bulbs provide warmth during the daylight hours. Captive lizards like to sun themselves under UVA and UVB domes and lighting strips. Whichever you chose to use is a matter of preference.

Mercury bulbs offer full spectrum UVB/UVA lighting and heat. These bulbs are always very high in wattage and too high for fence lizards (in most cases). I do use a 90-watt mercury bulb on a 30 gallon (long) tank for a red-headed agama. These African lizards tolerate (and need) higher temperatures than fence lizards do.

Overall, I don’t recommend mercury bulbs for fence lizards, especially when keeping them in a small terrarium (10 to 20 gallons). A bulb of such intensity will kill your lizards. Incidentally, I prefer domes over strips, but it’s strictly a matter of preference. 

Humidity 

Keep humidity at around 50 to 70% especially for the southern locales which come from a  more humid climate. Humidity can drop a bit during winter months, especially if you choose to overwinter them. 

A southern fence lizard.
A southern fence lizard.

Handling and Temperament

Never handle or pick a fence lizard up by the tail because they will drop it. Who wants a tailless lizard? It definitely has a negative effect on aesthetics. 

Fence lizards are entertaining and fun to watch. They also make great display animals. They’re not, however, especially good for handling when compared to bearded dragons or blue tongue skinks. Even so, once you have them on your arm, shoulder, or the front of your shirt, they’ll often stay immobile the entire time.

A fence lizard stowaway

I have an interesting story to relate to. When first moving to Florida I caught a southern fence lizard outside my front door. I handled it for a minute or so but attempted to release it. Thinking I had dropped the lizard back on the ground, I got in my car and drove to another town for about an hour. While in town I stopped at a store and walked around for ten minutes or so. 

Much to my surprise, I found the fence lizard still perched on the back of my shoulder after getting home. The lizard stayed on me during the entire drive and while I was walking through the store. I then placed the lizard back where I had found it. 

Feeding

Fence lizards eat bugs. Small crickets, small roaches, soldier fly larvae, and spikes are their staple foods while waxworms and mealworms are fed occasionally. It’s important not to overfeed these lizards because they will chow down readily on just about anything available that moves. 

The main issue here is regurgitation and not obesity. I’ve yet to see an obese fence lizard. They’ll sooner regurgitate if they have too much food. Feed fence lizards every other day, just a couple of bugs at a time. These lizards simply can’t pack it away like collared lizards

If regurgitation occurs, cut back on feeding. Chronic regurgitation leads to health problems that will eventually kill the lizard. A few appropriately sized bugs at a time suffice. 

Supplements 

Provide a quality multivitamin powder added to the feeder bugs once or twice a week. Offer vitamin D3 powder more often, four or five days a week. This is to make up for the powerful vitamin ultraviolet radiation provides from direct sunlight. Vitamin D3 deficiency leads to metabolic bone disease (MBD). 

Lizard feeding dish.
An escape-proof lizard feeding dish.

Water 

I find these lizards benefit highly from spray-misting. These benefits include the following. 

  • To help keep the humidity up
  • It induces breeding
  • They often lick water droplets off the glass of the enclosure and other available ornaments

Nevertheless, keep a shallow water dish full of fresh water available (at all times) for them to drink from.

A southern fence Lizard in its natural habitat.
A southern fence Lizard in its natural habitat.

Sexing

Fence lizards are sexually dimorphic which means it’s easy to tell males and females apart. Males have a bright blue area under their chin and underbelly. Females have much smaller amounts of blue under their chins and underbelly.

Females also tend to get a bit larger and have a tight pattern of bands on their backs. Males demonstrate head bobbing when claiming their turf or when attracting a female. 

Breeding 

I find that spraying/misting the enclosure down with lukewarm water highly effective in getting these lizards to breed during the spring. Never keep two or more adult males in the same enclosure. They will duel, sometimes to death. At the very least, one or both males will drop their tails during combat.

I also suggest removing the male from the females after breeding takes place. This is because the male continues to breed with the female after she’s already gravid. This usually results in the female dropping their tail. 

In the long term, adjusting the photoperiod throughout the year following the sun through the four seasons induces breeding. These lizards breed in the spring primarily. Drop the temperature during winter encouraging a period of brumation for up to three months.

Caring for fence lizard eggs

Fence lizards are egg layers. Keep one corner of the enclosure damp to the touch at all times when the egg-laying time draws near. Remove the eggs as soon as possible. Take care to keep them in the same upright position when placing them in the incubator. The eggs should hatch in about sixty days. 

Chances are, the female will lay a second clutch during the summer months. I define these lizards as quite prolific. 

Remove any dead, rotting, or fungus affected eggs from the clutch immediately. Incubate them between 80 to 85°F. 

Feeding hatchlings

Feed hatchlings extremely tiny bug including pinhead crickets, roach nymphs, and soldier fly larvae daily. I also sometimes supplement them with fruit flies. Use a vitamin D3 powder supplement for healthy bones and for fast growth. Don’t keep babies with the adults and separate them from each other when they reach sexual maturity. 

Keeping some diced greens in the enclosure to help prevent toe nips is not a bad idea. While I’ve never actually seen fence lizards take vegetation, other members of the genus do.

Southern Fence Lizard
A southern fence lizard.

Similar species 

As mentioned at the top of the article, the eastern fence lizard has several similar species, especially in the Sceloporus genus. This includes western fence lizards and other spiny lizards such as the crevice and blue spiny lizards. 

Other similar species include prairie lizards and the Sagebrush lizard. I’ve also seen some compare them to curly-tailed lizards although it’s important to note that curly-tails are not part of the Sceloporus genus. 

Even though fence lizards are related to the crevice and blue spiny lizards, the former are egg layers while the other spiny lizards bear live young. 

Conclusion 

Fence lizards make a decent pet because they are easy to care for and don’t take up much space. They’re not especially good for handling but they are easy to sex and breed. 

Remember not to overfeed these lizards because they will regurgitate which isn’t good. These lizards are entertaining and interesting to watch which makes keeping them a rewarding experience.

I’d like to hear about your experiences with fence lizards. Please leave your comments and questions in the section below! 

A Helpful Guide to Fence Lizard Care

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