A Helpful Guide to Green Emerald Swift Care

The green emerald swift is both a beautiful and common lizard available through the pet trade. These brightly colored gems are the most popular of the Sceloporus (spiny lizard) family. They also have a reputation for being hard to keep. Here’s how to keep the green emerald swift alive and thriving.

A Helpful Guide to Green Emerald Swift Care

The green emerald swift

The green emerald swift is of the Sceloporus family including swifts, spiny lizards, and fence lizards. Male green emerald swifts are arguably the most beautiful of the Sceloporus family. Females are often darker in coloration although some are also more brightly colored like one of my current females pictured to the right.

When healthy, these lizards are fairly robust and active. They’re actually quite entertaining as a display animal and some individuals handle nicely. The green emerald swift needs specific conditions to survive, thrive and reproduce which are well noted in this article. Successfully caring for these lizards isn’t hard, but you need to know what you’re doing.

How to choose a green emerald swift for a pet

Here’s the tricky part. While the green emerald swift has been a longstanding staple in the industry and the most popular of the Sceloporus family, they have a questionable reputation for being difficult to keep alive in the long-term. This is due to a few different reasons.

First, these lizards are often collected in the field from a tropical climate. In fact, they’re from the cloud forests of Central America. They almost always contain parasites to some extent. In the wild, parasites don’t harm them because they’re healthy.

When specimens get taken from the wild and shipped to the United States, they end up with a reptile flipper for as long as it takes to sell them off. If they end up in a pet store, they’re stressed for an even longer time. During this transition, the lizards usually aren’t being kept in optimal conditions and not feeding as they should.

This wears down the lizard’s immune system making them more susceptible to the parasites. Sometimes these lizards get so worn down, they never come back from it, even when they arrive at a keepers home and are finally placed in the correct setup. There are ways to get around this dilemma.

  • Hand-pick your green emerald swift in person. In many cases, we often buy reptiles through the internet sometimes without even seeing the actual animals. Usually, this isn’t a problem but in the case of the green emerald swift, I suggest buying them in person. Avoid emaciated specimens that look dehydrated. Choose bright-eyed, robust swifts that are active and free of blisters and other visual injuries. Also, avoid specimens thin at the waste or any that have crusty discharge emitting from the mouth and nostrils. Unless the seller can provide photos of the exact specimens you’re buying, you run the risk of purchasing a lizard who won’t acclimate or live very long.
  • Buy captive-born. Most green emerald swifts available through the pet trade are wild-caught but today I’m seeing more and more baby captive-bred specimens available. This is the best way to go. Often, a wild-caught female may drop babies after being captured. This is a captive birth and not a captive-born which is always bred while in captivity. Either way is a better option than those caught in the wild. The sooner you get ahold of your green emerald swifts and get them into the right setup, the more likely they’ll survive and thrive!
  • Have the right setup. While most Sceloporus (swifts and spiny lizards) are found in dry, desert terrains in North America, the green emerald swift is unique in that they are completely tropical. As such, mimic conditions as close to their place of origin for the best chance of success. Keep them humid and cooler than their desert counterparts.
  • Take your green emerald swift to a reptile competent veterinarian. Have it treated for parasites soon after purchase. There’s not much more to say about this step other than bringing the lizards fresh stool to the veterinarian for testing.

Take these four points seriously

Take these four points seriously and you’ll have a much greater chance at keeping green emerald swifts alive and thriving. Hopefully, you’ll even be able to produce offspring.

No worries, I’m going to walk you through the green emerald swifts complete husbandry needs. Don’t skip over any part of this, I’ve only scratched the surface so far.

Humidity level control
Sealing the top of the enclosure to retain high humidity levels. Do not place lighting domes directly on top of plastic wrap or anything else you use to seal the top of the vivarium. Cut holes through the covering for the domes. It doesn’t need to be super tight.

Setting up a vivarium the right way for green emerald swifts

One of the biggest keys to successfully keeping green emerald swifts is to have the right setup. These lizards are arboreal meaning they like to climb and hang out in trees. I keep one male with two females in an extra tall terrarium that’s three feet long and three feet tall.

This offers plenty of room for three but I wouldn’t add any more.

I also keep two Mediterranean house geckos with them

Mediterranean house geckos are nocturnal and their job is to pick up whatever roaches, worms, or crickets that are leftover from the days feeding. I decorate the enclosure with many long plastic hanging plants for both aesthetic appeals and for the lizards to have a place to hide and feel secure. This arrangement works out nicely. I also have a thermometer and a humidity gauge. You need to monitor the humidity so don’t skip the gauge.

Water source

For a permanent water source, I have a thin dish placed on the floor. For substrate, I recommend coconut husk because of its ability to hold humidity. As an alternative, paper towels work well since they also hold humidity (to a lesser extent) and they’re easy to change out. I’d rather completely remove the substrate after soiling than spot clean. Either choice is a good one.

I’d avoid sand or aspen-like substrates. Such substrates won’t help your case. I have two lights on opposite ends of the enclosure. One is a UVB bulb, the other is an 80-watt mercury bulb. The mercury bulb offers heat and a basking spot. Since these lizards don’t require extremely hot temperatures, the other bulb offers only UVB without heat. This gives the lizards plenty of room to thermoregulate their body temperature as needed. I have two under-the-tank heat mats which always stay on.

Make sure your lighting domes can withstand the wattage of bulbs that you use!

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.

Green Emerald Swift Facts

  • Experience level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Temperament: Docile to somewhat defensive
  • Family: Phrynosomatidae
  • Scientific name: Sceloporus malachiticus
  • Average adult size: 6 to 8 inches
  • Lifespan: 5 to 8 years
  • Hardiness: Relatively hardy under the right conditions
  • Stress level: Moderate to low
  • Food: Insects, sweet fruits
  • Reproduction: Livebearer
  • Breeding level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Average Temperature: 75-80°H/74°L
  • Humidity: 70-100%.
  • Habitat: Arboreal, semi-terrestrial
  • UVB lighting: Full spectrum lighting is required
  • Enclosure size: Medium to large depending on breeding intentions
  • Average price range: $10 to $30, sometimes higher

Properly raising humidity levels

To successfully keep these lizards, one must replicate their natural habitat. In this case, it’s the tropical cloud forests of Central America. These forests are very humid but temperatures aren’t as high as one might think. When it comes to temperature, keep the enclosure between 75 and 80°F during the day. Let it drop to room temperature at night.

As for the humidity, keep levels between 70 to 100% during the day allowing it to drop before turning the lights out at night. The lights should shine twelve hours a day. They’re on the equator, after all. This is easily done by sealing the cover with plastic wrap or something similar. I leave two openings for the light domes, the rest of the terrarium is fully covered.

How to raise humidity

To raise the humidity, turn the lights on in the morning allowing the temperature to rise a bit. Then after thirty or forty minutes, thoroughly mist the enclosure with water with a plastic sprayer. I spray the floor directly where the under the tank heat mats are. I also spray the plants, especially where the mercury bulb shines down. Do not spray bulbs directly.

How much water you need to spray to get the desired humidity level

It depends, experiment until you hit your mark. With the way I have my terrarium set up now, I raise the humidity to just under 90%. I spray the enclosure two times a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. As evening falls, I allow the humidity to descend because I don’t want any saturation after the lights go off. Refer to the photos I have posted.

The enclosure before misting with water.
The enclosure before misting with water.
Enclosure after misting with water.
Green emerald swift enclosure after misting with water. This brings the humidity up to just under 90%.

Feeding

Feed your green emerald swifts a variety of live insects including crickets, roaches, black soldier fly larvae, butterworms, silkworms, and hornworms. Occasional waxworms, mealworms, and superworms are okay on occasion. Remember that variety is the key to health.

Dust bugs with vitamin D3 powder to make them more nutritious

Also, use a quality multivitamin referring to the product label for how many times a week to use it. Feed mature adults every other day while feeding babies daily. Make sure the prey item is smaller than the lizards head and don’t overfeed. Overfeeding leads to regurgitation.

For worms and sometimes even crickets and roaches, I place such food items in a bowl which has a lip to inhibit their escape. I keep a small piece of fresh carrot in the bowl so the live food items stay hydrated and alive. Unfortunately, these lizards rarely take dead, freeze-dried, or pre-killed insects. The bugs have to move.

Cricket craziness

Be careful when it comes to leaving live crickets in the lizard’s enclosure overnight. Crickets may bite and bother the lizard while they sleep. If you’re not sure if any live crickets are still present, leave some greens in the enclosure. The crickets can use the greens as both a food and water source and shouldn’t nibble on your lizard.

I do this, but I also have two Mediterranean house geckos in the enclosure which I lovingly refer to as the nocturnal night crew. Their job is to eat leftover insects that survive the day. These geckos are extremely cheap and you can buy those originally intended for snake food. Save a geckos life today!

Luckily, green emerald swifts don’t usually sleep on the floor

The chances of a cricket munching on them overnight are far less likely than lizards that do. Crickets are not a must, they’re easily replaced by roaches, namely dubia and discoid roaches. Black soldier fly larvae are also on the top three list of staple feeder bugs. They’re high in both calcium and protein.

Most lizards readily take them. If they don’t, try some tough love. If they have nothing else to eat, they’ll eventually take the black soldier fly larvae. Just like eating out of a dish, lizards are also conditioned to taking certain foods.

Vegetation

Green emerald swifts are technically omnivores although they lean more towards meat. Still, these swifts will also take sweet fruits. I offer a variety of berries and chopped greens at least five days a week. Since I have a pair of uromastyx, I have the extra fruit and vegetables available to give them. They’re not going to eat vegetation like an iguana, but they will pick.

Sometimes, certain lizards depend on vegetation as a water source so it doesn’t hurt to have it available to them. In fact, offering primarily insectivorous lizards vegetation may actually be more important than many keepers think. This might be the missing piece of the puzzle in many situations.

This female green emerald swift handles easily.
This thriving female green emerald swift handles easily.

Handling the green emerald swift

Some green emerald swifts are easier to handle than others. I have a female who handles extremely well and never tries to flee when I have her out. My other female isn’t as nice and will even bite when she’s first picked up. The male doesn’t bite but is flighty. Back to the female who handles easily pictured to the right. I make it look easy, don’t I?

You may get lucky enough to find one that just chills out with you for however long. If not, wait until your new green emerald swift is completely acclimated and thriving. Then, slowly start a handling routine. Eventually, the odds are in your favor that your green emerald swift will tame down and tolerate handling. For the most part, the green emerald swift handles like all the Sceloporus family. Once you get them in your hand, they usually chill out.

Sometimes it’s actually hard to get them off your hand once you get them on. While the red-headed agamas are somewhat similar in handling, they’ll run up your arm to your shoulder, sometimes ending on your head or on your back. These swifts tend to stay in your hand once there. Never pull or handle a green emerald swift by the tail. They’ll readily drop it if you do.

Origin

The green emerald swift originates from the countries of Central America including Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. They are also found in southern Mexico. These lizards thrive at high elevations where nighttime temperatures may dip to just below freezing. While their days are long, they’re obscured by thick vegetative growth so they need to quickly warm up during the morning hours.

Keep these things in mind when planning the vivarium for these lizards. It never hurts to research the country’s climate and conditions when keeping exotic animals. Keep the vivarium humid but not saturated with standing water other than the dish they drink from.

Many specimens may not drink out of a water dish. Instead, they drink the dripping water on the sides of the terrarium or while being directly misted. It’s okay to gently mist these lizards directly for a few seconds if they’re not stressed out by it. If they dart away from you and the water bottle, avoid spraying them directly.

Size

The green emerald swift is somewhat of a smaller lizard reaching a maximum of seven to eight inches (including the tail). The size of the emerald swift is average to most lizards of the Sceloporus family. Incidentally, the largest of the Sceloporus is the blue spiny lizard who is found well north of the emerald swifts range (South Texas, Northern Mexico). Contrary to the emerald swifts, they inhabit desert-like conditions.

Baby green emerald swifts are delicate, tiny and treated as such. During this stage of their life, a smaller vivarium is suitable until you get them well started. Still, you must have two distinct zones which include a smaller basking spot, and a cooler area.

Instead of keeping a rocky cave on the floor for them to perch upon or hide within, substitute it with plants that range from the bottom to the top of the vivarium. They’ll use this for climbing and a place to seek shelter since they’re arboreal and not excessively terrestrial.

Shedding

When keeping these lizards at the proper temperature and humidity level, problems with shedding shouldn’t be an issue if the green emerald swift is healthy. It is imperative that you keep the humidity level above 70% during the morning and throughout the day. This will allow healthy green emerald swifts to easily shed out of their old skin.

If a problem with shedding arises while humidity levels are optimal, the swift may have parasites. This is why it’s best to treat any field-collected green emerald swifts for parasites by a reptile competent veterinarian as soon as you receive them. Poor shedding issues are also sometimes caused by nutritional deficiencies and stress.

Make sure your setup is big enough with plenty of places for the lizard to hide. When it feels more comfortable, it’ll spend more time out in the open. Refer to the feeding section which addresses proper dietary needs.

Lifespan

Wild-caught green emerald swifts, under the right conditions, may live three to five years, perhaps even a little longer. If you raise a captive bred specimen up from a baby and “close to perfect” husbandry and dietary needs are ultimately met, your swift may live nearly ten years. The truth is, we really don’t know how long a green emerald swift can live when placed under perfect conditions. Captive-bred specimens are still somewhat rare compared to adult imports.

Also, if proper husbandry and dietary needs aren’t met, even captive-bred specimens won’t live more than a few years at the most. This is why you must thoroughly research the animal you’re keeping and have it’s vivarium up and running perfectly before you get the animals! I can’t stress this enough. The reason many reptiles don’t fare well in captivity is when they’re bought on a whim. These are animals with special needs and requirements. There’s little room for error and no room for ignorance.

What to do if your green emerald swift gets sick

Take your green emerald swift to a qualified veterinarian if it gets sick. Also, check your setup to make sure everything is where it belongs. Be sure to keep a close eye on both the humidity and the temperature. While humidity levels are kept high, the ground shouldn’t be saturated to the point that it’s holding water in small ponds and pockets.

I like to allow time for the enclosure to dry up some before shutting down the lights in the evening. The most humid part of the day is morning and afternoon. If you turn on the lights at 9 AM, thoroughly mist the enclosure after thirty minutes. Mist again after lunch and perhaps a light misting by 5 PM. By 8-8:30 PM, the enclosure is fairly dry. This is to avoid upper respiratory infections.

Parasites

While there are several scenarios as to what made your green emerald swift ill, the most common problem is parasites. The veterinarian can treat that. I don’t want to get your hopes up though, severely emaciated green emerald swifts collected from the wild usually don’t recover. This is why I suggest that you pick these lizards up in person so you can look them over before buying them. Refer to this as “cherry-picking”.

Alternatively, you can ask for pictures if buying them over the internet. Buying green emerald swifts blindly is not recommended unless you trust the seller. Keeping green emerald swifts alive and thriving does take some ingenuity, but it’s certainly not impossible. There are much harder lizards to keep I can assure you.

Male green emerald swift
Male green emerald swift.

Emerald swift breeding

The good news is, green emerald swifts are livebearers so you won’t have to deal with retrieving and incubating eggs. Not that that’s too difficult but it’s definitely easier, especially for those new to breeding lizards. The bad news is, you really have to nail down the right conditions in order for them to breed.

They don’t leave much wiggle room for error.

Here’s what I suggest

Keep one male to two females in a spacious terrarium at least three feet long. If you can go bigger, all the better although humidity levels are more difficult to control in extremely large terrariums. Also, make sure the terrarium is at least three feet tall. These guys and gals are arboreal so being able to climb is important.

Next, make sure the humidity is above 70% throughout the morning and the entire day. The humidity levels can lower by evening. So, let’s summarize this.

To up your chances for successfully breeding the green emerald swift you’ll need the following:

  • A pair or trio of adult green emerald swifts
  • A spacious terrarium
  • Lots of hiding places, preferably in plants
  • Humidity of at least 70% for the morning and most of the day
  • Mist the terrarium at least twice a day simulating light rain
  • Temperatures ranging from 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Offer a variety of food

Gestation period

In my experience, the gestation period lasts from 4 to 5 weeks but 3 to 6 weeks is also possible. Feed babies pinhead crickets, and extra small roach nymphs. Babies could be so small that supplementing them with flightless fruit flies for the first few weeks might be helpful. They grow quickly when provided the right conditions.

Don’t overheat but at the same time, be sure to offer a basking spot. Also, don’t place two adult males in the same enclosure.

What about the photoperiod?

Reducing and expanding a photoperiod throughout the year is the way to breed many reptiles, especially lizards. In the case of tropical lizards living near or on the equator, the only difference from equinox to equinox is a little over an hour. So, these lizards receive an average of twelve hours of daylight throughout the year. This isn’t a dramatic enough change in the photoperiod to induce breeding.

I don’t see this as a problem or deterrent from breeding these lizards. Slight changes in temperature and daylight hours should induce breeding if all the other conditions for properly keeping green emerald swifts are ultimately met. Remember though, being on or near the equator calls for about twelve hours of daylight. Even so, these lizards aren’t as exposed to broad daylight like their North American cousins.

Have lots of plants in the enclosure for the lizards to completely hide themselves in. This is the one member of the Sceloporus family that I don’t keep a cave on the floor for hiding.

Conclusion

The green emerald swift is a beautiful and rewarding lizard to keep. They are the most common of the Sceloporus family found in the reptile trade and have been for decades. They do need certain requirements to survive, thrive, and breed.

I suggest a spacious and tall terrarium with no more than one male to two females. Keep the humidity up but don’t overheat your swifts. This is where the need for a spacious terrarium comes into play. Go for at least three feet in length of floor space. Also, don’t overfeed them because they’ll regurgitate. Feed adults every other day while feeding babies daily.

I also suggest going with captive-bred or captive-born over wild-caught specimens. They’re sure to acclimate better. Be patient and keep your eyes open, I’m seeing captive-bred specimens available more and more. With care and a little ingenuity, keeping green emerald swifts isn’t difficult.

Do you have experience with green emerald swifts you’d like to share? Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below!

A Helpful Guide to Green Emerald Swift Care

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Zack

    What vegetables and fruits do you feed your swifts? Just to get an idea, there is not much information online that I have found that point me in any direction. thanks!

  2. Avatar
    Snake Hacks Site Admin

    Hi Zack and thanks for visiting Snake Hacks. Emerald swifts and others from the Sceloporus family do eat small amounts of fruits and vegetables, especially in the wild. Those kept in captivity tend to skip over vegetation which is where a good multivitamin supplement comes into play. Nevertheless, I have witnessed emerald, blue, and granite swifts occasionally pick on fruits such as diced berries. These include blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Even strawberries aren’t out of the question. Diced mango may also be taken. Besides fruits, they may also take shredded greens such as collard, turnip, or mustard greens. They may also take small seeds and flowers but they‘re mainly carnivores. If you watch them closely and the lizards are well acclimated to their enclosure and comfortable being in captivity, you may notice them nibbling on plant matter from time to time. I see it now and then. Also, remember that they also nibble on vegetation for a water source and to keep hydrated. I hope this helps and good luck with your lizards!

  3. Avatar
    Kim

    What is the gestation period of a Swift pregnancy?

    1. Avatar
      Snake Hacks Site Admin

      Hi Kim and thanks for visiting Snake Hacks!
      In my experience 4 to 5 weeks but 3 to 6 weeks is also possible. Remember, this page is about emerald swifts and they bear live young as opposed to laying eggs. This is somewhat easier since you won’t have to incubate the eggs. Feed babies pinhead crickets, and extra small roach nymphs. I once had six blue spiny lizards (swift family) come in that were so surprisingly small I had to supplement them with flightless fruit flies for the first couple weeks.

      Best of luck in your breeding endeavors!

  4. Avatar
    Kim

    Thank you so very much! There’s so little info and most breeders do not seem to be willing to share info.
    I adore my swifts, Spartacus and Varinia. They have brought me many hours of joy.

    1. Avatar
      Snake Hacks Site Admin

      You’re most welcome! I’m always happy to help! It’s the purpose of this website.

  5. Avatar
    Kim

    Also, how many babies do they have at one time? How many clutches?
    Thanks again!

    1. Avatar
      Snake Hacks Site Admin

      As you know, the wonderful lizards bear live young which makes things easy. Depending on the lizard’s age, health, and size, the number of young a single mother can produce varies from 3 to 10. Sometimes 1 or 2 more.

  6. Avatar
    Kim

    You’re a awesome! Thank you!
    I liked your fb and subscribed to your YouTube. You’ve been so helpful.

    1. Avatar
      Snake Hacks Site Admin

      Thanks Kim, I truly appreciate you!

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