Red-eyed crocodile skink care (Crocodile skinks as pets)

Red-eyed crocodile skinks are quickly becoming a pet sensation in the United States, and elsewhere. These adorable critters are shy and reserved, but undeniably adorable. The large orange patches around their eyes give them an almost cartoonish aspect, and their dorsal and tail spines give them the appearance of having a direct ancestral link to the hallowed stegosaurus, or another prehistoric lizard.

What is a red-eyed crocodile skink? Also known by its Latin name, Tribolonotus gracilis, this species of skink is easily identifiable by the characteristic orange-red circles which surround its eyes, giving it the appearance of being more like a startled cartoon character than a shy tropical lizard!

Native to the island of New Guinea, in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, tucked in between Australia and the Philippine archipelago, red-eyed crocodile skinks are accustomed to hot and humid tropical climates. They live in the rainforests of the region, but have also adapted to live in areas populated by humans.

They also enjoy swimming, and like to have a section of water in their enclosure, for bathing. But these little critters aren’t amphibious. In the wild, they can often be found 4-5 inches above the ground, above forest floors, clambering over low branches and blending in with their environment.

During their short lifetimes, red-eyed crocodile skinks quadruple in size, from a teeny 2.5 inches to a more considerable 10 inches, at largest. They are lightweight and, owing at least in part to their gargantuan eyes, are morbidly cute.

They can be fidgety, and do not like to be handled much—though in captivity they differ greatly in temperament. Some red-eyed crocodile skinks are much more amenable than others, when it comes to petting, but in general they are pets for observation, rather than playing.

There’s a great deal of information to cover in this guide. Here’s a breakdown of what I’ll cover:

  • Crocodile skink facts
    • Appearance, lifespan, size, habitat, behaviors & handling
  • Cage setup
  • Tank size
  • Lighting
  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Substrate and plants
  • Drinking & swimming
  • Accessories
  • Cleaning and frequency
  • Food and diet
    • Different foods and their benefits
    • How often to feed
  • Common red-eyed crocodile skink health problems
  • Crocodile skink cost

As you can see, there’s a lot to get through! This is going to be a comprehensive and detailed guide, including everything you need to know about red-eyed crocodile skink care! When you’ve finished reading, please feel free to share this with anyone you know who might be interested in taking off on a journey to the world of red-eyed crocodile skink care.

Let’s get started.

The Basics

Appearance

The first thing you notice when you look at a red-eyed crocodile skink (or when you read its name…) are the large red-orange rings which encircle its eyes. This reddish orange coloration appears singed onto the skin, but also tricks your brain into thinking their eyes are twice the size they actually are.

Red-eyed crocodile skinks have creamy beige underbellies, and triangular or square-shaped heads. The spiky ridges which line their spine and tail give them a prehistoric, idiosyncratically reptilian look. These fascinating creatures look like they are from a bygone age, with hand-drawn eyes and dinosaur-like movements.

Lifespan

There is little to no documented evidence of red-eyed crocodile skink lifespan in the wild, but it has been recorded frequently that they tend to grow 5 years old in captivity. Specimens living to an age of 6 or 7 are not uncommon. If you’re at all familiar with the relative longevities of other reptiles, this lifespan will strike you as remarkably short!

For example, the African ball python regularly lives up to 30 years old in captivity, with the oldest ever specimen reaching the ripe old age of 47! By contrast, the longest a red-eyed crocodile skink has ever lived in captivity is a mere 12 years.

Average size

At birth, red-eyed crocodile skinks emerge from their eggs as small as 2.5 inches long, from nose tip to tail. During the course of their short lives, they can grow to four times that length, and reach a maximum of 10 inches long as fully grown adults. Still, that’s not all that huge—certainly not big enough to detract from their cuteness!

They tend to weigh in at between 36 and 45 grams (1.3—1.6 oz.). This lightness helps the red-eyed crocodile skink keep quiet while roaming the rainforest floor, or climbing trees.

Habitat

The red-eyed crocodile skink is indigenous to the island of New Guinea, which is split half between Indonesia (on the west) and Papua New Guinea (which controls the east). It inhabits humid, damp rainforests, and sometimes makes a home for itself in human-populated areas too.

Red-eyed crocodile skinks can usually be found hidden under forest debris—fallen branches and bracken, ferns and foliage. The cover provides safety from predators, which are a constant threat in the rainforest.

They also live near water, because they like to bathe regularly in shallow, slow-flowing water. Skinks are nimble climbers, but rarely climb higher than a couple of feet above the ground. Instead, they are more commonly found just 4 or 5 inches from the forest floor.

Sadly, as a result of persistent deforestation that is ongoing in many parts of the world, swathes of skink habitats are being destroyed. Fortunately, skinks are adaptable, and quickly flexed their evolutionary muscles. The replacement of their usual habitats with groves of coconut trees has not posed a major problem for skinks, who have now adapted to live in coconut plantations.

Behavior and Handling

Red-eyed crocodile skinks defy researchers and zoologists, who still cannot identify many of the creature’s habits with much confidence. For instance, it is not known at what time of day they like to explore, or hunt. Captive skinks have been observed coming out of their enclosures at night, but this could easily be attributed to the lack of visitors.

One thing that is known about red-eyed crocodile skinks is that they are very shy, reserved creatures. However, almost uniquely among lizard species, they have the ability to vocalize their discomfort. This vocalization makes it much easier to look after them, because you know for sure whether or not they are distressed.

As a rule of thumb, handling causes stress. If you hold a red-eyed crocodile skink, it will often simply freeze and pretend to be dead. Too frequent or abrupt handling can result in the skink calling out in distress, or even attempting to leap out of your grasp.

If it really feels threatened, a skink may even go as far as shedding its tail in defense. Obviously, if this happens, you really need to get your red-eyed crocodile skink to a safe zone, and give it some peace and quiet!

Crocodile skinks are observation animals, not handlers. If you’re looking for a pet which you can pet regularly, cuddle, and handle frequently, a crocodile skink is not the way forward. There are a bunch of other related animals which are more amenable when it comes to regular petting! Consider: blue-tongue skinks, bearded dragons, leopard geckos and crested geckos.

Red-eyed crocodile skink tank setup

What tank is suitable for red-eyed crocodile skink?

To recreate the red-eyed crocodile skink’s natural habitat, you first need to have a thorough understanding of that habitat. Like I said earlier, they hail from the island of New Guinea, and inhabit tropical rainforests.

They have evolved to live in humid environs, with a fair whack of heat (though not too much). They like to bathe regularly in shallow water, climb low branches, and hide whenever they please. As a result, space is more important than height–red-eyed crocodile skinks are more terrestrial than tree-borne. They can also be quite territorial, so keeping two males together is not recommended.

Actually, the same goes for keeping two females together. If you’ve got your heart set on it, make sure they have plenty of room to mark as their own—a water dish each, and so on. Territory disputes can get nasty quickly, which is not a situation you want to find yourself in!

Here’s a breakdown of all the things you should consider when preparing your red-eyed crocodile skink’s enclosure…

What size tank do you need for a red-eyed crocodile skink?

Aim for at least a base surface area of 30 x 12 inches or 18 x 18 inches. The bigger the better, within reason. Let’s face it, they’re unlikely to think ‘I’ve got too much space’, but it would be very sad if your red-eyed crocodile skink started thinking ‘I wish I had a little more space…’

Like I said, in terms of prioritization, height is second to space. A tank 12 inches tall will suffice. red-eyed crocodile skinks do not frequently climb higher than 12 inches from the forest floor in their natural habitats anyway, so your skink is unlikely to miss the added height. Having said that, again, the larger the tank, the more natural and free your skink will feel.

If you prefer to think in terms of volume, rather than lengths, widths and heights, then 20 gallons is a good starting point. This should give your skink (or pair of skinks) enough space to roam, explore, secrete themselves and sleep in peace.

Tank examples:

  1. Exo Terra Large-Wide All Glass Terrarium

This terrarium is a great size, at 36 inches long by 18 inches tall. This provides ample climbing height, and enough space for your skink to roam about. Skinks aren’t really climbers, so providing too much height can be dangerous—you don’t want your skink falling too far!

This enclosure also has two doors and a very secure lock to prevent escape. Its removable stainless steel cover allows easy access for you, and the good air ventilation means your skink will have plenty of air to breathe.

Approximately 30 inches wide by 12 inches tall, this tank does not come with any extras. Not only does this make it cheaper, but it also means you can customize your skink’s terrarium with complete freedom!

As this tank was built for aquatic use, it features a half-open window on one side for necessary filtering. This doubles up conveniently as a side window which you can use to mist and heat your skink’s enclosure.

Reptizoo is a well known and reputable name in the world of reptiles. Their items are manufactured to a high standard, and they understand what reptiles need. This enclosure is ideal for skinks: it is 36 inches wide, 18 tall and 18 deep.

It features a ceiling screen which provides great air ventilation, and freely allows for the ventilation of infrared and UV rays. Its raised bottom also means you can fit a heating mat underneath the tank without bolstering it with makeshift stilts. Its wide-opening doors allow for easy access, making this an all-round great terrarium for a skink.

Red-eyed crocodile skink temperature

Red-eyed crocodile skinks love to bask. Basking in the UV rays of direct sunlight allows skinks to take on Vitamin D and ultraviolet light. The end of result is an improvement in the strength of their bones—which is very important for overall health! I’ll get onto UV provisions below, in the lighting section.

They have evolved to relish the tropical humidity of New Guinea, but also its coolness when compared to the heat that desert-dwelling lizards like.

So these are conditions you should strive to emulate within the enclosure: a warm end in which to bask, and a cool end in which to lower its body temperature. Like all reptiles, red-eyed crocodile skinks are cold-blooded, and thermo-regulate by moving from place to place, rather than, for example, putting on a sweater, or wrapping up in a blanket!

To be sure that your red-eyed crocodile skink is comfortable 24 hours a day, I recommend installing a thermostat in its enclosure. If this is hooked up correctly to a thermometer, and to your chosen heating equipment (details below), then it will not only measure but also monitor and regulate the temperature of the tank. This investment on your part will prove invaluable in shaping the day-to-day experience of your pet skink.

Thermostat suggestions:

  1. iPower Digital Heat Mat Thermostat – Amazon’s choice of reptile thermostats, this may be the simplest and cheapest solution. It only works with low-powered heat mats, however, so if the ambient temperature in your home is relatively low, you might need something more powerful. Also, it lacks day or night variance and automatic cut-offs—this really is the no-bells-or-whistles option!
  2. Habistat Dimming Thermostat – This handy thermostat is very accurate and has some neat features such as pre-set temperatures, auto shut-off, and 2 plug sockets. The catch is: it’s not designed for non-light emitting heat sources.
  3. Vivarium Electronics VE-300 Thermostat – This recent upgrade comes with a whole host of great features. It is designed to sit on top of your enclosure, so you don’t have to worry about mounting it. It has a broad and accurate temperature control range and features auto shut-off, sound alarms, day/night variance, a digital display, 3-button keyboard and an expandable single outlet. The catch? The price, and it is also not recommended for use with incandescent bulbs.

Set up a basking lamp at one end of the tank, set to about 86 degrees F. Heating one side, as opposed to placing the heat source in the middle, allows for a temperature gradient within the enclosure. That way, the skink can move from high temperature to low temperature if it feels itself overheating.

Basking lamp suggestions:

  1. 75W Exo Terra Sun Glo – Each bulb should last around 6 months, so this 4-pack should last you through 2 years.
  2. A regular old bright white bulb! It may sound too simple to be true, but these are very effective, depending on the wattage and position. Regular white filament bulbs are often between 50 and 75 watts, and put out a good amount of heat. Position it correctly (use a thermometer to gauge the temperature accurately) and it will provide all the heat your skink needs.

Set your thermostat to keep the cooler end of the tank at approximately 70-75 degrees F during the day. At night, it can drop down to 65.

What if I lose power?

Great question! If you have a power outage, it’s important to give your skink something to last it through until when the power comes back on. A simple hot water bottle can be a life saver, or if you are more prepared, get hold of some rechargeable hand warmers. They can last up to 10 hours, so are more convenient than a hot water bottle.

Red-eyed crocodile skink lighting

You can also place a UVB lamp at the ambient temperature of the tank. Despite being mostly nocturnal, red-eyed crocodile skinks also show increased activity during the cool, twilit hours of dusk and dawn. These are actually popular basking hours among crocodile skinks. To ensure a healthy dose of ‘sunlight’ and healthy bones, a UVB spectrum light with a 24 hour diurnal cycle can prove incredibly helpful.

Red-eyed crocodile skink humidity 

Red-eyed crocodile skinks inhabit the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. As such, they have evolved to live in highly humid environments—more humid than many other lizards, many of which live in the desert.

What is the required humidity level?

They need a humidity level of 70-90%, and are most comfortable when they have access to a source of running water, and are serviced by an automated misting system. This may all seem very high-tech and expensive, but actually you can get the necessary equipment at affordable prices. Placing a few living plants in the enclosure is a good way of naturally regulating the humidity level.

What if it’s too dry?

If the atmosphere is too dry, dust will float more easily, and airborne viruses can proliferate. Both of these can be highly irritable, and even dangerous, to the red-eyed crocodile skink.

Dust can cause infections to take root in the skink’s delicate skin, and inflammation can occur. Naturally, inflammation can cause perforations in the skin which can get infected—this is bad news.

Here’s the tricky part…

Again, as crocodile skinks are cold-blooded, they do not have homeostatic systems in place like we do. Instead, they must regulate their temperature and hydration levels by moving from one place to another, depending on the local humidity and temperature levels. The upshot of this is: you should also ensure that your pet skink has a drier place where it can go if it likes.

Red-eyed crocodile skink substrate and accessories 

Choosing the right substrate is paramount. It will improve your red-eyed crocodile skink’s mental health immeasurably, and could drastically decrease your workload at the same time!

Skinks like humidity. Some substrates are particularly good at maintaining the humidity level within an enclosure. If you don’t lay down a substrate, or choose an unsuitable substrate, you can mist the enclosure a dozen times a day and it will still be too dry, because there is nothing to hold the moisture.

Here are some substrates which I recommend, with a brief description of the pros and cons of each, and some purchase links.

Peat Moss and Coco Fiber – e.g. this Zoo Med Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber

These both retain moisture well, and allow your pet skink to burrow under the surface, if it so wishes. They are not particularly known for this, but many reptiles are, and it is always good to provide the option.

Coco bricks – e.g. this Zoo Med Eco Earth Pack

Once moisturized, this substrate functions in basically the same way as coco fiber.

Coco Coir

This is primarily a hydroponic growing medium. It is manufactured form the fibrous coat of the coconut fruit. It feels very much like soil, retains moisture well, and provides a pleasant living environment for your pet skink. Amazingly, it can absorb up to 10 times its weight in water, meaning the tank will not get dehydrated.

It is environmentally safe, insect-neutral and does not require much maintenance. Three brands you can try are:

  • CANNA Coco 40L bricks
  • Canna Coco 50L bags
  • Fox Farms 2cu. ft. bags

Orchid bark – e.g. this 10 Liter Pettex Reptile Substrate

This substrate can be fine for some reptile species, but chunks should be filtered out. This is because, if swallowed, they can cause irritation as animals are not equipped with stomachs that can break it down. They can stick in the gut and absorb moisture, and may require surgery to remove.

Orchid bark is made from fir trees. It holds humidity well and is low in dust, but provides many convenient spots for mites to hide. Mixed with coco fiber and covered with leaf litter, orchid bark can form a great substrate for a naturalistic feel—the issue is with chunks that are small enough to swallow.

Artificial substrates such as newspapers or tissue paper

These are obviously cheaper and easy to come by. You probably have free access to at least some of each right now!

I advise against pet litters which are advertized as ‘clumping’ or ‘scoopable’, like corn cobs, kitty litter or clay litter. These often contain clumping agents like silica or bentonite. Materials which clump can stick to reptile tongues and get into digestive systems. Once swallowed, they can be very harmful to the delicate intestines of a skink, or any other small reptile. Sharp particles can also enter the mouth or cloaca and wreak havoc. Finally, the dust they produce can cause respiratory problems. Basically, avoid them!

Do NOT use soil or sand: your red-eyed crocodile skink might end up eating it, which can lead to intestinal impaction. Skinks cannot digest soil or sand, so any such material would block the passage through the stomach, which can cause severe health problems.

The key criterion to keep in mind when selecting your substrate is good humidity retention. Whichever substrate you select, lay it down somewhere between 4 and 6 inches thick.

Red-eyed crocodile skink water setup

Provide your red-eyed crocodile skink with a broad, heavy-based, shallow water dish. The water should be shallow so that your skink can comfortably drink from it, without being submerged and without craning its neck to drink or breathe. One inch deep is sufficient – remember, the small size of these skinks means that they don’t need to drink very much per day.

Don’t forget: these skinks like to swim! A deep-end pool in which your pet skink can actually swim is a great addition to its vivarium.

Red-eyed crocodile skink tank accessories and hiding spots

Now that you’ve got the formalities out of the way, you can have fun decorating your red-eyed crocodile skink’s enclosure. Just be mindful that you’re decorating with your skink’s priorities at heart, rather than your own tastes!

You can add many things to your skink’s enclosure to make it feel more like a home. For example, rocks, logs and small trees provide spots to climb and hide, and dark, shaded areas in which to find peace. The trees could be natural or fake; both come with advantages and disadvantages.

Natural vs. fake plants

Natural trees are lovely, and are preferable for your red-eyed crocodile skink. They oxygenate the tank and provide some of the atmosphere of a rainforest. However, they require maintenance. Fake plants are much easier to handle, require no attention, and are often affordable too. One thing to watch out for is toxic plastics and disinfectants.

Whether you go for a natural plant or a fake one, ensure that it is free of toxins before placing it in the tank! The ingestion of scraps of fake plant leaves and/or bark can lead to intestinal impaction, which can be very dangerous.

Hide boxes and ‘snake caves’

Crocodile skinks are shy. In the wild, they spend much of their time hiding underneath logs, rocks or leaves in order to escape the tropical sunshine. In order to avoid stress in captivity, you should provide covered spaces where your skink can lie low.

You can arrange logs and rocks into makeshift shelters, or buy specially made hide boxes and snake caves from online or in-store retailers. These are especially useful if you have two red-eyed crocodile skinks together in the same enclosure, as they are built with reptilian solitude in mind. Besides, it may be more space-efficient to have a purpose-built hide box.

Tank cleaning and frequency

Regular maintenance is fundamental to your skink’s physical and mental health. Frequency depends on the number of skinks present in the tank, the tank’s size, and the eating and defecation habits of each skink.

When cleaning, look out for:

  • Skink droppings
  • Vomited food (check with a veterinarian if vomiting occurs regularly)
  • Dead or rotten insects
  • Dead plants
  • Broken or chewed plant matter
  • Dead skin

Check the tank over twice per week, and spot clean as necessary. This involves removing feces or any of the above substances.

Replace the shallow water daily, and if you have a deepwater pool, replace the water in it once per week.

Deep clean the tank once a month—or, if you can’t afford to replace the substrate that often, then dilute deep cleaning to once every 2-4 months. The important thing is to be mindful of your skink’s health!

Red-eyed crocodile skink food and diet 

Red-eyed crocodile skinks are insectivores. This means they only eat insects. That’s why I suggest giving them ample quantities of a variety of insects. Possible foods include: earthworms, mealworms, beetles, silkworms and crickets. Over time, you will become familiar with your skink’s individual tastes, and be able to provide for them.

Variety is the spice of life, and the same goes for insectivores! Even if your pet skink shows a clear preference for a pure cricket diet, throw something else into the mix occasionally. Crickets are relatively low on vitamins and nutrients, so a few mealworms or cockroaches can even up the score.

Another effective way to overcome dietary deficiencies is to dust your skink’s food with vitamin powders, such as Vitamin D3 and calcium. This is especially useful during the juvenile stage.

Diet and frequency go hand in hand. Adult skinks only require a large meal every 3 days or so. Newborns should be fed daily, or every other day. If your skink is unwell, contact your veterinarian or local expert for advice on how you should change its feeding schedule.

Loosely monitor your skink’s feeding and defecation patterns to ensure it is eating, and littering, healthily.

Feeding checklist:

  • Roaches, silkworms, mealworms, earthworms, red worms, beetles, and crickets are all good feed for red-eyed crocodile skinks.
  • They like live food.
  • Insects should be no bigger than the width of the skink’s head (ideally half this size).
  • Worms can be larger, because they are pulpy and soft.
  • Hatchlings and young lizards should feed once per day.
  • Adults should feed every 2 or 3 days.
  • Gut-loaded insects are ideal (feed sects on kale or endive and carrots (for extra vitamin A) for 24 hours before feeding them to the skink.
  • Dust the food with vitamins to ensure good health.

Crocodile skink health problems

Very little is known about red-eyed crocodile skink diseases and parasites. Apparently healthy wild-caught animals have been known to die suddenly, even after years in captivity.

When purchasing, look out for:

  • A body free of external parasites, wounds and deformities.
  • Clear, shiny, alert eyes.
  • Alert demeanor.

The most likely ailments to befall a red-eyed crocodile skink are those associated with vitamin deficiencies:

  • Metabolic bone disease (lack of calcium and/or vitamin D3) can be prevented by dusting food items, every other meal, with calcium powder and vitamin D3 supplements.

How much does a red-eyed crocodile skink cost?

You may be dreading how much a red-eyed crocodile skink will cost. Well I’m pleased to let you know that they are actually quite affordable! They are bred in captivity and are often available in stores, as well as online. I recommend going in store, as you can ask questions of the owner or breeder, check that it is healthy, and take it home yourself.

Red-eyed crocodile skinks can cost anywhere between $120 and $170. The prices depends on a variety of factors, including age, health and sex.

Do red-eyed crocodile skinks bite? You might be thinking that these barnacled, spiny reptiles must have a vicious bite. Actually, the simple answer is: no they don’t. Generally speaking, they are harmless, and actually very shy. However, the flipside of this is that their antisocial tendencies can make them quite defensive. They might scream at you if they feel over-handled and distressed, and will resort to scratching you if they feel really threatened.

CONCLUSION

I hope you learned everything you needed to learn about red-eyed crocodile skinks! If you have any questions, post them in the comments below. If there’s anything else you want to know, there are a bunch of videos online on how to set up enclosures for crocodile skinks, what they are like as pets, and so on.

As always, we’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences relating to red-eyed crocodile skinks. Do you own one? Does your friend own one? Do you want one for Christmas?

Share this guide with anyone who might be interested.

And good luck on your crocodile skink adventure!

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