What Is An Iguana

When most people imagine iguanas, they picture small lizards scurrying around a tank. 

In reality, iguanas aren’t for the faint of heart, but these reptiles are so unique you may just want to plunge ahead with getting one.

Caring for them is work, and they require a lot of space and food. 

But if you want to get one you should be able to answer:

What is an iguana?

In this article, we’ll go over the details about iguanas and how to take care of them.

If this wasn’t what you were thinking, go check out some of the best pet lizards for different owner levels. 

Table of Contents

Description Of The Iguana

Iguanas are a genus of lizards with only two surviving species to this day. 

The full scientific name of this genus is Animalia Chordata Reptilia Squamata Iguania Iguanidae Iguana.

The two species are the iguana or green iguana and the iguana delicatissima or Lesser Antillean iguana.

Even this causes some confusion as there is a related genus called Cyclura, which is also known as the rock iguana genus. 

These animals are closely related to iguanas, and each of these nine species and eight subspecies is also called iguanas in common English speaking.

In terms of ownership, the two genera are on equal terms, with the Green Iguana being the most common species used as a pet.

Adult iguanas of any species tend to be quite long, with males ranging between 5′ – 6′ feet (1.83 m) from nose to tail.

Iguanas have some characteristic physical features which are present in all iguana species:

Despite their large size and fearsome look, Iguanas are herbivores and only eat vegetation.

Many species in both genera have no teeth or very small teeth good for only chewing on vegetation.

As such, their main forms of protection are their coloration and speed.

Iguanas have evolved to match the colors of their surroundings as a camouflage generally. 

They are also capable of staying still for long periods when threatened and feel safe when holding or at least being near coverage.

The iguana’s muscles are made of glycolytic muscle fibers. 

These fibers are capable of burning up energy at a rapid rate resulting in instant fast speeds needed to escape predators.

As with many lizards, iguanas change colors to some degree depending on age, mood, and mating status. 

However, they don’t change in the same way as many think when they imagine a reptile-like a chameleon. 

Iguanas have longer lifespans depending on species, but most will end up living 10-20 years if cared for correctly. 

They’re known to live longer than this, and the blue iguana (genus Cyclura) is the longest-lived with one having lived over 60 years.

Sadly, most captive iguanas aren’t cared for as they grow. 

Many owners try to keep them in small spaces, feed them too little, or don’t provide the higher temperatures needed.

This results in many iguanas never even reaching the 10-year mark. 

Habitat

In this section, we look at the habitat requirements of iguanas by studying their natural habitats and making captive enclosures or pens matching their needs.

It’s important to note iguanas in Iguana and Cyclura have similar needs for habitats, but there are some small differences. 

We’ll always start with the most common, iguana (Green Iguana), and then note any differences afterward.

Habitat In The Wild

Iguanas are native to tropical areas in the Western hemisphere, specifically the following areas: 

Iguanas are arboreal, which means they spend much of their time up and climbing on trees or other things around their environment. 

Unlike the chameleon, which is exclusively arboreal, the iguana is known to spend time on the ground as it needs.

As such, the iguana will need high temperatures and higher humidity as well as many things to interact and climb on in their captive habitats.

It’s worth noting; iguanas can dig quite well and also jump up to 2′ feet (0.61 m) high.

Cyclura iguanas hail from islands and have evolved with even more specific requirements. 

Generally, they don’t need as much humidity as Iguana but are otherwise the same for habitat. 

Cyclura spends more time on the ground.

Enclosure Size And Material

In captivity, it’s our job to provide an enclosure best matching their natural habitat.

Note: The information for the rest of this section is specifically for the Green Iguana (iguana iguana) but will transfer to other iguanas and rock iguanas (Cyclura).

Starting as babies, iguanas may be kept in a 20 gallon (ca. 76 l) aquarium with a secure top. 

Remember, iguanas are jumpers and climbers.

Once an iguana reaches 18″ inches (ca. 46 cm), it’s time to move them to their pen.

They MUST have at least enough space to run and turn around. 

If they grow to be 5′ feet (1.52 m) long, this means at least 8′ feet (2.44 m) long, 5′ feet (1.52 m) wide, and 6′ feet (1.83 m) high.

However, for best health, 12′ feet (3.66 m) long, 6′ feet (1.83 m) wide, and 6′ feet (1.83 m) high pen would be better.

Make sure the sides, walls, and roof are secure. 

Chain Link fencing is a common option.

Remember to also dig the fencing down into the ground as iguanas can dig. 

We recommend going down 2′ feet (0.61 m) if possible.

If you have this space inside, it’s possible to keep it in your house, but this makes reaching the high temperatures more difficult.

Most people keep the adults outside in hot weather, making this a good pet for people in the Southern United States.

Temperature

Hailing from the equator, your iguana pet will need a high temperature in their enclosure. 

As with other cold-blooded reptiles, you should provide different levels of temperature in the pen.

This will help them better regulate their body temperature.

As a tropical creature, you want to aim for a basking spot of 120° degrees Fahrenheit (49° C).

Then, the rest of the pen should still be around 100° degrees Fahrenheit (38° C). 

A cool spot/hiding spot should also be provided, which is around 80° degrees Fahrenheit (27° C).

At night, it’s fine to turn off the heaters and let the temperature drop. 

This better simulates the natural day-night cycle and allows the iguana to rest better.

The important thing to watch is to make sure the nighttime temperature stays above 65° degrees Fahrenheit (18° C).

The heating is best done through powerful overhead heating lights over the basking spot. 

Incandescent lights or ceramic lights do a good job.

When you have enough to heat the basking spot, the rest of the pen should naturally reach the temperatures it needs. 

The lights should be above the iguana. 

This stimulates the iguana’s third eye membrane on its head to help it regulate its body temperature.

Warning! Don’t use heating rocks or other ground-based heating elements as this will burn the iguana.

Lighting

Iguanas are exposed to a lot of sunlight in their natural habitats, so they need it in their captive habitats as well.

If you’re in the South with hot temperatures, and the pen is outside, you may not need to worry about providing much extra lighting.

However, any indoor areas need to have extra and ample UVA and UVB lighting.

Keep a row of fluorescent UVB bulbs for reptiles next to the heating lights. 

These, like the heating lights, should be kept on for 12 hours per day and turned off at night.

UVB lighting is important for providing enough vitamin D to help the reptile absorb more calcium and other nutrients.

The iguana, as with most other reptiles, has a strong tendency to develop calcium deficiencies in captivity. 

This results in weaker skeletal systems or metabolic bone disease.

Either of these may result in injuries, permanent deformities, and even death.

Note: Be sure to use a UV bulb made for reptiles. 

Other bulbs may offer the correct output or penetration to reach the iguana. 

Humidity

As a tropical species, the iguana needs a higher humidity. 

However, this isn’t as much of a concern as with other sensitive reptiles like the chameleon.

Aim for a consistent 50% humidity, and your iguana should be just fine.

Keep track of this with a good hygrometer in the pen. 

Put the hygrometer in the middle of the pen, not in the basking spot.

If the pen is kept outside, there’s a chance it may get too dry. 

Combat this by keeping a large water dish in the pen at all times and periodically misting down the pen.

Rock iguanas, Cyclura, generally don’t need to be as humid in an environment, but they will do well with similar requirements. 

Furniture

A good balance of real and fake items work for iguana enclosures. 

Real plants raise oxygen levels, humidity, provide cover for hiding, and give spots to climb.

Real or fake logs and rocks are good things to include as well because they give the iguana something climb or rest on.

Other handmade or purchased climbing perches are always a good thing to add.

For real plants, any large non-toxic or non-poisonous plant is good. 

Hibiscus plants are a popular choice and provide something to snack on if the pet gets hungry.

Any fake items need to be safe for pets and be untreated with other chemicals.

Real plants the size for a large pen are often treated with insecticides by the greeneries where they’re kept.

Remove these chemicals by spraying down the plants and letting it sit outside the pen for two weeks before adding it to the enclosure.

This time will allow the insecticide to deactivate, making it safe for your pet.

Substrate

For baby and juvenile iguanas (before they move into their big enclosure), plain rabbit pellets or alfalfa pellets are a good choice. 

It helps retain heat and humidity, but they’re also safe to eat.

Iguanas won’t actively eat their substrate, but they do accidentally ingest them often.

When the iguanas get bigger, mulches make good options for a substrate. 

Cypress mulch and coconut fiber mulch are a great option.

As with the furniture, we recommend buying from pet companies where possible. 

Hardware stores and greeneries often use chemicals to keep things fresh and insects off of them.

Mulch especially may be treated with a weed-preventer, which could make your pet sick.

The water and resting method are tougher to remove chemicals from mulch, so do your best to buy from a pet-safe brand whenever possible.

Water

A large water dish should be kept filled with clean, de-chlorinated water at all times.

As with most reptiles, the iguana will also bathe in the water to absorb moisture through their skin. 

If possible, make your water dish large enough for the iguana’s body to fit into, but not so deep they are submerged.

Baby and juvenile iguanas should be misted down once per day. 

Even adult iguanas will benefit from a good misting once per day, but this is less necessary as the iguana is better at seeking water when it needs it as an adult. 

Cohabitation

Reptiles generally aren’t good at sharing spaces. 

This being said, the iguana is better than most.

Still, male iguanas shouldn’t be kept in the same space. 

One male and one female or two females of similar size may be kept in the same pen with few difficulties.

If you do decide to cohabitate, make sure to increase the enclosure’s dimensions exponentially.

For two iguanas, consider at least 18′ feet (5.49 m) long by 12′ feet (3.66 m) wide by 6′ feet (1.83 m) tall. (Don’t forget 2′ feet (0.61 m) down, either).

Behavior

One of the main draws of the iguana is its fun behaviors. 

This reptile gets tamed fairly easily and is generally quite docile.

It won’t bite unless it feels extremely threatened. 

It’s one of the safest pets to get.

Here are some of their common behaviors. 

Head Bobbing

Head bobbing is the main method of communication between iguanas. 

There are different general ideas conveyed along with other movements and behaviors: 

Hiding/Cooling

The iguana may spend much of its time hiding in the plants you have around the enclosure. 

This isn’t a sign of fear.

Hiding is a form of cooling body temperature. 

The iguana also needs to hide to feel relaxed and restful throughout the day.

Sneezing

Many new iguana owners will be concerned with excess sneezing from their iguanas. 

This is normal regulatory behavior on their part.

Sneezing rids the iguana’s body of extra salt. 

Dewlap Movement

The dewlap or hanging fold of skin beneath their head also communicates. 

A relaxed dewlap shows feelings of safety.

If the dewlap is tucked under the chin, the iguana is showing submission to a larger iguana.

When the dewlap stands out straight, the iguana is threatened and tries to appear as large as possible to deter the threat. 

Body Compression

Along the same lines as the dewlap, body compression is a sign of stress. 

Normally, the iguana is generally round.

When you see the iguana get thin but pressed up taller, the reptile is trying to deter threats. 

Hissing/Clicking

A hissing and clicking combination will also occur when the reptile feels threatened. 

Tail Twitching

Watching the tail motion is another way to gauge the stress level of your pet. 

When the tip of the tail twitches, the iguana is on alert.

This is important to realize because it’s completely different from dogs and cats.

Rapid thrashing shows the iguana is in full-defense mode. 

Eyes

Different behaviors in the eyes also communicate.

Eyes closed with a round body, and no tail motion show trust and relaxation.

Eyes closed with a stretched body, and dewlap shows the iguana is overwhelmed and stimulated.

Interestingly, when the iguana keeps its eyes locked on an animal (or you) as unblinking as possible, this is a glare and warning just like humans do. 

Health

Like all creatures, iguanas have health concerns you need to be aware of if you’re thinking about adopting one of these fearsome reptiles.

This section goes over their health basics, including lifespan, size, and common health concerns.

Lifespan

The life span of the iguana depends on care and species. 

In general, Cyclura tends to live a little longer than Iguana, but 10-20 years is a good range for either genus.

Unfortunately, most owners won’t see this number unless they provide the correct habitat we describe above.

If well cared for, the iguana can outlive the 20-year mark. 

The longest ever recorder iguana life was a blue iguana who lived for over 60 years.

But this isn’t typical. 

Size

Adult male iguana of either genus typically reaches 5-6 ft (1.83 m) in length from nose to the end of their tails. 

It may take up to four years for the iguana to reach this length.

The weight of iguanas varies greatly depending on species, with the Cyclura tending to weigh quite a bit more than the Iguana.

For example, though the Green iguana may end up longer than the Blue iguana, the Green iguana will typically end up between 15-20 lbs, but the Blue iguana lands around 30 lbs.

Females are smaller than their male counterparts by a third in both body length and weight. 

Tails remain similar in size. 

Common Illnesses

Iguanas are usually tough creatures, not tending towards actual illness (most of their health problems come from stress due to incorrect habitat).

Here is a brief description of the three common illnesses and how to prevent them:

Kidney Disease: This is caused by dehydration and too much protein in the diet. 

Make sure you follow the recommended diet and provide clean water at all times.

Metabolic Bone Disease: This is a calcium deficiency. 

Make sure you provide ample UVB and sprinkle the food with a calcium supplement 1-2 times per week.

Respiratory Infections: These breathing infections are caused by a habitat which is too cold and too damp. 

There is also an indication of mold and unclean substrate being a factor.

Warning signs of illness include: 

Diet

Feeding your iguana properly is a daily chore, but it’s simple in its execution.

Feed the iguana once per day. 

Remove any leftover food the next day with fresh food.

Iguanas won’t gorge themselves and will stop when they’re full.

Put the food in a large food dish.

Fresh food should contain: 

All greens should be chopped or shred small enough to be swallowed whole.

These fresh foods may make up anywhere from 30-100% of your iguana’s diet, but it’s up to you to manage this and keep the balance.

Alternatively, many expert owners do a 50-50 balance of commercial iguana food and fresh foods.

The commercial foods provide a good balance of nutrition and easy use. 

Most owners would use all reptile pellets if they could.

However, most iguanas will only respond if there is some fresh food too.

1-2 times per week, you should sprinkle a calcium or multivitamin supplement on the food. 

Care

Caring for the iguana isn’t hard, but it does require daily work. 

Here’s what you need to do: 

Handling the iguana is encouraged to a certain extent. 

Iguanas don’t typically bite and learn to recognize their owners.

Some owners will even take their iguanas on walks (with a strong harness, these guys are fast).

Keep hands where the iguana can see them when going to handle them and look for signs of stress (see behaviors above).

Reproduction

Iguanas reproduce in the dry season of their native lands. 

They show they’re ready to mate through behavior and brightening colors.

Males will seek out females and indicate a desire to mate through head bobbing and waving their dewlap. 

Females will similarly show acceptance.

The male mounts the female and bites onto her neck to hold her in place, which does cause scarring in some cases.

He then inserts one of two hemipenes and copulates. 

During the mating season, males and females will mate with multiple partners depending on proximity to other iguanas.

The female may store the sperm inside her for years in case of a lack of males in future seasons.

When ready, the females will lay eggs in several nests in the ground and never return. 

It takes 3-4 months for the eggs to hatch. 

Supplies Needed

Species

Here are the species separated by genus.

Genus: Iguana

Genus: Cyclura

Warning! Many iguana species are protected or considered endangered. 

Even if a dealer will sell one to you, be sure to check your local and national laws regarding the keeping of pets.

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