There are over 700 species of iguanas in over a dozen genuses.
Your iguana is known to herpetologists (people who study reptiles and amphibians) as Iguana iguana, or the common green iguana. Your iguana came from one of many countries in Central and South America, and was either caught in the wild or hatched in captivity from an egg laid by a wild-caught or captive pregnant female. Observers in Central America report that huge numbers of wild iguanas are being exported from El Salvador, a country which, though it is signatory to CITES, does not have-or does not care to have-the structure in place to monitor infractions. Captive breeding of iguanas is not yet successful enough to supply the demands of the pet trade.
Green iguanas (who may not be green when they reach adolescence or adulthood) live in the rain forests of Central and South America; the ones commonly found in pet and reptile stores come from Columbia, Honduras, Peru, Mexico and Surinam. Because of the destruction of the rain forests and the demands of the wildlife and pet trade, green iguanas are considered to be "threatened" and are listed on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This means that the exporters and importers must have special permits to move these reptiles across borders, but it is legal for anyone to buy them once they reach their destination. Other types of iguanas are in danger of extinction and have different import and export laws regulating them.
Young iguanas are very green and blend in well with their habitat - the leafy dim lower levels of the rain forest canopy. Their tail is striped to help them disappear while lying still on a branch; their spots and stripes of body color also help them blend in. Older iguanas live higher up in the canopy where it is lighter and drier; young iguanas require a more humid environment. All iguanas are excellent climbers, easily scaling up and down vertical surfaces. They are also proficient swimmers, holding their legs close beside their bodies and using their tail to propel them through the water, similar to the way crocodiles and alligators swim.
In the wild, iguanas eat lots of leaves, tender new shoots, flowers and soft fruits. They get some water from catching rain and condensation on the flowers and leaves of the trees, but most comes from their food. In the spring they eat the leaves of plants in the bean family that are high in protein. Despite the information commonly found in the pet literature, field and lab research has repeatedly shown that iguanas are not omnivores - the are strictly herbivorous and should be fed as such in captivity..
The daily routine of an iguana goes something like this: as the morning sunlight begins to penetrate the overhead forest canopy, the iguanas begin to move from their night sleeping places to a branch where they can soak up the sun's heat. After a few hours, they are warm enough to move around and forage for food. After climbing, searching and eating for a couple of hours, they move to a basking site to catch the afternoon sun; they must be warm enough to digest the food they have eaten before they go back to their night sleeping places. During the day, the iguana has to be on the look-out for bigger iguanas and for other animals who consider iguanas to be a tasty addition to their diet; young iguanas especially are near the bottom of the food chain, food for other reptiles, large amphibians, birds and mammals. (This also explains why your new iguana is terrified of you--he thinks you're a giant predator ready for an iguana snack.) During breeding season, male iguanas are looking for females, and females are generally trying to avoid overzealous males. Their days are filled with bursts of activity punctuated by long periods of quiet rest.
When you go to the pet store, you will likely be faced with one or more tanks of hatchling iguanas (2.5-3" svl), and possibly one or more older igs ranging from less than one year of age to several years. The older iguanas are all preowned - other people owned them, couldn't deal with their normal (untamed) behavior, or didn't want to deal with the daily grind of cleaning and feeding, or the iguana was sick and they didn't want to have to pay the necessary vet bills. So, how do you select a healthy one from all the iguanas available?
You will have to hold several iguanas. If the store isn't willing to take the time to pick out the ones you want to see, go elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are likely several stores in your area selling them, and you will be sure to find a store who will do this for you. Hold each iguana in both hands, using the fingers of one hand to gently move the arms, legs, and dewlap so that you can inspect the iguana from head to tail tip. Look for the following things:
Is the skin clean, clear, firm, free of scratches and bites? See the skin magnified 50 times (Bites and scratches may lead to infected abscesses later on.)
Is the belly free of burns? (Burns may heal, but the skin from then on may always be sensitive to bottom heat.)
Is the belly free from ground-in feces? (Dirty iguanas indicate an unsanitary environment and probably a weak and sick animal.)
Is the vent free of dried feces and urates? (Presence indicates a weak, and possibly parasite- and protozoan-loaded lizard.)
Can you feel the iguana resist you as you move its limbs? (Weakness or shakiness indicates a severely debilitated lizard or one suffering from calcium deficiency.)
Are the body, limbs, and tail free of lumps and bumps and swelling other than the joints? (Abscesses, cysts, and broken bones require veterinary care and treatment.)
Are there any black, dark reddish brown, or bright orange dots (mites) moving around the iguana's body (look especially carefully around the ears, armpits, and along the neck and dorsal crest)? (Indicates overall poor care and lack of concern in the store and possibly weakened and sick lizard.)
Are the back legs shaped normally, or is there a large hard knot in both thighs? (One hard swollen leg may be a broken bone; both similarly swollen is likely to be severe calcium deficiency.)
Are the limbs like twigs, or is there some flesh on the bones? Is the body extremely wrinkled, dull looking? (Emaciated, dehydrated; possible internal parasite and/or bacterial infections: requires veterinary care.)
Are the eyes bleary, weepy, crusted? (Possible respiratory infection or eye inflammation.)
Is the nose free of wet or dried mucous (note: salty deposits are normal)? (Bubbly or dried mucous indicates respiratory infection; requires veterinary care.)
Is the interior of the mouth pale or grayish pink? Stringy, ropey, or sheeting mucous? Small yellowish, whitish or greenish patches in gums, tongue or roof of mouth? (Gently pull down on the dewlap to open the mouth) (Systemic infection causing secondary mouth rot; requires veterinary care.)
Is the lower jaw swollen out equally on both sides? (Indicates probably metabolic bone disease.)
Are there any lumps or swellings on the face, neck, or dewlap? (Note: large sexually mature males often have large fleshy jowls surrounding the large subtympanic scale and soft swellings on the top of their heads--both of which are normal and healthy.) (Swellings, hard or soft, may be infected abscesses; requires veterinary care.)
A tamed, highly socialized iguana will be relaxed around strangers, although such a lizard may seek to climb to the holder's shoulder or head. It will be alert to its surroundings and respond positively to having its back or even head rubbed. Healthy hatchlings and untamed (whether or not pre-owned) juveniles and adults will be feisty and try to get away, may whip or crocodile-roll in trying to escape from your hands, and may be resistant to being picked up to begin with.
A sick baby, juvenile, or adult may still try to avoid being caught and held, and may still try to flee, but will do so with less strength, noticeable once you have them in hand. An iguana who just lays in the tank, uninterested in its surroundings, unresponsive in your hands, is either too cold or extremely ill, suffering from internal parasites and possibly systemic bacterial infection. If there are lateral folds (running along the ribs on the side of the body from the forelegs to hip area), this would indicate that the iguana is also likely moderately to severely dehydrated and emaciated (starving) as well.
Raising an iguana is neither easy nor something done quickly. Other than the information presented in this document, there are no real shortcuts. You are working with a wild animal, with the instincts and responses of a wild animal, including very strong ones surrounding the drive for self-preservation. A healthy baby iguana is going to fight to stay out of a predator's way...and when you begin your relationship, as far as he is concerned, you are out to hurt or eat him, and you make him very uncomfortable and insecure by placing him in situations and an environment where he is most vulnerable - alone without crowds of other iguanas who provide safety just by their presence. This is not a recommendation to get more than one iguana (one is hard enough to deal with to start) but that so you begin to realize why your iguana is thrashy and nippy, why he needs a hide box, why he won't eat when you are staring at him. In the wild, hanging out on its own, eating while alone, or sleeping in an exposed place alone is a pretty direct route into a predator's mouth.
by Melissa Kaplan
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