For the purpose of this write up I am going to address some of the common concerns owners face during this time of year, hopefully answer a few commonly asked questions while offer a few tips on maintaining those specimens that may otherwise become ‘difficult’. In my rescue experience one of the main reasons owners loose their confidence with these wonderful animals is due to some misconceptions, my personal hope is that it will help reduce rescue figures and offer additional insight, sadly it’s common that some owners feel like they are failing due to some of these complicated behaviors because we as humans will apply abstract thoughts to reptile behavior and read things that are sometimes not there. Owners in breeding season sometimes get disheartened never knowing if the behaviors are normal, whether it is a husbandry problem, or whether the behaviors being directed are simply the animal not liking them.
Every year there is so much conjecture on how we should manage our in season males, some are fantastic ideas, some in my opinion are just ludicrous, dangerous and potentially misleading (even in care standard literature and websites) though even more interestingly every year seems to differ between individual to individual. Some owners may not have any behavior issues one year but then have it the next, why this is exactly I am not entirely sure, though some consideration and interest is now also being given to barometric air pressure and magnetic fields and the effects on reptile behavior.
I have a huge interest as a passionate enthusiast with breeding season and these remarkable animals, furthermore interesting my conversations with owners in other parts of the world notably those owners living in the southern hemisphere there males reportedly can sometimes go into breeding season for sometimes longer than there natural cousins do (4-6 months of the year in some cases). For us in the UK , breeding season appears to start anywhere between November and anywhere up to February (give or take a month) though there are sometimes the odd exceptions.
What are the signs?
1. One of the first signs a male is going into season is owners notice a display wonderful vibrant orange color across their spikes, (this can sometimes happen with females) and sometimes across varying parts of the body. In the wild these signals are suspected to be used to entice “attract” females to their territory and it has been speculated along with femoral pore enlargement and inflation of jowels, possibly another device used to intimidate other rival males.
2. Behaviors that follow soon after is he may begin displaying a full repertoire of vertical, and horizontal head-bobs, each bob has a unique individual meaning, and no iguana will ever be the exact same as each male will also have a unique signature bob, in the wild this might be used to differentiate one male from another, or one territory over another. Very few animals can compete with the amazing complex body language and signals they display at this time of year and IMO, it is a truly amazing time of the year, one time of the year we will see our males at their very best.
Unfortunately however, male iguanas are well known to be highly territorial in season, while this isn’t always true dependent upon individual and in the confines of captivity their complex strategies of survival that have kept them alive for tens of millions years can frustratingly be directed towards their owners this can be very disheartening for some since most of us like to be able to interact with our animals to a degree seeing all of our hard work with conditioning or taming them down over so many months appear to just go down the drain. Iguanas sometimes take there frustrations out on us, unfortunately being in an alien environment they wont differentiate seeing us as possible other rivals and in some rare instances they may see us as a potential mate. I remember the first breeding season I had with my current male Albus very well, I had him outside on my shoulder, and felt a nip on the back of my neck though thought nothing of it, the next I felt weird movement and turned around to see he had bitten part of the material of the green coat I was wearing, I took my coat off with him still attached and observed him for 20 minutes after do his “Business with it” since then that coat has been his breeding season friend, he could have it. Years after though, he became so territorial I found myself in the position where I had received very serious bites from him so had to adapt other methods on how to safely maintain him, please owners understand that you are not doing anything wrong with this kind of behavior, it is simply what they do, it is what makes them iguanas and it is programmed into their very being, these instincts are chemically and hormonally embedded down into their very DNA just as all life has been.
3. Iguanas WILL go off there food, it is actually quite normal for an iguana to stop eating for some months during their breeding season period, some specimens may still eat, others might only eat every few days, others might only nibble. It varies from individual to individual but going of there food for 2-3 months is perfectly normal behavior, this is one of the huge worries owners have when going through it their first time. This isn’t surprising considering reptile keeping has became so indoctrinated that “eating and breeding” = healthy animals, though more and more this line of thought is beginning to become more frowned on as not always being the case, conservation effort and zoological collections more and more are moving away from these ideas. Healthy animals CAN stop eating, unhealthy animals CAN still eat, and the same is true for breeding, the whole idea that they must be eating to be healthy doesn’t make much sense to me but don’t feel bad, it’s widely accepted, we have all been there. Providing you as the owner are positive that there environment is otherwise acceptable with decent temperatures, humidity UV and there are no environmental stresses it is nothing to worry about.
I maintain my own iguanas at a steady temperature at the basking spot of 38c, I have a black towel underneath my basking spot which tends to warm up to 43c to help absorb in more heat to allow for a decent enough surface area to bask on. My basking spot is a mercury vapor bulb of mega ray design and normally I am using T5 florescent tubes reflected to create a vertical UV gradient in combination, providing your temperatures are correct, UV is good and providing you are sure there is good intestinal health, going off food can be put down to normal and natural behavior.
I find it rather quite amazing that these animals can fast for so long sometimes with no visible weight loss, I have had some specimens not eat a single thing for 4 months and not loose any weight.
Guide lines tips/hints owners may find useful.
Territorial males can be very difficult animals to maintain, an iguana weighing in at 4-7kg driven by hormones can be formidable, this time of year owners need to be vigilant about there iguanas individual behavior patterns, I personally have as little interaction with mine as possible as IMO a thrashing, biting, whipping iguana is just asking for injury, it’s also stressful for the animal as they don’t appear to distinguish owners from rivals or mates, either outcome is the same “injury” and these are obviously things we want to try and avoid.
Before I even go into my big adult male enclosures, I assess where they are, for example if Albus is sitting at the right side of his enclosure I wont open the right side of the enclosure, this gives him a little too much of opportunity to dive out at me (something he has done before) (even when opening the other side of his enclosure) please do not under-estimate how fast an iguana can move/how far it can jump and what it can be capable of when raging with hormones.
I adapted a method that helped me be able to get into his enclosure for general maintenance at least, and it is very very simple.
I use a long object which can be a walking stick, a snake hook, broom handle, or simply anything long. I will gently rub the top of his head across his parietal eye, his head raises like a chicken and he closes his eyes, this gives me approximately 15 seconds to reach in and get his food dish, spot clean his shelf, and I may repeat the process as needed to pull his water tray out of his enclosure, that way my contact with him is minimal and as safe as it can be. How-ever some specimens will sometimes just jump out at you (especially the big dominant males) Albus has done this to me before, in actual fact this is how he has managed to bite me, he threw himself across his enclosure and jumped out at me within the space of 3 seconds, this actually surprised me as I miss-calculated how far he could jump so the answer is simple, make sure you have enough space to leap back if you have a specimen that is more likely to. I didn’t learn this from anywhere nor can I reference it, it’s simply been common sense and application through experience.
Some owners (especially those) with what I call true “Alpha males” anyone who has one of those spcimens knows they can be very difficult, those who own them sometimes find that maintaining them a few hours before lights go on and before they have had a chance to energize can be easier, you might loose about half an hour sleep, but it is worth considering. I sometimes do that with my own male if he is being a real pain.
Application of methods such as the hand-flat and palm face up method can be useful, if the technique is applied correctly it can be used to distract the animals attention away from you, I personally only use it for that or otherwise conditioning iguanas down to more tolerant levels through interaction. The method works on the principle that due to the shape of the iguanas mouth it can not bite you, how-ever a fully grown in season male I would not advise this method to otherwise get close to them (especially if they are up at a height) some iguanas will just launch off their shelf at you leaving you completely unguarded and unprotected and even then? the method can be useful to divert attention if you have a difficult or untypical vivarium layout how-ever.
If you do have to make physical contact with the iguana for what-ever reason (though I can not think of any other than for treating injury or vet treatment, or otherwise have to place a specimen back to it’s enclosure after it has possibly leapt out or from the bath, I would strongly advise having your arms and hands protected, and if you need to have them close to your face I would consider this too. (owners have received some injuries) Personally I wear hoodies a lot either way so I don’t have this worry. I know some owners wear gauntlets to help protect themselves and something is always better than nothing but I have often discourage the use of gauntlets for two main reasons. A) IMO they give the owner a false sense of security as I briefly touched on, some specimens (notably big alpha males) may not go for hands at all in-fact I can remember no time Albus has gone for my hands. B) I also think it can be difficult to be certain on how much pressure we are applying to the animal and in turn can cause other defensive reactions from the animal such as death rolling, the idea is to be safe and keep things as stress free for you and the animal. If I do have to make contact with my own iguanas especially those “difficult specimens” I detain my iguanas with towels if I need too, I can then be sure how much pressure I am applying, distract their attention a little easier. Towels in my experience are also a vet’s best friend.
Some owners I know will ignore this, believing there animals are “different” and will still interact with them as often as they are able to, while the love and passion of your animals is admirable I would say if you do feel you need to interact with them, please keep them away from your faces, necks, if they are on you, keep both hands on them for your own safety at all times. Especially you ladies, I have seen woman’s faces completely ruined because of this, very damaging. If you value your looks it isn’t really a good idea to be putting your face right in front of theirs.
What can you do for your iguana?
Male iguanas really just want to breed and defend the territories they establish, some of us don’t want our iguanas to breed some of us just keep iguanas solitary too. Some owners have used some bizarre (but effective) methods over the years to help there animals deal with these sexual frustrations. I have used a few different methods myself. Some iguanas seem to like taking there frustrations out on cuddly toys, some of my males have used green crocodile teddies, other iguana plush toys, pillows, socks with rice, and as I mentioned above in Albus’s case my green coat (his now) some will take liking to people slippers and otherwise, these don’t over-ride territorial behaviors, but they can help mitigate the territorial behaviors for brief periods of time, so give them something like that, it can help them and you.
I also personally feel it is still important to maintain routine with them, as routine is important for conditioning and taming, so feed them the same times, still offer food even if they aren’t eating, maintain them as you normally would via spray downs etc, after breeding season some specimens (minus some dominant male cases) tend to go back to normal after breeding season and it’s important they can still associate that routine if a tolerant animal you can interact with is the aim.
It is an excellent idea a to have our yearly fecal test routine done a month or a few months in advance to ensure that any underlying problems can be dealt with before falling into season and being accompanied with fasting, as otherwise an undernourished iguana that may be caught up in that over-drive of season instinctual behavior could end up seriously poorly and as everyone knows this often doesn’t have a good outcome. Otherwise any visual weight loss being noticed or for those vigiliant in taking records. Reptile vet legend D Maders edition to reptile medicine and surgery touched up on the loss of weight in reptiles, from what I understood of it it specified that unless there was no loss of 10% or more body weight there generally was usually nothing to worry about, how-ever if a 4kg iguana looses 40g of body weight, that is very serious and a specialist experienced reptile vet should be consulted without delay.
One other thing you should try to understand is observing how your iguana sees the world too, very little things seem to set them off, there are all kinds of behavior triggers, probably fifty and when I think about it that is probably an understatement, they have an array of complex behavior quirks easily misread. Being tetachromats they definitely don’t see things like you. In the wild brightly colored other reptiles are rivals and threats to territories, a male who is perceiving a space as his established territory will fight to the death, territories often cross in the wild which results in territorial combat. Be mindful of how your iguana is perceiving you, for example I wont go barging into Albus’s enclosure in breeding season bright orange/red colors to him that’s him seeing me as him challenging him, and I am less likely to have results maintaining him and increasing my risk of injury by provoking him that way. That isn’t me suggesting everyone go out and buy silly suits, or has to dress certain ways to accommodate there animals, but try to be mindful and use some common sense in how your iguana is seeing you. They can see things more intense (approx 99100 million more colors than we can from the blue end of the UV spectrum).
Some males may attack there reflections in the glass of there enclosures at this time of year, this unfortunately can with time cause problems with snout rub, naturally your iguana is seeing the male in the reflection as a rival, near his space at a very specific time of the year, he doesn’t really understand it isn’t there. For my safety reasons I don’t cover the glass as I need to be able to see where mine is before I open the enclosure though I know some owners do that. If you feel like you can do that then by all means do it, How-ever try to mitigate that by dangling artificial plants and vines in front of the enclosure as it adds to an aesthetically pleasing look, and can help provide them some privacy too, it does in my experience seem to help mitigate the behavior.
No you are not failing your animals, no you do not have to get rid of them, your iguana is exhibiting normal patterns of behavior, while this time of year can be difficult it can also be amazing if you take the right steps, hands off approach and learn to enjoy your amazing wonderful scaley companion for the true wonder it is. Very few animals will exhibit such amazing complex repertoire of communication and body language, very few other reptiles can compete with the awe and magnificent displays a male green iguana will display, sit back and enjoy this amazing animal at it’s very best, you will gain great insight into his body language, individual behavior, bob sequences, threat displays. No one is saying breeding season is easy but this comes with part of ownership and it can be a wonderful time if you look at things from another point of view. It is only once a year and it only lasts a few months at most.
Caution: If you have free roamers, (something I really really discourage) you really need to be careful, I have known some males become so territorial over the entire living spaces the owner could not even sit down in there own front room, fair crack if your okay to live like that, but don’t blame anyone but yourself or expect someone else to problem solve that kind of situation. Iguanas should be in confined and spacious quaters have the ability to contain it in parameters where all it’s life support systems can be properly controlled.
Getting through the breeding season is a challenge for some everyone agrees with that, but isn’t that why we chose to keep iguanas? Because they were different from typical household pets? Something about there awe and magnificence captured our imaginations.
Be safe, exercise common sense and I hope this write up has helped just a little, my only aim here is to help owners understand their animals a little more. It is generally sad that so many of these animals die or get ill due to poor husbandry, end up in rescue as a result of that, and even if people do manage to get them healthy and thriving, half of those become too much for their owners too and may still end up in rescue as a result of that. There is no silver lightning there and it is very important owners come to know what to expect when buying these wonderful animals.