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Argentine Tegu

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Order: Squamata
Family: Teiidae
Genus: Tupinambis
Species: Merianae


Samson owned by snakewrangler
Samson owned by snakewrangler

The Argentine Tegu, or Giant Tegu, is a large lizard from South America that resembles, in some way, the monitor lizards (varanus species). Tegus are stockier, with shorter necks and bead-like glossy skin. Like monitors, they are also powerfully built with sharp teeth and claws. The Argentine tegu is one of four subspecies of Tupinambis lizards, although there is much debate on whether this should be narrowed down to two species or expanded to five or six, depending on geographical distribution of the animal. The name "tegu" means "lizard" in an Amazonian Indian language, and "Tupinambis" is actually an extinct Amazonian Indian tribe (Tupinambas).

Tegus are a major part of the reptile leather trade in Paraguay and Argentina and annual exports are valued at $20 million USD. The U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Hong Kong are major buyers of tegu leather.


Advanced. These are not beginner lizards. In my opinion, there is much to be learned about these animals. It is exceedingly difficult to find consistent information on their taxonomy and captive care anywhere. I have consulted numerous books, websites of reputable hobbyists, and drawn conclusions based on my own experiences keeping them. The many "gray areas" in tegu care make them difficult to read and interpret. Keepers should be aware that they are dealing with a potentially dangerous lizard with sharp teeth, powerful jaws, and heavy duty claws. They are also intelligent animals that have no problem biting the hand that feeds. I have been bitten several times by my smaller tegu and have observed them shredding screen tops, letting themselves out of their enclosures that were locked with cage clips, and rearranging things inside and outside their cages. I have observed them around cats and small dogs and they do not seem to show any indication of fear.

This being said, there are also many positive aspects about their behavior. If a tegu is aware of your presence (i.e., you did not wake him up or uncover his burrow) they are usually very good with human contact. Again, this is animal-specific. I have a tegu who is very social and will fall asleep in my lap or happily go for a car ride in the front seat, and one who is an absolute terror.

Basic Info


Males sometimes reach as long as 4' in total length with a big, bulky body while the females typically range in the 3'-3 1/2' range being more slender.

--Prism wolf 12:58, 17 March 2008 (EDT)


15-20 years if cared for properly.


Tegus are typically tolerant of handling once they are out of the enclosure. They can be territorial sometimes and may not appreciate your hand in their space. I recommend wearing a pair of heavy leather work gloves. The other tool I use is a 24" snake tong. It is made from aluminum and has a claw at one end that is closed via squeeze-handle at the other. Very useful for reaching into the cage to grab an empty food bowl. Sometimes I gently nudge the lizard with the tong the way you might tap a snake with a snake hook, just to make them aware of your presence.

Once they are out of the cage, follow the same logic you would with a an iguana or monitor- these lizards are capable of the same type of attacks- bites, claws, and tail-whips. I recommend gloves, long sleeves, and hand-restraining the hind legs if you have to move the animal from one enclosure to the other.

Tegus are usually mild-mannered once removed from their enclosure. As natural burrowers, they have a tendency to tunnel under laundry piles or sheets/blankets and take a nap. They don't move very fast and tend to display curious and exploratory behavior. Make sure they don't crawl up into any ductwork or spaces behind appliances, and mind your dogs and cats.


Bigger the better here. However, if you are tight on space, remember that these lizards are burrowers, not climbers. I provide enough cypress mulch for them to burrow completely. Often, it will appear that the cage is empty since they are totally below the substrate. Square footage is much more important than climbing height in this case. Tegus also tend to be slow growers, so if you acquire a young one, you'll have a little bit of time to procure a large enclosure.


I use cypress mulch. It holds humidity and is inexpensive. It is also a great way to keep a burrowing reptile very happy. Tegus may stay in their burrows all night and a good portion of the day. The substrate is misted every day to maintain humidity and also to keep the mulch from releasing a nasty brown dust.


  • 80-85 Ambient
  • 90-95 Basking

Tegus are extremely tolerant of cooler temps, both day/night.


Ideal humidity levels should be between 60%-80%. This is difficult in drier climates, but not providing adequate humidity levels creates shed problems and the added moisture is needed for keeping the lining of the lungs moist. Using a substrate that holds moisture is one way. Offering a large hide it can climb into filled with sphagnum moss is another. Building an automated misting system is the most efficient way.

You may have some trial and error using any of these methods, but it's important for the health and shedding of a Argentine tegu.

--Prism wolf 19:26, 17 March 2008 (EDT)


Tegus require UVB. I use PowerSun 100w lamps in their enclosures, 12 hours a day. Photoperiods are adjusted slightly with the change of the seasons, and they will usually get 12.5-13 hours in the summer and 10-11 in the winter.



Like monitors, tegus can become obese in captivity. It is noted that the Argentine Tegu is an omnivore in the wild, but in my experience, they show preference for certain foods. I have offered my tegus iguana salad, which they did eat, but not enthusiastically. I have also tried fruits, such as mango and papaya, which they were not too keen on either. Staple diet includes 4-6 adult mice a week, supplemented with superworms and ground turkey. My two tegus also loved tearing into the leftover turkey from last Thanksgiving. They are not difficult to feed, but special care must be taken to ensure that they do not become obese. Larger sized tegus may also eat weanling and small rats, which are more nutritious than mice.

Please note that the tegu can become "food-aggressive." They can and will associate the keeper with food. Many people will feed the tegu outside the enclosure to prevent this, but I prefer just to place the food inside the enclosure after dark. When the tegu (which is diurnal) wakes up, the food is there waiting for him. I try my best to never let the tegu see me with food.


I follow the same logic here as I do with my snakes. Since they are eating entire rodents, supplementation is not necessary. I do however, add Herptivite to the ground turkey once a month because they are not great about eating their veggies. Quality UVB lighting should provide the necessary muscle for D3 production.


Also, tegus love water. Always make sure they have a big heavy bowl of fresh water. They will spill it, flip it over, and excavate mulch into it, but only after they have sucked down at least half of it.



Sexing these lizards is difficult without probing. Visually, males tend to be heavier, larger, and develop jowls when sexually mature. Lizards may reach anywhere from 3 to 5 feet total length.


So said - this is an intelligent lizard. Unless you are prepared to bring into your home a lizard that may test you, and one that may make you think well ahead in IT'S reasoning...then a tegu is not for you. If you are ready for an interactive lizard and will appreciate it's intelligence, then an Argentine tegu may be right up your alley.




  • Balsai, Michael. General Care and Maintenance of Popular Monitors and Tegus: A Practical Manual for the Serious Hobbyist. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc. 1997.
  • Bartlett, R.D. and Patricia P. Monitors, Tegus, and Related Lizards. Barron's. 1996.


This article was written by snakewrangler. View other articles by snakewrangler. Please note that others may have contributed to this article.

This care sheet is based on my experiences and what specifically works for my tegus. I have not included a section on breeding/reproduction because it is so rarely done in captivity and because the gender of my tegus are still unknown. Both animals came from Sean Casey Animal Rescue on Long Island, NY, and were acquired for the purpose of rehabilitation only.

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