Once you have the right enclosure, with the right lighting, heating, substrate, and humidity levels, you have a fairly functional ocellated skink terrarium. But your work is not done yet! If you leave it at that, you’ll have a rather minimalistic setup that only meets the bare minimum of an ocellated skink’s needs. Minimalistic setups are horribly boring for your pet and do little to keep them engaged and entertained.
This where enclosure “accessories” or décor come into play. Although these items tend to make an enclosure more attractive, if you leverage them strategically, they can play a greater role as sources of environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment items support your pet’s mental and physical wellbeing by engaging their natural instincts and providing things for them to smell, explore, climb, hide under, and otherwise interact with. Environmental enrichment is so important that it’s a critical feature of ethical, well-run zoos. It’s also part of the 5 Provisions of Animal Welfare!
Here are some ideas for items you can use as environmental enrichment for ocellated skinks:
Having places to hide is critically important to your ocellated skink’s mental wellbeing. Although they can hide in their substrate, a threatened ocellated skink is more likely to run for cover than it is likely to dive into the sand. So it’s your job to provide appropriate cover.
Small cork flats, commercial reptile caves, and similar items are great for creating functional hiding places for your skink. You can even lay a flat piece of stone on top of the substrate for them to dig under! Just make sure it’s a tight fit, as tight spaces generally help reptiles feel more secure.
Although ocellated skinks do spend a lot of time hiding , they also spend plenty of time out and about — especially when there are bugs to hunt and things to explore! These versatile little lizards are capable climbers, and according to a conversation I had with one herper who lives in their natural habitat, they can even occasionally be seen at the top of date palm trees!
Branches can be purchased from reptile supply distributors or collected from outdoors. Personally, I prefer using cholla wood with ocellated skinks, as it’s hollow, thus offering twice the usable surface area and multitasking as a hideout.
However, collecting your own branches can be a good way to get some unique-looking branches while saving money along the way. If you want to go this route, keep these things in mind:
- Only collect branches from areas that haven’t been treated with chemicals.
- Clean the branches before putting them in your enclosure. Give them a good scrub with water, then bake them on a tarp (or similar) in direct sunlight for a few days until completely dry. Spraying them with a veterinary disinfectant for porous surfaces like F10SC or Clean Break is a good final step.
Ledges are another way to provide climbing opportunities for your ocellated skink, as well as utilize otherwise-wasted wall space. I have observed my own skinks use their tiny little arms to do a full pull-up onto a ledge! Here are some options recommended by ReptiFiles:
- Magnaturals magnetic ledges and wall-mounted hides
- Universal Rocks ledge kits (some assembly required)
- Universal Rocks custom 3D backgrounds
It’s best to avoid the textured foam terrarium backgrounds offered by Exo Terra, Zoo Med, etc. Although they look nice, they don’t last very long, and may get chewed on by crickets.
In the wild, ocellated skinks are known to shelter under vegetation (Gunn et al., 2012), particularly among their roots. In fact, one of the ways they reach new habitats is by hitchhiking in nursery plants (Kornilios et al., 2009). You can recreate this effect with live or artificial plants. Plus, plants almost always make an enclosure nicer to look at.
Artificial plants are convenient because they always keep their size and color, are super durable, and never die. However, this convenience comes with a risk: the plastics and dyes that they are made from can release toxins into the air. The effects that this has on reptiles is still fairly unknown, but we do know that reptiles have more sensitive respiratory systems than humans have, and “indoor pollution” from artificial materials in human homes is rapidly becoming a concern for human health.
That said, if you’re dead set on artificial plants, Custom Reptile Habitats has a great selection of artificial plants that are more likely to be safe for use in reptile enclosures, and looks very realistic.
Live plants have many benefits (increased ambient humidity, increase oxygen concentration, bioactive function, etc.), but there’s one big drawback: because ocellated skinks spend a lot of time in the top 1-2” of their substrate, they may uproot your plants. So if you want to use live plants, it’s best to use larger ones with well-established root systems rather than smaller ones with easily-disturbed roots.
Make sure any plants you use are 1) durable, 2) drought-tolerant, 3) heat-tolerant, and 4) non-toxic. Here are some examples to get you started:
- Carex (sedge grass)
- Crassula (jade plant)
- Portulacaria (elephant feed)
- Sansevieria (snake plant)
The Tortoise Table is a great resource for checking whether a certain plant you’re interested in is safe to use. Succulents and grasses are generally a good starting point. Although ocellated skinks don’t usually eat plants, the bugs that they eat sure do, and a cricket that nibbled on a toxic plant can become toxic in turn!
What does natural ocellated skink habitat look like?
Have I harped on the importance of environmental enrichment enough yet? Ha! Not possible. Here’s a great quote from Robert W. Mendyk to drive the point home:
“Successful herpetological husbandry demands that the biological requirements of a species are met, and that the environmental conditions provided in captivity replicate, as closely as possible, those available and familiar to a species in nature… Although some reptile species may do well in captivity when provided with minimalistic or ‘reductionist’ husbandry conditions, such conditions are probably inappropriate for most species as they offer less potential to fulfil biological needs…” (p.621)
An ocellated skink terrarium should roughly replicate the appearance (or at least function) of their natural habitat, as their evolution (and therefore basically everything about them) was shaped by that environment. Browse photos of wild Chalcides ocellatus on iNaturalist or Flickr, and you’ll see that ocellated skink habitat is generally characterized by sand or sandy soil for substrate with fairly sparse vegetation and plenty of rocks. This is consistent with Civantos et al.’s findings that ocellated skinks prefer microhabitats with sparse cover of low shrubs and herbs taller than 10cm. And Skelton et al. notes that they dislike wide open spaces.
Photos of Ocellated Skink Terrariums
Keep reading about ocellated skink care:
- Introduction to Ocellated Skinks
- Shopping list: Supplies You Will Need
- How to Select and Buy a Pet Ocellated Skink
- Enclosure Size & Roommates
- Lighting & UVB Requirements
- Heating Requirements
- Humidity Requirements
- Substrate Options
- Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Enclosure
- Feeding Your Ocellated Skink
- Handling Tips & Behavioral Notes
- General Health Guide
- Additional Resources