Added 28 September 2003

The Sheltopusik

Pseudopus [Ophisaurus] apodus

Natural History and Care


This article is included firstly because the Scheltopusik is an interesting European lizard in its own right, and secondly because this species makes a hardy terrarium captive.


Although often known as a European anguid or "glass lizard", the range of this species in fact stretches well into Central Asia. It was first named by Pallas, who recognised it was a lizard rather than a snake, in 1775 as Lacerta apoda. There are three subspecies of P. (O.) apodus, only one of which is found on the European mainland. The species is distributed as follows:

Species name Common Name Distribution
Pseudopus apodus Scheltopusik (aka European Glass Lizard, blavor [Yug.]) NE Italy, Adriatic coast and hinterland of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece & islands (inc. Cyclades, Rhodes & Corfu), Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia
P. a. apodus N Caucasus, Transcaucasia and Central Asia
P. a. durvilli Status unknown
P. a. thracius NE Italy, eastern coast of the Adriatic, Balkans and Black Sea area, inc. Bulgaria, Albania and Greece, and Lesbos; NW Turkey (E coast of Aegean to S coast of Black Sea)

Campbell's article denotes a small area along the Black Sea coast where integrades between P. a. apodus and P. a. thracius occur (source not given).

Older literature refers to this species as Ophisaurus apodus, and in fact the genus Pseudopus has not been accepted by all authorities.

Size and Description

This lizard is a maximum of 54" (135cm) in total length. The most obvious feature is its apparent lack of limbs, but there are in fact two very small hind leg stumps (about 2mm in length) either side of the cloaca. There is a lateral fold distinctive of many anguid species along the body. Grzimek describes its body thickness as equivalent to that of a man's wrist. To make up for the lack of limbs, the trunk muscalature is apparently quite powerful. The body scales are mainly diamond-shaped, arranged in rings around the body and connected to osteoderms. The skin is also quite hard. In colour the adult Scheltopusik is usually a pale earth brown, with a lighter coloured head and paler ventral surface. Specimens from the Caucasus and Transcaucasia have a "mosaic" effect on the dorsal surfaces caused by irregularly situated paler scales among the brown ones [Engelmann et al].

Unlike many Ophisaurus and Anguis species, which have a fracture plane at the tail base and which therefore drop their tails quite easily, P. apodus rarely sheds its tail, preferring instead to twist, hiss, lunge or in the last resort to bite. The bite is quite hard, so the keeper should be careful when initially handling a Scheltopusik. If the tail is lost, it is regenerated poorly, so again attention should be paid so that the lizard does not feel the need to do this. (Since this species is so much bigger than the other "glass lizards", it is better able to take care of itself in the wild: its main enemies are birds of prey, small carnivores and Coronella austriaaca, the Smooth Snake [Engelmann et al]).


In nature these lizards are found in forested areas with lots of low scrubby vegetation and rock outcrops [Campbell], light woods, rocky hillsides, embankments and stone walls [Arnold et al], vineyards, [Engelmann et al]. Although their preferred habitats are dry, they are often active after rain, presumably because these weather conditions also bring out snails and slugs.

Captive Care

Captive care is fairly easy for these lizards. Perhaps the most demanding aspect is the size of the tank required: if you want to provide a cage long enough for the Scheltopusik to stretch out fully, then one of at least 48", and preferably longer, will be required. I have observed them kept in shops in tanks of somewhat shorter length, but I think that anything less than 36" is inadequate. Height should not be skimped on either, as both a reasonably deep substrate and some climbing branches will be necessary: Campbell recommends 24" high. Width would seem to be about the same. Vivaria of these dimensions are fairly easy to come by: it may be a question of finding the space in your home!

If you have a garden, then keeping one or more Scheltopusiks in a suitably adapted greenhouse is a good option. Chris Davies showed me the feasibility of this. Needless to say the greenhouse should be so fitted as to avoid the extremes of overheating in the summer or of freezing weather in the winter.

P. apodus is a diurnal (day-active) species and should be provided with the appropriate UV lighting. Although not a lizard of hot climates, it will also probably need a heat bulb or similar at one end of the tank to reproduce the temperatures found in its natural range, where summers can be quite warm. Humidity should be fairly low, but a receptacle of clean drinking water should always be provided.

Care should be taken in the choice of substrate: owing to its method of subduing prey, it is possible for the lizard to swallow particles. For this reason Campbell recommends large cypress mulch. It should also be provided to a reasonable depth so that the Scheltopusik(s) can burrow: they are not fossorial, so you need not worry that they will spend all day and night hidden below the surface. In fact ones I have seen in properly sized cages were quite active, even with visitors walking past them. Sturdy branches and rocks should also be provided for climbing on, and of course they should be secured (especially the rocks) to prevent any accidents such as falling on the lizards. Flat rocks can be placed in position, and if necessary anchored in place with aquarium glue or similar, to create crevices and caves for hiding places. Live plants can make such a vivarium look very attractive, but Campbell points out that only the sturdier varieties will survive a reptile this size climbing over them: for this reason they should also be kept in their pots to prevent damage to the roots from burrowing.

As regards diet the species is a generalist with a marked tendency towards snails and slugs: it will also take insects and other arthropods, small mammals, young lizards and also bird eggs. On occasion even young vipers may be taken [Reptilia article]. Providing young lizards or vipers is probably unacceptable in terms of cost, legality and/or personal feelings to most hobbyists, but a diet of the usual insects, pinkies and fertilised eggs will probably be easy to provide and healthy for the lizards. Providing snails and slugs can be a bit problematic, not so much in terms of their availability (there are normally plenty in most people's gardens) but because many may be carrying pesticides or other harmful chemicals which can be passed onto the lizards with harmful effects. Since this species likes gastropods so much, it may be worth considering the purchase of a few African Giant Land Snails and setting up a breeding colony to produce a fairly regular and safe supply. Strips of lean meat and tinned cat food (low fat if possible) may be provided on an occasional basis.


Breeding in the wild takes place in March to mid-April: as most of its range suffers moderate to severe winters and hibernation starts in October or November and ends in March or April depending upon the actual location and weather. Thus a winter "cooling period", if not actual hibernation, is necessary if you wish to breed the lizards (and more captive breeding of this species is desirable). Mating presumably commences shortly after emerging from hibernation, as is common with most reptiles and amphibians in temperate zones. The female lays 6-12 eggs under a stone or in the earth after a 10-week gestation period [Rogner]: she will often guard them during this period, a behaviour noted also in other Ophisaurus species. The consensus from the literature seems to be that removing the eggs to an incubator is the safest course. The eggs hatch after 45-55 days, the emerging young being 10cm or more in length [Rogner]. Young have more distinctly keeled scales than adults and are dorsally greyish with dark bars: this coloration fades to the normal brown with age (usually after 2-3 years).

These lizards enjoy a considerable longevity, with a norm of at least 20 years and one specimen which apparently attained a record of over 50 years.


This is an underappreciated species that is not too difficult to find in the trade and is fairly simple to care for. It also seems to display a degree of recognition of, and responsiveness to, its keeper(s). It is to be hoped that more hobbyists will keep a pair of these lizards in captivity and in particular make observations on any courtship behaviour.


Collins Field Guide: Reptiles & Amphibians of Britain & Europe, E N Arnold, J A Burton and D W Ovenden, HarperCollins 1978.

Lurche und Kriechtiere Europas, W E Engelmann, J Fritzsche, R Günther and F J Obst, Ferdinand Enke Verlag, Stuttgart 1986.

Lizard Care from A to Z, R D and Patricia Bartlett, Barron's Pet Series, 1997. Section on P. [O.] apodus and other glass lizards.

Echsen [Lizards] Vol 2, Rogner, Ullmer Verlag, 1992.

"Scheltopusik: A Fascinating Lizard with a Strange Name", Matthew Campbell, Reptile & Amphibian Hobbyist 4:12.

"Reptilia: Index of Species 8", Reptilia. Deals mainly with the natural history of the species: notes that little is known of the mating habits of the species, and that the young tend to live a secluded "underground existence".


The EMBL database has taxonomic information, a bibliography and links to pictures.

Melissa Kaplan has a page covering care of the Scheltopusik and other glass lizards.

D Croft has a page describing his experiences of keeping a Scheltopusik.


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