Today, almost all iguana species native to the Americas and sold in pet stores are bred in captivity but endangered in the wild. Common features include a pendulous fold of skin called a dewlap under their throats, a row of spiky-looking protrusions called a dorsal crest running along their backs and long tails. Even though these prehistoric-looking lizards are typically sold when they're small, they grow up to be extremely large animals requiring a lot of living space and specialized care. The Green Iguana Society advises learning exactly what kind of a commitment you would need to make before considering adoption.
"Green" Iguanas Not Always Green
Green iguanas are the most popular species sold as pets in the U.S. However, the name is somewhat misleading, since they come in a wide range of other colors and color combinations, including brown, orange and blue. These iguanas also regularly change color in response to such factors as status in the pecking order, health, age, mood, time of day and ambient temperature, says the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology. Even though green iguanas are common in pet stores, few people who adopt a baby are equipped to care for the "dinosaur with special needs" when it's full grown, writes Florida reptile breeder Tom Crutchfield in "Reptiles" magazine. In the wild, they're found from Mexico throughout Central and South America, where they live in forests and spend most of their lives basking in trees.
The Long-Lived Cuban Rock Iguana
Even though the ground-dwelling Cuban rock iguana doesn't grow as large as the green iguana, this lizard reaches lengths of 5 feet and weighs up to 15 pounds. These iguanas, members of the Cyclura species, live in colonies all over Cuba and nearby islands and with the right care, have a life expectancy of 50 years or more. While the Cuban rock iguana is "one of the easiest Cyclura species to tame," writes Crutchfield, he warns that its "complex" care requirements include a large outdoor enclosure with basking areas. This lizard must be handled with care, since one snap of its powerful jaws can take off a finger or toe. Young rock iguanas tend to be dark brown or green with darker-colored bands on their bodies. Adult coloring in males ranges from dark gray to brick red, while most females are olive green with darker stripes or bands.
The Rhinoceros Iguana
Both the color and the horn-like protrusions growing on the snouts of male rhinoceros iguanas lend them a resemblance to the African land mammal that inspired their name. "Reptiles" calls them "one of the world's most magnificent iguanas" and "a very desirable species to own," but warns that temperaments vary among individuals and some "can be extremely aggressive and inflict bites." Native to Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, rhino iguanas grow to a length of about 4 1/2 feet but in proportion to size, are heavier and bulkier than green iguanas. Their preferred habitat is "dry, rocky forests in coastal areas" and scrub woodlands, says the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, where their drab coloring -- grayish brown to black -- provides them with camouflage. They have a life expectancy of 20-plus years.
Morphs and Mutants: "Designer" Iguanas
The past success of selectively breeding ball pythons to produce snakes with unusual colors and markings has inspired many reptile breeders to take a similar approach to breeding iguanas. Today, many are focusing their efforts on producing "morphs" and mutants unlike any ever seen in the wild because the more unique an iguana's appearance, the higher its value to reptile enthusiasts. In terms of reptile genetics, "axanthic" means lacking the gene that produces the color yellow. Breeding the yellow gene out of green iguanas has produced brilliant-hued axanthic blue iguanas. Similarly, as the breeder U.S. Iguana explains, crossing a yellow albino iguana with an axanthic blue iguana yields a snow-white iguana with pink eyes known as the "blizzard lizard." Other genetic manipulations and lucky breeding accidents have produced still more striking colors, color combinations and patterns.
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Iguana Iguana: Common Green Iguana
- Reptiles: Green Iguana Care Sheet
- Reptiles: Cuban Rock Iguana Care Tips
- Sea World: Rhinocerous Iguana
- World Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Rhinoceros Iguana
- PetEducation.com: Green Iguana Color Change: Causes
- US Iguana
- Cuba Naturaleza Biodiversity: Cuban Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila nubila)
- International Iguana Foundation: Species
- Herp Center Network: Iguana Anatomy