Savannah Monitor

Varanus exanthematicus

Order: Squamata

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Savannah monitors require a fair bit of space. The enclosure should be at least twice as long as the lizard and at least as wide as it is long.
  • A temperature gradient is ideal. This can be accomplished by providing a heat lamp at one end of the enclosure. The temperature at this end should be close to 100 degrees. A full spectrum lamp is also necessary.
  • Savannah monitors are burrowers, but this can present a problem for a program animal. One solution is to provide a “hide” for the lizard. The hide needs to be somewhat snug for the lizard to feel comfortable. Providing a digging box is also necessary. Any substrate that the lizard can get under will work including mulch, shavings, or shredded paper.

Diet Requirements

  • In the wild, savannah monitors eat rodents, birds, insects, toads, eggs, and smaller reptiles. They will also take carrion.
  • A favorite food in the wild is snails. The teeth of savannah monitors are quite blunt, and the jaw has evolved to put maximum leverage at the back. These adaptations help the monitor to crack snail shells.
  • In captivity, they are fed mice, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, crickets, and mealworms.

Veterinary Concerns

  • This species is very prone to obesity so special care needs to be taken with diet to control weight gain. While snails and other invertebrates are ideal foods (cockroaches are a favorite), you can use mice (skinned) or chicks also.

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • Check out the Reptelligence Facebook page and Reptelligence website for enrichment and training inspiration.
  • The more often you can handle the monitor the better. They will walk on a leash, which is a great way to get some sun.
  • Weekly walks are a great way to get your monitor to defecate. this also means less cage cleaning!
  • Savannahs will swim if given the opportunity. A weekly swim or soak will also aid shedding.
  • You can use feeder puzzles to stimulate hunting behavior.


Colony or Breeding Management

Notes species is housed or managed socially or for breeding purposes.

Individual Identification

Dimorphism or practiced ways to individually mark species (such as those in colonies, like giant millipedes).

Programmatic Information


Temperature Guidelines



Tips on Presentation

  • Adults can be harnessed and walked for groups. Target training for programs tends to work very well. Just maintain the training area!

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

  • Savannahs do have sharp claws so they will scratch.
  • Supporting the entire body is key to having a relaxed monitor.

Potential Messaging

  • In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Capture of wild animals for the pet trade has significantly damaged the survival prospects of species such as sloths, tamanduas, and many parrots. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. In addition, many exotic pets are released by their owners when they become too dangerous or demanding, often with devastating effects on local ecosystems. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Birds, fish, and reptiles have specialized needs, are frequently wild-caught, and damage the local environment if released; guests should be advised to educate themselves and proceed with caution. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters.

Acquisition Information


Comments from the Rating System

  • Downtown Aquarium, Denver: Good “wow” factor. Easy to care for.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Savannah monitors are found in Africa south of the Sahara, particularly West Africa and the central parts of Africa southward towards Zaire. Their preferred habitat is the savanna, but they have adapted to other habitats as well, such as rocky (though not sandy) deserts, open forests, and woodlands.

Physical Description

These monitors have a stocky body with short, thickly muscled legs, a blunt snout, and a short, thick neck. The tail is long and powerful, has alternating brown and yellowish rings, and has rough scales ringing the base. Savannah monitors are dark gray or dark brown in color, with a yellowish underbody. There are rows of circular, dark-edged yellow spots across the back. The tongue is snake-like and blue in color.
From snout to the tip of the tail, savannah monitors can reach up to 5 feet in length.

Life Cycle

Savannah monitors breed during the wet season. Females will lay 20 to 50 eggs in burrows dug into sandy soil or termite mounds. Incubation takes 5 to 6 months, so the young are hatching out during the month of March.
Typically, savannah monitors live 10 to 15 years, but they can live longer than that. The oldest recorded savannah monitor in captivity was 17 years old when it died.


These monitors are strictly terrestrial, and they require a dry heat. They will frequently bask of rocks.
Males are very territorial and will defend that territory very aggressively.

Threats and Conservation Status

This species is considered vulnerable, and is listed on CITES Appendix II.

Did you know…

  • Varanus is a Latin word derived from waran, and Arabic word for monitor (so named from the superstitious belief that the Nile monitor warned of the presence of crocodiles – when what it was probably doing was eating crocodile eggs and young crocs.) Exanthema comes from the Greek word for eruption, an accurate term when describing the bumpy scales (osteoderms) all over the backs of monitors such as the savannah.
  • A savannah monitors flick its tongue an average of 10 to 20 times a minute. After it has attacked and bitten prey, the tongue-flicking rises to as many as 80 flicks a minute. This helps the monitor to find the injured and possibly escaping prey.
  • When walking, monitors carry their bodies high off the ground with only a small part of the tail touching the ground.
  • Previously, it had been believed that the saliva of Varanid species contained a bacterial “soup,” serving to prevent a bite wound from clotting. This has since been disproved, as it is now understood that Varanid species do in fact utilize a form of venom. Unlike snakes, which utilize hollow fangs as delivery structures, monitor venom simply pools around the lizard’s teeth and enters the bloodstream of the prey animal when it is bitten. The monitor then releases the animal and waits for death to occur, using the amazing sense of smell to track the dying animal.


By Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • The Baton Rouge Zoo
  • Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters

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