Cordylus cataphractusArmadillo Girdled Lizard

Geographic Range

Cordylus cataphractus (armadillo lizard or armadillo girdled lizard) is found along the west coast of South Africa, from the Orange River in the north (Little Namaqualand, Northern Cape Province) to the Piketberg Mountains in the south, and as far inland as Matjiesfontein in the western Karoo Basin. (Branch, 1998; Els, 2008; Patterson, 1987; Shuttleworth, 2007)


Armadillo lizards inhabit karroid veld, a vegetation type that is normally found in the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa. This habitat is characterized by sparse vegetation dominated by dwarf, perennial shrubs. These lizards inhabit large cracks in rocky outcrops. (Els, 2008; Patterson, 1987)

Physical Description

Armadillo lizards are named for their appearance when in a defensive position. When threatened, they curl up, grip the tail in their jaws, and form a tight, armored ball, resembling an armadillo. Rows of spiny osteodermate scales covering the neck, body, tail, and limbs deter predators from seizing or swallowing these lizards. This position protects the soft underside of the lizard, which is its most vulnerable area. Males grow to be larger than females and have more prominent femoral pores. The average snout-vent length is between 75 and 90 mm, with a maximum snout-vent length of 105 mm. The tail is equal to or slightly shorter than the body length. The body color is a dirty yellowish brown to straw color. Dorsal color is usually consistent, sometimes having an orange to olive tint on the sides. Dark brown infusions on the back are not uncommon. The upper lip is dark brown. The head and tail are flattened, allowing it to squeeze into rock crevices. Armadillo lizards have the ability to drop their own tail (autotomy) when in danger, and can grow it back slowly. But, unlike many other lizards, in Cordylus cataphractus the tail is a necessary part of its unique defensive position. Because of this, the lizard will not part with the tail easily or quickly and tail autotomy is used only as a last resort. The jaws of Cordylus cataphractus are extremely powerful. In a fight, they can sever digits or small limbs. They sometimes roll their bodies as they bite, inflicting severe damage. (Branch, 1998; Els, 2008; Patterson, 1987; S., 2001; Shuttleworth, 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range length
    75 to 105 mm
    2.95 to 4.13 in


As with all squamates (lizards and snakes) fertilization is internal. This species is ovoviviparous, producing one or two live young. Young are basically miniature versions of adults. (Branch, 1998; Flemming and Mouton, 2002)


Armadillo lizards are territorial; males defend an area and have multiple females in their territory with whom they mate. However, females cross territorial boundaries to mate with other males as well. Males do not seem to be defensive of their mates, but they were defensive of their territory. This species is unique in living in social groups with their young. (Els, 2008; Flemming and Mouton, 2002; Fogel, 2002)

Armadillo lizards mature at a snout-vent (body) length of about 95mm. Sperm production in males peaks in spring (September to October), which coincides with ovulation in females. Courtship and mating take place at this time. Females give birth to one, rarely two, young in late summer to early fall (March to April), which is the end of the dry season. These lizards are unique in occurring in extended family groups that share a particular rock crevice. These groups typically consist of an adult pair and subadult and small juvenile offspring, although it is suspected that not all lizards in a group are necessarily related. Smaller lizards may gain some protection by staying near older lizards, and adult armadillo lizards may even provide food to young armadillo lizards. (S., 2001; Branch, 1998; Flemming and Mouton, 2002; Fogel, 2002; S., 2001)

In a captive group of armadillo lizards in North America (with seasons reversed from South Africa), mating took place between the months of January and March. Males actively pursued females at this time. Females gave birth to a single large, live young sometime between the months of September and December. The newborns averaged about 63.5 mm in body length. (Fogel, 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Armadillo lizards breed once yearly in the spring.
  • Breeding season
    Matings occur in September to October; births occur in March or April.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    6 to 8 months

Females typically give birth to one rather large young each year. In the harshly seasonal climate of karroo veld, food is difficult to find during the hot, dry season, thus females must be able to replenish fat reserves and provision the embryo's yolk during the short wet season in winter and spring. Cordylus cataphractus does seem to be able to replenish its energy reserves quickly. This species has a notably low resting metabolic rate and very low activity levels during the dry summer season, but individuals rapidly regain fat reserves in winter and spring. This ability may be related to its group-living habit and the extended care that it is able to give its offspring. (Branch, 1998; Flemming and Mouton, 2002; Fogel, 2002; Viasgie, et al., 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


Cordylus cataphractus is a potentially long lived species, with life spans reaching 20 to 25 years in captivity. Average and maximum life span in the wild is apparently not known. (Fogel, 2002)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    25 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    20 years


Armadillo lizards are social lizards that live in groups of 2 to 60 individuals, averaging 2 to 6. This is unique because permanent group living is not common among lizards. It has been shown that groups are not necessarily composed exclusively of family units and inter-group movement is high. Males, females, and juveniles all leave and join different groups. This movement occurs both during, and outside of, the mating season. Males are extremely territorial. In groups with multiple males, space is partitioned among them. Although there is some aggression between males in a group, it is much lower than the aggression shown to an outside male. Females and juveniles do not have established territories. Males defend territories that include more than one female. Females move between different territories, mating with multiple males. (Effenberger and Mouton, 2007; Els, 2008; Fogel, 2002; Shuttleworth, 2007; Viasgie, et al., 2002)

Home Range

Home ranges typically consists of a rock crevice and closely adjacent veld habitat. Foraging lizards that are approached usually move to a crevice for shelter. (Effenberger and Mouton, 2007; Els, 2008)

Communication and Perception

Armadillo lizards perform several actions that help them communicate with one another, including head bobbing, tail wagging, or tongue flicking. These signals can aid in reproduction, or, in the case of tongue flicking, can warn unfamiliar lizards to leave. (Effenberger and Mouton, 2007; Els, 2008; Fogel, 2002)

Food Habits

The diet of Cordylus cataphractus consists mainly of insects. After spring rains armadillo lizards feed extensively on their most important pry, southern harvester termites (Hodotermes mossambicus), which are very plentiful at that time of the year. They are very active when termites are abundant, but remain rather inactive when food is scarce during the dry summer months. Armadillo lizards also feed on beetles, millipedes, scorpions, and plant material. They can regain lost weight quickly after fasting during the dry season. (Els, 2008; Flemming and Mouton, 2002; S., 2001; Shuttleworth, 2007)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • fruit


Armadillo lizards are undoubtedly preyed on by a number of vertebrate predators, though their spiny defenses may discourage many potential enemies. As with many social animals, the large number of alert associates watching for danger can decrease the chance that a predator will approach unseen. When an armadillo lizard sees a predator, its behavior soon alerts all of them to the threat. This lizard species is comparatively sluggish and slow-moving, so living in a cooperative group gives them more time to escape and most of their time is spent close to crevices in which they can hide. They may be most vulnerable to birds of prey. Humans may be the biggest threat, as these lizards are often collected illegally for the pet trade. Armadillo lizards move relatively slowly, and are easily caught by hand if they are out in the open. Living in groups makes them unusually vulnerable to mass-collection. (Effenberger and Mouton, 2007; Els, 2008; Shuttleworth, 2007; Viasgie, et al., 2002)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Armadillo lizards eat termites and other insects and may play a modest role in controlling insect populations. They are probably not eaten in sufficient numbers by other animals to make a significant impact as a source of food. (Els, 2008; Flemming and Mouton, 2002; S., 2001; Shuttleworth, 2007)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Armadillo lizards have an unusual appearance and are rather easy to catch. They are captured and sold in the commercial pet trade to other countries. Although collecting this species is illegal, enforcement is difficult and poachers usually smuggle them out of South Africa. While illegal and locally damaging to lizard populations, this collecting is a source of income for some people and a source of interest and amusement for people buying the lizards as pets, perhaps ignorant of the illegal nature of their purchase. (Els, 2008; Fogel, 2002; Shuttleworth, 2007)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

This species has no negative effects on human interests.

Conservation Status

Cordylus cataphractus is listed as "vulnerable" in the Red Data Book of South Africa and is protected by law. This species is threatened by illegal collection for pet trade as well as habitat degradation, and has locally declined in numbers. Although armadillo lizards are still common in parts of their range, populations will not remain stable if current trends persist. Local community involvement will be needed to conserve this species. ("Rare Conservation", 2006)

In rural Namaqualand (a biodiversity hotspot located along the Atlantic coast of South Africa and Namibia), Rare Pride Campaign Manager Morne Farmer tries to spread awareness of the illegal pet trade affecting armadillo lizards. Targeting 24,000 community members, posters and fact sheets were distributed that highlighted threats to the animals that are affected by this illegal trade. Presentations about conservation were given, and a giant mascot of Cordylus cataphractus was placed in its natural habitat. The result of this awareness campaign was a 45% increase in local residents knowledge and identification of Cordylus cataphractus and 85% of farmers could identify 3 effects of overgrazing as opposed to 48% before the campaign. The results of this one campaign will have lasting impacts on the wild population of armadillo lizards. More of these conservation attempts will ensure the continued survival of this unique species. ("Rare Conservation", 2006)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kyle Bouchard (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor, instructor), Michigan State University.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


an animal that mainly eats meat


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs develop within the maternal body without additional nourishment from the parent and hatch within the parent or immediately after laying.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


uses sight to communicate


2006. "Rare Conservation" (On-line). Pride Success Stories. Accessed December 12, 2008 at

Branch, B. 1998. A Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Sanibel Island, Florida: Ralph Curtis Books.

Effenberger, E., P. Mouton. 2007. Space Used in multi-male group of the group-living lizard. Journal of Zoology, 2: 202-208. Accessed December 12, 2008 at

Els, J. 2008. "Armadillo girdled lizard - Cordylus cataphractus - Information - ARKive" (On-line). Accessed December 12, 2008 at

Flemming, A., P. Mouton. 2002. Reproduction in a Group-Living Lizard, Cordylus cataphractus (Cordylidae), from South Africa. Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 36, No.4: 691-696. Accessed December 12, 2008 at


Patterson, R. 1987. Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town: C. Struik Ltd..

S., Z. 2001. "Armadillo Lizard - Cordylus cataphractus" (On-line). Accessed December 12, 2008 at

Shuttleworth, C. 2007. "SCARCE" (On-line). Accessed December 12, 2008 at

Viasgie, L., P. Mouton, A. Flemming. 2002. Intergroup-movement in a group-living lizard, Cordylus cataphractus, from South Africa. African Journal of Herpetology, 51: 75-80. Accessed December 12, 2008 at

World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 2008. "IUCN 2008 Red List - Cordylus cataphractus" (On-line). Accessed December 12, 2008 at