‘How long will it live?’ is a question we are often asked. And it’s not as easy to answer as you might think!
There are many things that affect how long an animal lives for. When we are talking about our reptiles, the biggest factor is husbandry, or how we keep them. For instance, if you keep your lizard too cold it might survive for a long time, but it isn’t doing anything more than just that – surviving. So when we ask how long they live, what do we actually mean?
For the purposes of this article, it means how long an animal’s lifespan will be if kept in good condition with correct husbandry, the right lighting, a good diet, and species appropriate levels of supplementation.
The other issue that can skew the figures is where the sample is taken from. A vet will tend to estimate lifespan at a lower level than we will, because they are seeing pets that are already sick. We deal mostly with healthy, well looked after animals – which are, of course, going to live longer.
Not to mention the fact that nothing dies simply from ‘old age’; respiratory failure, heart failure, cancer – yes, and all of these become much more common as animals grow older. So although they may not die of old age itself, they may be felled by the diseases of old age.
Doing some research on the internet threw up some very interesting (and rather depressing, at times) answers. Obviously, when you live and work with as many reptiles as we do you get your own ideas as to how long they live, and of course you also hear from customers how long their animals are living for.
Another part of the problem is that with species that are often rehomed – corn snakes are a classic example of this – it’s often impossible to tell how old they actually are. So a corn snake that is taken on as an adult could be anywhere between five and fifteen years old; there is no way to tell, and if every owner has given the vague answer of ‘oh, about four or five-ish’ to the next person, then that animal could be very elderly indeed.
(There is a joke that you can age snakes by cutting them in half and counting the rings – this is not true, so please don’t do it!)
The vast majority of reptiles are very difficult to age accurately. You can tell a baby, a young adult and a very old animal, but not a great deal else. So a lot of the figures are speculative at best; you can go on how long the animal has been owned by an individual, and how old it was when they obtained it.
The figures set out below come mostly from two websites – The Max Planck Institute For Demographic Research (http://www.demogr.mpg.de/longevityrecords/0403.htm) and PondTurtle.com (http://www.pondturtle.com/longev.html), as well as our own experience. They are the maximum ages recorded, not average.
MPI – Max Planck Institute, PT – PondTurtle, PE – Personal Experience
- Corn snake Pantherophis guttata
21.8 years (MPI), 9 to 32 years (PT), 26 years (PE)
- Royal Python Python regius
8.7 to 30.5 years (MPI), 9 to 47 years (PT), 40 years (PE)
- Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps
10 years (PT), 17 years (PE)
- Leopard Gecko Eublepharis macularius
4.9 years (MPI), 6 to 28 years (PT), 22 years (PE)
- Panther Chameleon Furcifer pardalis
10 years (PE)
- Oriental Fire-bellied Toad Bombina orientalis
2.3 years (MPI), 2 to 15 years (PT), 15 years (PE)
- Mediterranean Spur Thigh Tortoise Testudo graeca
4.7 years (MPI), 4 to 127 years (PT), 80 years (PE)
- Horsfield Tortoise Testudo horsfieldi
10 years (PT), 6 to 10 years (PE)
Some of these figures came as a surprise – especially the lack of information on the longevity of Panther chameleons. And the figures available for tortoises still make for grim reading some thirty two years after the trade in wild caught Mediterraneans was banned. The figures for Horsfield’s may be skewed by the fact that they haven’t been imported for long, and as they are not required to be microchipped or have any record of breeding or trading they are probably bought, sold and given away regularly, with no idea how old they actually are.
This is also true of Crested Geckos (Correlophus ciliatus); they were only rediscovered in 1994, so the numbers of deaths from old age are still uncertain.
Royal pythons appear to be capable of surprisingly long life spans; the record is 47 years for a wild caught male in the Philadelphia zoo. He could well have been older, as 47 years is how long they had him before he passed away!
We do encounter a surprising number of elderly animals, and have certainly heard from the vets we work with that they are starting to see diseases of old age in animals where previously poor husbandry would have carried them off first. But the available figures for tortoises are still simply not good enough.
Breeding can make an enormous difference to reptile longevity, as some colour and/or pattern morphs are renowned for being problematic or carry a higher level of birth defects. How hard a life an animal has had, if it’s been kept at the correct temperature or the other usual husbandry issues.
We would certainly be very interested to hear of your experience with reptile lifespans!