Africa Savannah Monitor

African Savannah Monitor


Found throughout most of Africa south of the Sahara


Prefers savannah or grassland areas, but are also found in rocky, semi-desert, open forest, and woodland habitats


This lizard is a thick, stocky monitor with a wide head, short neck and tail. The tail tapers and has a double toothed crest. The basic color is grey to a light yellow. The head has often light yellow markings. There are symmetrical rows of circular, dark edged yellow spots across the animal's back. The tail has alternating brown and yellowish rings. The belly and the inside of the limbs are yellowish-grey or gray to brown in color. Its tongue is snake-like (forked) and blue.

Juvenile savannah monitors lack the teeth. Adult monitors have teeth that are quite blunt to help them crack and eat snails. The jaw has evolved to put maximum leverage at the back of the jaw to crush snail shells. They swallow their food whole or in large pieces and are able to dislocate their hyoid bone in order to enlarge their throat.

African Savannah Monitor

This lizard’s feeding habits revolve around the weather. They use a feast and fast system. They feast during the wet season when food is plentiful and easy to find. This wet season lasts for about eight months, during which a lizard may consume up to one tenth of its own body weight in a single day. During the dry season they then live off the fat reserves they built up over the “feast season”.

Unlike most animals, savannah monitors have evolved a way to eat poisonous millipedes. The lizard rubs its chin on the millipede for up to fifteen minutes before eating it. It is believed that doing this makes the millipede excrete the distasteful fluid. The lizard will then eat it when the supply of this fluid is exhausted.

This lizard will rest in burrows and in trees. It is a very good climber. It is also an excellent digger but often claims abandoned burrows that have originally been dug by mammals. If hollows in trees are available they are also used. Savannah monitors have also been found in termite mounds. Males are very territorial and will defend their territory very aggressively.

Males are very territorial and will try to intimidate each other by hissing, thrashing their tails, and inflating their throats. If one of the males does not back away, they will wrestle and bite each other, sometimes inflicting serious wounds.

When a monitor lizard is threatened by a predator, it will hiss loudly, thrash its tail, and strike. If that doesn’t work, some have been known to play dead or to evacuate their systems with foul- smelling fecal matter.


When a male finds a female, he will follow her until she submits. Mating is initiated by a courtship display including head nodding by the male and occasionally biting and scratching the neck and legs of the female. The breeding season occurs during the wet season. About four weeks after mating, the female lays 10 to 50 eggs.

The female will dig a nest that is five to 11 inches deep. Some females lay their eggs in termite mounds. After five to six months at an incubation temperature between 84 -86°F the young hatch. They are about five and a half inches long at hatching. About 4 weeks after hatching the small monitors start catching food.

Interesting Facts:

  • The name “monitor” comes from the belief that Nile monitor lizards watched for Nile crocodiles and warned people of their approach – Nile monitor lizards were most likely searching for crocodile eggs
  • Are also called Bosc's monitor
  • Until 1989 the white-throated monitor and the savanna monitor were considered to be the same species.
  • Monitors fill an important niche in their habitats, often being one of the only large land carnivores.

About Our Animals:

The Zoo is currently home to two savannah monitor lizards.


The species is hunted for its leather and meat and for the international pet trade. Over 30,000 live savannah monitors were imported into the US each year between 2000 and 2009, with total imports of live specimens into the US between 2000 and 2010 over 325,000 animals. During the same period over 1000 skins, shoes and products of the species were imported into the U.S.

Reptiles are important components of the food webs in most ecosystems. They fill a critical role both as predator and prey species. Herbivorous species can also be important seed dispersers, particularly on island habitats. Reptile species can also be useful to people, in some areas, they help control the numbers of serious agricultural pests by consuming rodent and insect pests.

Don’t buy products, particularly when you’re abroad, made from reptile skins such as handbags and boots.

Did YOU Know?    
These lizards flick their forked tongues to “taste” the air. This extra sense is used primarily for hunting. However, during the breeding season, it also helps them find a mate.
African Savannah Monitor
Class: reptiles
Order: Varanidae
Family: Varanus
Genus: Varanus
Species: exanthematicus
Length: 3 to 4 feet
Weight: 5 pounds
Average Lifespan: Approximately 8 -10 years in the wild and 15 to 20 years in captivity.
Wild Diet: Adults feed on snails, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, eggs as well as dead animals. Juveniles are primarily insectivores
Zoo Diet: crickets, meal worms, wax worms, earth worms, king/super worms, mice, k-9 diet, chunk meat, fish
Predators: snakes, birds and people
USFWS Status: Not listed
Where at the Zoo? Small Animal Building

Learn more about reptiles or animals from Africa!
Or, cross-reference the two!