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Choosing a Bearded Dragon

By: R. D. and Patti Bartlett

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Bearded dragons are one of the more ideal pet lizards. They have a readily available diet, are not so nervous that they injure their nose on their terrarium sides, and are adult at a size that is easily housed.

Although they are not difficult to handle, excessive handling can be detrimental to the lizard's long-term well being. If kept dry and warm and provided with a proper diet, a longevity in excess of seven years can be expected for a bearded dragon.

Contained in the Old World lizard family, the Agamidae, there are about eight species of dragons in the Australian genus Pogona. Despite not all having the beards (a distensible chin area) that are to hobbyists the hallmark of the genus, all are commonly referred to as bearded dragons.

Only one dragon is truly common in American herpetoculture: the inland bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. At slightly more than 20 inches in total length, P. vitticeps is one of the two largest species of dragon (if not actually the largest), being equaled in size only by the coastal bearded dragon, P. barbatus.

The range of the inland bearded dragon includes much of interior eastern and central Australia. Dragons, like all Australian wildlife, are protected and exportation for the pet market from Australia is not permitted. Those now present in American herpetoculture are probably descendants from dragons bred by European hobbyists.

Although bearded dragons were occasionally available in the United States prior to the 1980s, it was in that decade that they became truly popular. They are now commonly bred by many herpetoculturists, and great emphasis has been placed on enhancing the dragon's often drab coloration. Among other color strains now available, Bob Mailloux's "sandfire" strain and Pete Weiss' "flame" strain have become legendary in the hobby.

Appearance

In overall appearance, the bearded dragon is quite a typical appearing lizard. About 14 inches of their 20-inch overall length is tail. The eight-inch-long body is of heavy build, somewhat flattened and spinose. The head is large, has many spinose scales laterally, and the throat has a spiny, distensible beard.

The legs are well developed, strong, and fully capable of carrying a startled lizard quickly across the ground. The color varies from tannish-gray to a quite brilliant orange. Lighter dorso-lateral striping (often broken into a series of dashes) are often evident. The lizard is dark when cold or inactive, and lighter or brighter in color when warm and active. Hatchlings are less brilliantly colored, but often more strongly patterned, than the adults and about three inches in total length.

Behavior

Baby bearded dragons may be quite nervous, but they generally become more "laid back" as they approach adulthood. When housed in groups, a curious arm waving appeasement gesture (termed circumduction) is frequently displayed.

The beard is an integral part of a male bearded dragon's territorial display. When a male displays, the beard blackens and is distended. The male flattens his body and tilts towards the other male hoping that size and actions alone will drive the interloper away. If display doesn't work, they will usually engage in an actual skirmish.

Bearded dragons are semi-arboreal. They readily climb onto limbs and perches when these are provided. The climbing limbs should be at least the diameter of the dragon's body. Bearded dragons are heliothermic (sun-basking) lizards that are quiescent when the illumination is not sufficiently bright. They often bask on rocks and limbs at temperatures of from 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Although several females (either with or without a single male) will usually coexist well, no more than one male should be kept in each cage. In fact, during the breeding season, males can be so territorially competetive that the mere sight of a second individual -- even in another cage across a room -- will cause a male to indulge in almost continual, stressful displays.

As with most heliotherms, bearded dragons benefit greatly from ultraviolet rays. It has been demonstrated that UV-B permits a heliothermic reptiles to synthesize pre-vitamin D3, which in turn facilitates the metabolism of calcium. These processes are necessary to avoid metabolic bone disease, and should be duplicated as best possible with UV-B emitting bulbs if your bearded dragons are housed indoors.

For an alert and active lizard, bearded dragons settle down nicely in captivity. Although they tolerate handling fairly well, this does not necessarily mean that the lizards enjoy it. Occasionally, when approached by a human hand, the dragons will hunker down and partially or fully close their eyes. This body language generally means, please, I'm a lizard, I don't really want to be petted. This response is especially apparent if the lizards are merely rubbed with a finger rather than being lifted. Handle your bearded dragons sparingly.

Feeding

Although preferentially insectivorous, especially when young, bearded dragons are one of the more omnivorous lizard species.

Captives should be fed a varied diet of greens (collards, turnip, and mustard), gut-loaded insects, and some fruit. A very occasional pinky-mouse will also usually be eagerly accepted.

Although these lizards will thrive if provided with ample ultraviolet light, they will also survive for lengthy periods without UV. Note that the difference here is survive as opposed to thrive.

Greens and fruit should be lightly dusted with D3-calcium supplements thrice weekly for fast-growing babies or ovulating females, and once or twice weekly otherwise. Food insects should be fed a good, healthy, diet, preferably of beta-carotene containing vegetables (such as shredded carrots and sweet potatoes).

Although bearded dragons apparently derive much of their needed water from their food, a shallow dish of fresh water should always be available.

Housing

Although from one to three hatchling bearded dragons can live well in a 20 gallon long terrarium, if properly cared for, the lizards will soon outgrow these surroundings. We suggest that from one to three adults (only a single male, please) be provided a terrarium of no less than 75-gallon capacity, and a 100-gallon tank would be better.

These are aridland lizards that do well on a desert-sand substrate, but which may also be kept on other dry substrates as well. Low ambient humidity is preferred by bearded dragons. Although we suggested above that water be always available, in very humid areas, to keep the terrarium humidity low, it may be best to offer the lizards drinking water for only a few hours daily. Do not place the water bowl over a heating pad or beneath a basking light.

A basking light (preferentially one with high UV-A/UV-B output) should elevate the temperature on one end of the tank to about 120 degrees F. The cool end of the tank can be allowed to remain in the 78-90 degree range. The lighting should be turned off at night, when temperatures can be allowed to drop into the low 70s. Undertank heaters may assist in elevating and stabilizing daytime highs and nighttime lows.

Common Diseases and Disorders

When calcium is present in insufficient amounts or is not properly metabolized, metabolic bone disease may occur.

Broken bones may occur if your lizard jumps or falls from any great height.

Although dragons are not especially prone to tail autotomizing, this can occur.

Bites requiring treatment may occur during territorial skirmishes or breeding activities.

Dystocia (egg-binding) may occur when calcium deficiency occurs or when a gravid female voluntarily retains her eggs due to inadequate deposition sites.

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