Natural History of Bearded Dragons

Bearded dragons are agamid lizards belonging to the genus Pogona (formerly Amphibolurus, under which name they are found in books published up to just a couple of years ago). There are seven species, of which the most common in the pet trade is the P. vitticeps, the inland or central (also called the yellow-headed) bearded dragon is the most widely available.

Bearded dragons live in the arid, rocky, semi-desert regions and arid open woodlands. They are adept climbers, spending time on branches and in bushes, even found on fence posts when living near human habitation. They also bask on rocks and exposed branches in the mornings and afternoons.  These diurnal lizards are omnivores, voracious eaters of invertebrates and small vertebrates alike. They also forage for soft plant matter, including greens, fruits, and flowers. Like most desert dwellers, beardies spend the hottest part of the day in underground burrows.

When threatened, the dragons flatten out their bodies, making themselves look wider. The “beard” in the dragon’s name comes from its flared-out throat, done to scare off conspecifics and potential predators. This threatening vision is enhanced by a gaping mouth. Such behavior is rarely seen in captivity, however, as these lizards adapt so well to their human caretakers. The most one usually sees is a flattening of the body and a small flare to the black “beard.”

Dragons are social animals, which is one of the reasons they are engaging and interested in their surroundings in captivity. They frequently become very secure in their environment and soon stop displaying their beard. The young especially perform a distinctive “wave” as a way of communicating nonaggression. Beardies also use their tongue to check out their environment.

Handling Bearded Dragons

Gently scoop up your dragon with your hand under its belly. Dragons tend to be very trusting and will not necessarily hold on as will other lizards, so always take care to support your dragon. They do not like being firmly held; let them rest in your palm with your fingers gently curled over the back.

Housing Recommendations for Bearded Dragons

  • Enclosure should be large enough to maintain a temperature gradient vertically and horizontally.
  • Despite their relatively modest size bearded dragons are still considered by many to be a “giant” lizard and they require generous space. Males tend to be territorial, making even 50-gallon tanks too small for them.
  • Beardies can be surprisingly quick (trotting with their bodies raised well off the ground), making top-opening enclosures a must. A top to the enclosure is required; this will keep the dragon from taking off on its own and will keep the crickets inside the tank.
  • Tanks must be well-ventilated, yet able to retain heat. Tanks with parts of their top or sides made of screen often work well. Make sure the tank top is large enough and sturdy enough to hold a full-spectrum/UV light and a fixture for supplemental heating.
  • Adult beardies will cheerfully eat animals smaller than themselves, so hatchlings should not be housed with juveniles or adults.

Cage Substrate for Bearded Dragons

In their native environment, beardies live in sandy desert areas. Unfortunately, in captivity, this can lead to an overly dry environment and a chronically dehydrated beardie.  Problems you will see that stem from chronic dehydration include problems shedding (causing eye infections or even loss of toes) and constipation.  Other problems with sand include inadvertent ingestion and subsequent GI obstruction as well as sand becoming stuck in eyes causing infections.

There is no question that the proper sand layered thickly on the bottom of the tank, make for an attractive vivarium.  At MedVet Hilliard, we see multiple pet beardies present for problems associated with sand, even the sand that is marketed as “digestible”.  For these reasons, we recommend the options listed below for substrate:

  • Indoor/outdoor carpeting, butcher paper, unprinted newspaper, paper towels, terry towels.
  • There are also commercially available substrates including carpets and bark.
  • Do not use sand (for the reasons listed above), corn or walnut cob, alfalfa pellets, kitty litter, or wood shavings.
  • Regular replacement of the substrate assures the environment remains as healthy as possible for the dragon.
  • A thorough cleaning should be performed several times a year. This should be done with a 1:32 bleach dilution, rinsed completely and allowed to air dry.

Heat/Light Recommendations for Bearded Dragons

Beardies need daily access to a UVB source, either being regularly exposed to direct sunlight, or to UVB-producing fluorescent tube such as Duro-Test’s Vita-Lite or Vita-Lite Plus, Zoo Med’s Iguana light or similar UVB-producing fluorescent tube.

  • Daytime temperature gradient from 75F to 85F
  • Basking area from 90F-100F.
  • Night time temperature no lower than 70F.
  • We recommend a heat lamp rather than heat rocks due to the potential for burns from heat rocks.
  • Place thermometers where your beardie spends his/her time!
    • Digital thermometers are the most accurate.
  • Incandescent lights, while suitable for use as heat sources, do not provide the full spectrum required by reptiles. The term “full spectrum” is incorrectly used by incandescent light manufacturers whose lights are suitable only for producing heat and light; they do not produce the UVB required for calcium metabolism.

Water Recommendations for Bearded Dragons

  • Always provide fresh water for your dragon. It should be in a bowl or dish shallow enough for your lizard to see easily into and drink out of; deeper bowls can be half-sunk into the substrate.
  • Your bearded will enjoy a shower/bath now and then.
    • We recommend soaking your bearded dragon in luke warm water, once weekly.
  • They should also have a slightly humid hiding area available to them.
    • We recommend peat moss or a damp towel that should be changed daily. Although they are desert animals, in the wild, they have hiding areas that are higher in humidity.  This helps maintain hydration and promote normal shedding.  The tank, however, should never be damp.

Diet Recommendations for Bearded Dragons

Bearded dragons are omnivores that accept a wide variety of foods. Variety is the key to good nutrition and foods offered should include:

  • Vegetable matter, offered as a chopped salad, should make up approximately 50-55% of the adult dragon diet.
    • Dark leafy greens (such as collard greens, kale, romaine, dandelion, turnip greens,mustard greens, beet greens, bok choy, Swiss chard, spinach, chicory, escarole)
    • Other chopped or grated vegetables may comprise up to 20% of the diet (squash,zucchini, sweet potato, broccoli, peas, carrot, beans, okra, bean sprouts, tofu)
  • Animal matter should make up approximately 25% of the adult dragon diet.
    • Appropriately sized crickets (body length 2/3 the size of the dragon’s head), earthworms, grasshoppers, superworms (Zophobas), wax worms, locusts
      • When fed prey that is too large for them, serious physical problems often result: partial paralysis, seizures, ataxia (loss of motor control), inability to self-feed, gut impaction, and even death.
      • Make sure the invertebrates are freshly molted to reduce the amount of tough, indigestible exoskeleton the dragon will ingest; exoskeletons can cause intestinal impaction so the least amount ingested the better.
      • Pinky mice
      • Avoid lightning bugs, as they can be toxic.
    • Fruit should make up no more than 5% of the diet and should include nutrient dense items such as papaya, melon, and banana.
    • Offer non-toxic flower blossoms such as hibiscus as occasional treats.

Feed your invertebrate prey before feeding your dragon. Prey animals bought from pet stores are generally in dire need of a good meal, having subsisted on cardboard or bran for several days at least. Sprinkle or dust prey with a calcium supplement just before feeding them to your lizard 3 to 5 times a week (more for baby and pregnant dragons), and use a multivitamin supplement 2 to 3 times a week (more for babies and pregnant females). Prepare an enclosure for your crickets, furnishing it with pieces of egg crate or cardboard cores from paper towels and toilet paper. Pieces of fruits and vegetables, as well as food such as high-protein baby cereal mixed with reptile vitamins, tropical fish flakes, and rodent chow, all make suitable foods.

Suggested Feeding Schedules for Bearded Dragons

  • <1 month old: Feed 2-3 times daily (crickets, vegetable matter)
  • 1-4 months old: Feed twice daily (crickets, veggies, occasional mealworm)
  • 4 months to adult: Feed once daily (crickets, mealworms, pinky mice, salad every other day)
  • Adult: Feed every 1-2 days (crickets, vegetables); pinky or fuzzy mouse once weekly

Resources for Additional Information on Bearded Dragons

 

We hope this information helps you care for your Bearded Dragon.