The inland bearded dragon (aka bearded dragon), Pogona vitticeps, is an extremely popular pet, both in the United States and abroad. However, wide availability does not signify that this lizard should in any way be "taken for granted" - it is a fascinating animal, and recent research has uncovered startling facts about it. As is true for even the hardiest of lizards, the bearded dragon also has very specific needs, which must be met if it is to thrive as a pet.
Younger hobbyists may be surprised to learn that this species was virtually unknown in the USA, even in zoos, not long ago. Today, the inland bearded dragon is a pet trade staple, with thousands being bred by hobbyists each year. Oddly enough, all pet trade animals seem to have originated from a small group smuggled out of Australia (where they are strictly protected) to Germany in the early 1980's. They are legal to own in the USA, but, technically….. Description
In 2005, researchers at Australia's Melbourne University discovered, much to the surprise of the herpetological community, that the bearded dragon has glands that produce mild venom. Apparently harmless to people, the venom seems to be holdover from the distant past. Bearded dragons are the only members of their family, the Agamidae, thus far known to produce venom. Several unrelated lizards, such as the beaded lizards, Helodema horridum, Gila monsters, H. suspectum, Komodo dragons, Varanus komodoensis and lace monitors V. varius, also produce venoms of varying strengths.
The inland bearded dragon is found in central Australia and in non-coastal areas of eastern Australia. Six additional species range throughout the continent and into New Guinea. It favors dry savannah and scrub, semi-deserts, rocky outcrops and open forest. Although a ground-dweller, the bearded dragon climbs well and uses rocks and stumps as basking sites and as platforms from which to launch attacks on insects moving about below. Diurnal, it basks at temperatures of 125 F for short periods and shelters in self-dug burrows during extremely hot or cold weather. Bearded Dragons in Captivity
This stoutly built lizard reaches 16-24 inches in length and has conical scales about the throat. The color ranges from light to dark brown, usually with darker spots and markings on the back. Breeding males develop black throats. Yellow, off-white and spectacular reddish-orange ("sandfire phase") morphs have been developed by breeders.
When threatened, bearded dragons utilize a unique hyoid bone structure to expand their throat and expose the pointed scales that cover it. In common with related species, they use body posture and actions, such as "semaphoring" (arm waving), to communicate.
The bearded dragon is classified within the family Agamidae, which contains over 300 lizard species. Among the more unusual Agamids are the 40 or so species of Draco, the "flying lizards" - the only lizards to have developed elongated ribs to assist in gliding (flying geckos, Ptychozoon spp. have small skin flaps along their sides). Their ribs are covered by brightly colored skin (the patagium), which, when extended, allows for "flights" of at least 50 feet and considerable in-air maneuverability.
The eggs, 10-30 in number, are buried in the soil and hatch in 55-75 days. Captive females may produce 4-6 clutches each year, but this may be a function of diet - it is not known if this holds true in the wild. The young average 4 inches long upon hatching.
In the wild, bearded dragons consume flowers, plants, seeds, fruits, spiders, beetles, snails, scorpions and other invertebrates. They also occasionally take smaller lizards, snakes and the young of mammals such as planigales (tiny, mouse-like marsupials) and honey possums. Largely carnivorous when young, they switch to a plant-based diet with maturity.
Bearded dragons take well to captivity if attention is paid to their habitat and diet. Pet dragons become quite calm, and take gentle handing in stride. As with all pets, you should wash your hands well after contact (and, never show your affection by kissing your lizard!). Although not quite as active as some other lizards, bearded dragons should be provided with as much space as possible. The young can be reared in 10 to 20 gallon aquariums, but a single adult requires a cage measuring at least 18 x 36 inches. Larger enclosures are preferred -- not only in order to give the animal more room to move about, but also because with additional space your pet will have increased opportunities to thermo-regulate, or adjust his body temperature by moving from the hotter to cooler areas. In small cages with a hot basking spot - and that provided to your pet should be in the range of 100-120 F - the air tends to remain the same temperature throughout. Bearded dragons also require high UVB levels, so be sure to equip your terrarium with a high quality UVB bulb. Captive Diet
Despite their generally calm temperaments, bearded dragons are sometimes aggressive towards each other. Females usually co-exist, but males are intolerant of other males and cannot be kept together. If you keep your lizards in a group, make certain that each is able to bask and to obtain enough to eat. Dominant animals can inhibit others even without direct aggression (think "nasty glance from class bully!").
Most bearded dragons prefer insects over vegetables, but they should be offered both. Salad can consist of kale, string beans, collard greens, squash, dandelion and other greens. Vary the salad's mixture with seasonally available produce, and also offer dandelion and hibiscus blossoms (be sure to gather from areas not exposed to pesticides, and wash well). Do not feed spinach, as it binds calcium and may make it unavailable to your pets. Resources
The insect portion of the diet can be composed of crickets, super mealworms, waxworms, roaches, silk worms, horn worms and other commercially available species. Be sure to provide insects with a nutritious diet for a day or two before using if possible and always offer several small as opposed to one large insect. The insects should be coated with a vitamin/mineral powder once each week if feeding adult lizards, 3-4 times each week for juveniles. Regular mealworms (the small species, Tenebrio) are very high in chitin and best used rarely if at all. However, the beetles into which they transform are an excellent food item, and That Pet Place suggests you establish a colony.
Wild caught insects, as long as you can recognize dangerous species and avoid pesticide-contaminated areas, should be offered whenever possible. A light trap will supply moths, flies, beetles and others. The intensity of your pet's reaction to novel insects will leave you with no doubt as to their benefit. Do not feed pink mice to your lizard - although they occasionally consume small mammals in the wild, bearded dragons cannot cope with them on a frequent basis. Over-use of pink mice will lead to corneal opacities (fat deposits in the eye) and liver damage. Some dragons will lap water from a bowl, but a light misting each morning will suffice as well. If you provide a bowl, be sure that water does not splash out - your lizard's habitat should be dry, and provided with good ventilation.
A number of commercial bearded dragon diets are also available - these show great promise and can be used as 25% or so of your pet's diet.
You can learn more about the other species of bearded dragons, and their relatives, at: http://www.reptile-database.orgAbout The Author
For more articles by Frank Indiviglio visit That Reptile Blog or read his biography.
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*with the exception of coastal Queensland and New South Wales