When we published the first issue of REPTILES magazine back in the fall of 1993, the green iguana (Iguana iguana) was king of the pet lizard world. When you visited pet stores or one of the reptile shows back then (when they were much smaller, fewer and more far between than these days), you could bet your bottom dollar that you would see green iguanas being paraded around on their owners’ shoulders. When you heard the words "pet lizard,” the green iguana instantly came to mind, and this impressive green lizard with the cool spines down its back became an outright icon of the pet industry.
Bearded dragon. Photo by Gina Cioli/i5 Studio
Due to its meteoric popularity and the proliferation of inexpensive hatchling green iguanas being sold as pets everywhere you looked, and to help avoid unnecessary green iguana fatalities due to impulse buying, books and magazines began delving more deeply into green iguana captive care. And guess what—word began to get out that the green iguana, while still a stunning example of lizard flesh, was actually not the best pet for many reptile enthusiasts, especially the young children who were begging for baby iguanas at the pet stores. This was because, as is now well known, green iguanas get very large (up to 6 feet), they require very specific care requirements in order to thrive, and, sometimes, they can be a bit testy, especially the males during breeding season. I had a large male named Yombo, and I found myself on the receiving end of his whipping tail on more than one occasion, usually when he was exhibiting the bright orange coloration he would have during breeding season.
So while still very impressive and popular, the green iguana turned out to be better suited for more specialized reptile keepers with a lot of experience and adequate space to house them properly, rather than a lizard pet for the masses. And thus the throne of the lizard king was ripe for a takeover. Enter the bearded dragon.
Why They’re Great Pets
Around the same time it was being discovered that with the ownership of a green iguana came much responsibility—responsibility that was unfortunately beyond the capacity of many reptile enthusiasts—the inland, or central, bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) was making big strides and racking up many devotees within the growing reptile industry. As a matter of fact, one reason the industry was growing was because of the bearded dragon, as it was a nearly immediate hit with pet owners. Here’s why:
- It was cool looking, with its spiky appearance and, in the case of males, its black throat that could be puffed out like a beard when the lizard was agitated (hence the common name).
- It didn’t grow to an unmanageable size, maxing out at around 2 feet.
- It was hardy, and made an alert, active and entertaining—even amusing—pet.
- It was also mellow, content to lay about on an owner’s shoulder, and it tolerated handling very well.
- Overall, the bearded dragon was easy to care for, due to its size, hearty appetite and the fact that, generally, desert dwellers, such as the bearded dragon, usually require less fuss to maintain than tropical reptiles.
Ironically, we get to enjoy the bearded dragon as a pet in the United States and elsewhere in the world likely due to a criminal act of long ago. This is because the bearded dragon hails from Australia, and Australia outlaws the exportation of its indigenous wildlife, and certainly not to supply the pet industry. Yet somehow, the bearded dragon made its way to the U.S. and into private collections, where it soon demonstrated another reason it’s a favorite pet lizard: it proved to be a ready breeder in captivity.
The rest is history. Thanks to rampant captive breeding (and it’s always best to purchase captive-bred animals over wild-caught ones, assuming anyone is even bothering to sell wild-caught beardies anymore), the bearded dragon is now arguably the most popular pet lizard in the U.S., with the leopard gecko most likely the second most popular. In the meantime, don’t feel bad for the green iguana—it remains an icon in the pet reptile industry, as well as a cherished favorite in many circles.
Bearded dragons are not difficult to find, and you’ll see them for sale everywhere, whether in pet stores and reptile specialty shops, at reptile expos or online. There is no shortage of "beardies,” and hatchling bearded dragons, bins of which are a very common sight at reptile shows, typically measure about 4 inches in length. As mentioned, adults may average about 2 feet from snout to tail tip, with more than half of that the tail.
The standard coloration of a typical bearded dragon is varying shades of light tan or gray with darker tan, brown and/or reddish-brown markings. Thanks to selective breeding, you can also find specimens exhibiting a more intense red, orange, yellow and even some purple coloration. The belly tends to be white.
The skin of most specimens is covered with short, spiky tubercles. The spikes are more for show, to provide these mostly gentle lizards with a moderately fearsome appearance in order to deter would-be predators. Their spikes are not hard and stiff; they’re quite flimsy and cannot poke you or inflict injury. More recently on the bearded dragon front are the "leatherback” and other bearded dragon mutations with reduced to nonexistent spiky scales, giving them a more smooth appearance. While bearded dragon mutations are not being produced in the mind-boggling number that, for instance, ball pythons are, you never know what new type of beardie you might find.
The "beard” is a throat pouch covered with more elongate, darker, spiny scales. Both sexes have beards, but the male’s is more prominent, and they’re the ones known for displaying their black beards as an act of aggression, defensive measure or to attract females. They’ll puff them out in an impressive display, sometimes accompanied by head-bobbing. Pet beardies, however, because they often appear so darn content in a captive setting, are not usually prone to such displays.
Males have larger heads than females along with the more prominent beard. They also have more prominent femoral pores, located along the undersides of their legs near the vent, and these may exhibit a waxy secretion. Males’ tails are wider at the base, too—evidence of the hemipenes hidden within.
The bearded dragon has a good-sized mouth, equipped with rows of smallish, serrated teeth. I’ve been bitten and it didn’t hurt at all, though that’s not to say that a full-grown bearded dragon couldn’t inflict some damage should it choose to. That said, I’ve never heard of one choosing to do so; we’re talking about a very tolerant lizard that often becomes increasingly mellow by the time it’s a full-grown adult.
Many types of enclosures can be used with bearded dragons. The basic thing you want is a horizontally oriented enclosure that will allow you to provide a proper temperature gradient, and that will contain heat. In other words, some type of all-screen enclosure, unless it’s outdoors where the sun will heat it, is probably not your best bet. Bearded dragons are desert reptiles and they like it hot.
Aquariums or similar enclosures made especially for reptiles work well. A hatchling bearded dragon could be kept in a 10-gallon aquarium for awhile—a few could be kept in a 20—but these will be outgrown and eventually you’ll want an enclosure similar in size to a 55-gallon aquarium (approximately 48 inches long by 13 inches wide by 21 inches tall) for one or two adult beardies.
Bearded dragons aren’t big on climbing, so you need not provide them with a tall enclosure. A taller enclosure would also make it more difficult to heat your pets down at ground level where they’ll be hanging out. Both top-opening and front-opening enclosures will work, though many people opt for a top-opening enclosure secured by a screen top over it. This makes it easy to place a heating element on top of the screen in order to provide heat from above, which is the type favored by bearded dragons. Bearded dragons are not known for being adept escape artists, but you should still keep them in a secure enclosure to avoid potential problems, including not so much the lizards getting out, but maybe unwanted visitors (other pets, young children, etc.) from getting in.
Proper substrate for bearded dragons can be a debatable topic. Sand is often recommended and looks nice, especially the various types of "reptile sands” available in a variety of enclosure-enhancing colors, and which you can easily purchase in pet stores. According to their manufacturers, these sands are fully digestible (they’re calcium-based), and they do not pose a threat to bearded dragons resulting from possible intestinal impactions caused by the lizards accidentally eating some of the sand. Even so, some hobbyists are leery about using them and prefer to avoid all types of sand. I personally kept my bearded dragons on sand for years without any problem—and that was standard playground sand, which is not digestible (this was before today’s reptile-specific sands were available).
If you want to use sand, there are some recommended guidelines. First, it’s not recommended that you keep hatchlings on sand; they’re better off on newspaper, paper toweling or "reptile carpet” (also available in stores; be on the lookout for fraying areas over time, as you don’t want dragon toenails to get snagged on them). Second, if you use sand for a substrate, do not place your bearded dragons’ food directly on top of the sand. Offer it on a shallow dish or saucer to lessen the chance that your dragons will accidentally swallow some sand along with their food. Even if the sand is the digestible type, it’s still best to lessen the chance that your pets will eat it. Better safe than sorry, right?
If you prefer to avoid a 100-percent-sand substrate, other options are the previously mentioned newspaper (printed, or unprinted newsprint), paper towels or reptile carpet. All offer the convenience of easy cleaning, but the trade off is that paper is not the most attractive substrate. Another possibility that would provide a more attractive, natural appearance to the enclosure would be a soil and sand mixture using clean soil that has not been treated with any type of fertilizers or additives.
A bearded dragon’s favorite pastime is basking, so you must provide some basking sites, such as rocks, logs, pieces of driftwood, etc. Offer a few, especially if you have more than one lizard in the enclosure. You definitely want a basking area positioned beneath an overhead heat source (see the following section about heat and light).
Hiding places are important, too. Although bearded dragons are not as shy as some other reptiles, you still should provide places for them to hide. Hiding places provide security and can make the difference between a healthy bearded dragon and one that becomes stressed and gets sick because of it. So stack some rocks and/or driftwood to make a cave (be sure it’s secure and can’t fall on top of your pet), add some artificial plants for cover or offer some store-bought caves, half-logs or any of the other hides that are plentiful on stores’ shelves these days. They come in all shapes and sizes, and vary from natural designs of artificial rock or wood to more fanciful décor, such as skulls and other items. Include a couple so you can position them in the various temperature zones within the enclosure.
Heating and Lighting
Bearded dragons inhabit hot desert areas in their native Australia, and today’s captive-bred animals thrive in heat just like their wild counterparts. Provide a hot spot at one end of the enclosure by positioning a light or other heat source over a basking area in order to maintain it at 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a variety of reptile-specific lamps you can use to provide the hotspot, ranging from mercury vapor bulbs, which provide ample heat as well as the full-spectrum lighting your bearded dragon needs, to more basic incandescent heat lamps. There are also non-light-emitting heating devices you could use, too. Visit any store that sells reptile supplies, peruse the selection and choose accordingly. The ambient temperature in the cooler end of your bearded dragon’s enclosure can be kept at around 80 degrees, and at night the temperature can drop to about 65 degrees or so.
Lighting is crucial for your bearded dragon’s health not just because of the heat it can provide (assuming you go with a lamp to provide heat), but also because full-spectrum lighting will allow proper processing of calcium. Diurnal lizards, such as bearded dragons, rely on ultraviolet-B wavelengths provided by the sun to properly metabolize calcium. Without it they can develop weak bones and suffer ill health, so full-spectrum lighting over your bearded dragon enclosure is a must.
There are many types of UVB bulbs available, many of them fluorescent tubes of varying lengths, as well as the previously mentioned mercury vapor bulbs. The latter have grown in popularity because they provide both full-spectrum light and heat. Otherwise, if you go with a fluorescent tube for UVB, you’ll also need an additional heat lamp or other source to provide the proper heat. Again, visit your local reptile supply store and see what they offer.
Be sure to check light manufacturer recommendations for tips about strength and positioning of the bulbs, as there are recommended distances to ensure your lizard will receive the full benefit of the UVB. Also, you do not want any glass between the light and your bearded dragon. Glass filters out the UVB, and unobstructed access is best. Of course, you’ll also want to be careful to position any heating elements so that your bearded dragon cannot come into contact with them. They love heat, but you don’t want to burn them!
Feeding bearded dragons is a cinch. They will typically attack their food—both living and inanimate—with gusto. They’re omnivorous, meaning they will accept both animal and plant matter.
In addition to readily available crickets and mealworms (wax worms can be offered as a treat), you can offer bearded dragons pretty much any other type of insect that they can catch, including wild-caught insects as long as you’re sure they have not been exposed to pesticides or other potentially harmful substances. Dust insects with a calcium/mineral supplement to increase their nutritional value; follow manufacturer recommendations regarding dosage and frequency. Gut-loading is always a good idea, too. Adult dragons will accept pinky mice as well as insects. Healthy vegetables should also be offered, including greens, such as collard, mustard and dandelion; green beans; squashes; carrots and romaine lettuce (skip the iceberg). You can offer fruit occasionally, too, including banana, kiwi, mango, berries and others.
In addition to these items, manufactured diets are available for your bearded dragons. They’re formulated to provide proper nutrition, and these can provide another tasty food that your dragons will enjoy as a part of their dietary rotation.
Water can be offered in a small, shallow dish. Keep it clean and replace frequently. Another way to provide water is to gently mist your dragons occasionally. They will lick droplets off themselves and cage furnishings. If you opt for this method, though, be sure you don’t drench the enclosure with too much water, as you don’t want it humid.
Bearded dragons exhibit an interesting behavior in which they may lift and "wave” one of their forelimbs, occasionally rotating it in slow circles. Commonly called "arm waving,” theories explaining the behavior range from defining it as a sign of submission to species recognition. Whatever the reason, arm-waving behavior can be amusing to observe in pet dragons.
The Best Pet Lizard Ever!
Anyone familiar with lizards would be hard pressed to recommend a lizard that is as tractable, agreeable and easy to care for as the bearded dragon, especially for a beginner hobbyist. There’s a reason you see lots of them at reptile expos, and why they’re a staple at pet stores. Get one (or more) for yourself, and you’ll quickly learn why the bearded dragon is the current king. Long live the king! REPTILES
RUSS CASE is the editor of REPTILES
magazine and ReptileChannel.com. He has written three children’s books about reptiles—Lizards (2006), Turtles and Tortoises (2007) and Snakes (2007)—and can often be found interacting with readers and giving things away (including free subscriptions to REPTILES
) on REPTILES’
Facebook page at www.facebook.com/reptilesmagazine