Breeding Bearded Dragons
How We Breed Bearded Dragons
Once you have been keeping bearded dragons as pets for a while, you may want to take the next step of owning these beautiful reptiles by breeding them. Obviously to begin breeding you need a healthy adult pair of dragons. Bearded dragons can be kept singly or in sexual pairs, but also in breeding groups consisting of one male and two or more females. More than one male should not be kept in the same enclosure as fighting may occur, particularly during the mating season. To determine sex, hold the dragon in the palm of your hand with its tail facing you, supporting its body and front limbs. Gently lift the tail up over the back at approximately a 90 degree angle, being careful not to bend the tail too far or too roughly, as the vertebra at the base of the tail may be at risk of being broken. Upon examining the area just above the ventral opening, if your dragon is male, hemipenal bulges can be seen on each side of the tail, causing an indentation in the centre of the tail between the two hemipenes. Males also often have enlarged preanal and femoral pores. On a female the hemipenal bulges are absent, thus causing the area above the vent to protrude slightly, or not at all. On smaller dragons it may be necessary to gently roll the tail between your fingers and thumb to expose the hemipenal bulges of a male. Some breeders use hemipenal eversion as a form of sexing dragons, where they push at the dragon's cloacal area in an attempt to evert the male sex organs, however this method, along with probing, can seriously damage the dragon and is not recommended.
Successful breeding usually follows a short rest period, known as brumation. Brumation is a natural period of semi-dormancy. It differs from hibernation, where an animal undergoes more extreme physiological changes. Brumation involves gradually dropping the temperatures of the enclosure and decreasing day light hours to mimic a natural photoperiod. Although most bearded dragons will breed without any type of brumation period, low fertility rates have been reported in both males and females which were not allowed a rest period. Temperatures should be dropped to around 76-82 Fahrenheit, or as low as room temperature, and day light hours should be gradually decreased to 10 hours on and 14 hours off for about eight weeks. This drop in temperature and decrease in day light hours should be gradually reversed back to a summer photoperiod after the brumation time. During brumation feeding should be either ceased altogether or at least decreased significantly, so your dragon must be of optimum weight and health before brumation takes place. If feeding is to be continued throughout the brumation period there must be an area in the enclosure that reaches 90 Fahrenheit, otherwise food may not be digested properly and will rot in the stomach. Brumation occurs naturally and your dragon may voluntarily enter brumation without external altering of temperatures and photoperiod. Brumation can be daunting for a new owner, so if your dragon becomes lethargic and you are worried, check the beardies health and do a fecal check to ease worrying.
Bearded dragons require pre-conditioning with a well balanced and nutritious diet after brumation, before breeding should occur. An unhealthy dragon will produce unhealthy offspring. Egg building is a huge drain on the female dragon's metabolism. All females laying eggs, whether the eggs are fertile or not, require supplemental calcium and more nutrients generally. Female beardies can lay several clutches of fertile eggs from one mating and are able to retain sperm for up to six months or more. It is also possible for infertile eggs to be laid without any occurrence of mating. Dragons can be sexually mature by 8-9 months of age, or even younger, but it is not recommended that females be bred until they are 12-18 months old. Sexually mature males will often demonstrate impressive beard displays, including darkening of the beard and "head-bobbing", during the courtship of the female. The female may slowly "head-bob" in return and "arm-wave", a ritual believed to be indicative that the female is signaling that she is ready for mating to take place. The male will chase the female around the enclosure and attempt to mount her. He will often bite the fleshy skin at the base of the female's neck when attempting to position her for mating.
Egg-laying generally occurs between three to five weeks after a successful breeding. Signs of a gravid female include restlessness, continuous digging, rapid weight gain and lack of interest in food, or an increased appetite quickly followed by a decreased appetite. A gravid female will dig what she believes to be a thirty feet deep burrow before she will lay her eggs, and needs to be provided with a suitable egg-laying area. A box filled 8-12 inches deep with moist, but not wet, soil and vermiculite, or an equally as suitable medium, should be placed in the enclosure. Alternatively the female can be taken out and placed in a separate enclosure away from the male, where you may design an egg-laying site. Allowing the female to be on her own while gravid will decrease the stress that she encounters. The absence of an egg-laying site may lead to problems such as dystocia (egg-binding). Symptoms of egg retention include lethargy, depression and non-responsiveness. Pre- egg-laying, the female will dig continuously for up to two weeks and will completely lose her appetite for a few days, allowing more room for the eggs to develop. Once she lays the eggs, and has buried them in the designated site, she will rest and then begin feeding to gain her weight and nutrients that are used up in developing the eggs. Bearded dragons have no parenting instincts and therefore, when the offspring hatch, they should not be placed back in the adults' enclosure, where they will simply represent food to a hungry "mother" or "father".
The eggs require incubation in either a commercially bought incubator or a home-made device. Many products on the market are successful for the hatching of reptile eggs; however a polystyrene box, heat mat or pad and a thermostat make an ideal incubating apparatus. It is a good idea to set up the incubator several days before the female is due to lay her eggs to ensure that all affecting aspects are satisfactory. The eggs must first be taken out of the egg-laying box, with care not to turn or move them out of their original position for risk of drowning the embryo or tearing the yolk stem, and should be transferred to a box filled with moist substrate such as vermiculite or Perlite. Indentations in the incubation substrate should be made to place the eggs in to, and the eggs should be checked on every few days to ensure fertility, to allow for fresh air-flow and to check for signs of dimpling or collapsing of the egg, which is indicative of too low humidity. Unless the eggs are due to hatch, in which case they will begin to collapse, dimpling of the egg is often resolved by increasing the humidity, which will usually save an egg from drying up. It is not uncommon, however, for a dragon's first clutch to be completely infertile. Incubation temperatures can be set at 82-86 Fahrenheit and high humidity should be maintained between 70-90%. Too high temperatures will "cook" the eggs, while too low temperatures will prolong hatching. Incubation period can be anything from 42-84 days, or six to twelve weeks. After the initial hatching has occurred the rest of the eggs will usually follow within a few days. The hatchlings should be left in the incubator until they have absorbed the yolk and the sac has dropped, which can take up to 24 hours after completely emerging from the egg.
Hatchlings will usually start to eat within a few days of hatching. This is when they should be fed appropriately sized crickets. Pin head, or newly hatched crickets may be too small. However, be careful to only feed food that is at maximum the size of the space between the new dragon's eyes. Otherwise paralysis of the hind legs can occur from feeding food items that are too large. You can attempt initial feeding of newly hatched dragons around the third day of being out of the incubator. If these food items are not readily accepted remove them and continue to offer food daily. The young beardies will instinctively know when to begin feeding and will rapidly become eating machines, requiring food offerings a couple of times a day. Finely chopped fruit and vegetables should also be offered in a shallow feeding bowl, and it is necessary to mist the lizards lightly with water several times daily, in order to allow the hatchlings to drink water that drips down to the tip of their noses. The hatchlings should be housed in an enclosure that allows room but that is not too big to stress the new lizards out as they try to hunt their live food. A 10-20 gallon aquarium or vivarium is suitable for the first few months of your bearded dragon's life.
Breeding dragons can be as fun and rewarding as keeping them as pets, but it also takes a lot of time and money to care for and feed the offspring. A cute clutch of hatchlings quickly turns into 15-30 juvenile dragons that require a lot of attention, care and food. These factors need to be considered before incubating bearded eggs. It is better to freeze a clutch than let them hatch and not be able to feed them or find suitable homes. Alternatively it would be better for your females health if she were kept alone, or without a male, until you are certain that you want to begin breeding.
Author: Rachel Hitch & Richard Brooks
Baby Dragon © Richard Brooks
Dragon Resting © Rachel Hitch
Dragon Trio © Rachel Hitch