While there are a number of lizards who make great pets, few – with the possible exceptions of leopard (Eublepharis macularius) and crested geckos (Correlophus ciliatus) – are quite as suitable for fledgling keepers as bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are.
Bearded dragons are typically relatively easy to maintain, they have delightful personalities, and they are usually hardy critters, who can often thrive despite the mistakes their keepers may make.
Additionally, bearded dragons are available in a wide array of color and pattern varieties, which only helps to increase their appeal even further.
Given that most dedicated keepers have success with the species, it is only natural that many of these people – even relatively inexperienced ones – often decide to try their hand at breeding bearded dragons.
Breeding bearded dragons is certainly more challenging than maintaining one as a pet, but it is certainly within the grasp of those who prepare themselves properly for the endeavor.
We’ll try to help you do exactly that below, as we outline the basics of breeding bearded dragons.
Breeding Bearded Dragons: The Basic Process
There’s a lot that novice keepers have to digest when learning to breed bearded dragons, so we’ll begin by outlining the basic process. We’ll explain each of these steps in greater detail a little later.
- You begin by acquiring a mixed-sex pair of bearded dragons.
- You do everything possible to support the health and well-being of your lizards over the course of several months.
- Typically, keepers then institute a cycling period, which tricks the lizards’ bodies into thinking that it is winter.
- A month or two later, you restore normal temperatures and light cycles and feed your lizards heavily to simulate springtime.
- If necessary (some keepers maintain their dragons together all year long), you’ll then place the lizards in the same enclosure.
- Mating will typically occur shortly after pairing the animals.
- You’ll add an egg-deposition chamber to the habitat and wait for the female lizard to deposit eggs.
- Once the eggs have been deposited, you’ll dig them up and move them to an incubator.
- If all goes well, you’ll be greeted by hatchling dragons about two to three months later.
Sexing Bearded Dragons
Parthenogenic species aside, the first necessary step in breeding just about any lizard species is to obtain one individual of each sex.
Mature bearded dragons display relatively obvious clues from which you can infer their sex. Males typically have larger, wider heads and longer, leaner bodies.
They’re also typically larger than females of similar age, who’ve been raised in a similar manner.
However, the easiest and most reliable trait that can be used to distinguish males from females is found on the underside of a dragon’s tail base.
Males have two relatively distinct lumps or bulges in this area, which are caused by the dragon’s hemipenes. Females obviously lack these bulges.
Young bearded dragons can be challenging to sex, as these bulges may not be very apparent. This is why breeders who intend to start with hatchlings often purchase large groups of bearded dragons.
This way, they’re essentially guaranteed of ending up with members of both sexes.
Preparing Your Dragons for Breeding
Breeding is a taxing activity for bearded dragons – and this is especially true of female dragons, who must not only endure courtship and mating, but they’ll also have to carry around the developing eggs, eat enough food to support the developing eggs, and then dig a large hole and deposit the eggs.
And they’ll often complete this entire process several times each year.
Accordingly, you’ll want to be sure your lizards are in tip-top shape before starting to cycle or pair the animals. This essentially means feeding them heavily and making sure they are in good overall health.
Males should have healthy body weights without being obese; females can have a small amount of extra fat, but care must be taken to avoid overdoing it, as obese animals rarely prove to be effective breeders.
It is also a good idea to schedule a veterinary visit before moving on to subsequent steps. This way, you can make sure that your lizards are not battling an illness or infection that you’ve failed to notice.
While some bearded dragon breeders have success maintaining their lizards in relatively consistent conditions year-round, most breeders employ cycling regimens.
This essentially means instituting an artificial “winter,” which lasts for one to two months, during which time your lizards will brumate (the reptilian equivalent of hibernation).
Once brumation is complete, “spring-like” conditions are restored, feeding resumes, and the lizards are paired a few weeks later.
You needn’t (and shouldn’t) provide true winter-like temperatures when cycling your lizards.
Doing so would almost certainly cause them to fall ill, as your captive lizards don’t have access to burrows or other sheltered microhabitats.
Instead, many breeders simply stop turning on the heating and lighting devices for the habitat and simply allow the enclosure to fall to the ambient temperature of the room.
However, breeders have devised a number of successful approaches for cycling their lizards. Some, for example, continue to turn the lights on for a few hours each day.
Some even provide an hour or two of heat for their lizards during the cycling process. And, as mentioned earlier, some even have success without cycling their lizards at all.
Note that you should always stop feeding your dragons about one week prior to cycling them.
This will give them the chance to empty their digestive tracts completely, which will help prevent food from rotting in their stomachs and potentially causing serious illness.
Pairing Your Bearded Dragons
Although some breeders maintain their lizards together all year long, it is generally a better idea to keep them in separate enclosures, except during breeding trials.
As the saying goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and separate accommodations will also prevent the male from pestering or stressing the female.
Make sure to observe your lizards carefully for a while after making the initial introduction. It isn’t very common, but males and females may not always get along well.
Additionally, there is always the possibility that you have miss-sexed one of your animals, causing you to inadvertently pair two males. This will often lead to vicious conflicts, which can leave your lizards injured or worse.
Some breeders introduce the male to the female’s enclosure; others take the opposite approach. Still others place both animals in a third, neutral enclosure.
Any of the three approaches may work for you, but it is the author’s opinion that females should be handled as little as possible, meaning that you should place your male in the female’s habitat.
Mating may take place within minutes, but it may not occur for hours or days. You may not even witness the event. This leads many breeders to keep their lizards together until the female begins to appear gravid.
Once your female dragon’s belly begins to look distended or you can begin to discern the faint outlines of eggs developing in her abdomen, you’ll want to place an egg-deposition chamber in the habitat.
You can make such a chamber in many ways, and there are likely as many egg-deposition chamber designs as there are bearded dragon breeders.
However, the simplest approach is to cut an entrance hole in a small plastic box and fill it with a very slightly damp mixture of sand and soil.
It may be helpful to “show” your female dragon the egg deposition box by placing her inside or at the door entrance shortly after adding it to the habitat.
However, most bearded dragon females will do whatever is necessary to find a suitable deposition site once the time comes.
You may or may not notice the female dragon entering the deposition box. Sometimes, you may catch her in the act of laying eggs, while you may simply look in and see a skinny, tired and slightly dirt-covered dragon laying under the heat lamp or drinking water.
At this point, you’ll need to excavate the eggs. Begin by carefully digging out the burrow, and then try to widen the hole so you have more room to work.
Before you begin removing eggs, mark the upper-most surface of each egg with a graphite pencil – this will help ensure you keep them oriented the same direction when transferring them to the incubator.
Keep any non-adhered eggs on their own, and you can try to peel apart clumps that have become stuck together.
There is some risk of damaging the eggs while doing so, and some breeders leave these clumps as-is when transferring them, but it is usually possible to separate them if you dig them up relatively quickly and are very gentle.
You’ll need to have a suitable egg incubator to ensure the proper development of the new eggs. You can make your own custom incubator, but novices are better served by using a commercially manufactured product instead.
You’ll also need to have several egg boxes to contain the eggs inside the incubator. Small plastic food storage boxes work well – just make one or two very small holes in the lid for air exchange.
Fill each egg box about half-way with damp (but not wet) vermiculite.
Typically, you’ll want the vermiculite to be damp enough to clump when squeezed, but you don’t want water to drip out when you do so.
Half bury the eggs in the vermiculite and place the containers inside the incubator. Be sure to keep the eggs in the same orientation they were deposited in (use the pencil markings as a guide).
Most breeders aim for an incubation temperature of about 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
At such temperatures, bearded dragon eggs will usually hatch in about 55 to 75 days.
However, some eggs just take a little longer to complete their development, so never discard eggs that still appear viable and healthy.
Try to set up your incubator and turn it on at least one week before the eggs arrive. This way, you can make any adjustments necessary before you actually need the incubator.
If you do everything correctly (and enjoy a bit of luck), you’ll look in the incubator one day and see tiny hatchling dragons running around in an egg box.
At this time, you’ll want to begin removing the lizards as they hatch and setting them up in a “nursery.”
Do not remove any bearded dragons from their eggs, unless they’ve been unable to escape themselves for about 48 hours after pipping (breaking through the eggshell). Doing so may cause serious injuries to the young lizards.
The nursery should essentially resemble a scaled-down version of an adult dragon habitat, aside from a few minor exceptions.
For example, it is generally wise to use a paper towel or newspaper substrate for hatchlings, and you’ll also want to keep the habitat a little more humid than you would an adult’s enclosure.
Give the lizards a few days to explore their new habitat before you start feeding them. Just be sure to mist them with room temperature water at least two or three times each day to help prevent dehydration.
Once you are ready to start feeding your lizards, be sure to offer them very small crickets (hatchlings rarely find vegetable matter enticing).
For the first few days, it is often advisable to simply offer food once a day, but once the lizards are a week or two old, you can begin feeding them up to three times per day.
Breeding bearded dragons is not something to be taken lightly; if you’re successful, you may end up with more than 100 hungry new mouths to feed!
You’ll also have to care for the individuals and find them all new homes.
But, if you are prepared to take care of all any new lizards you help produce and continue to provide your adults with the care they deserve, there’s no reason you can’t try your hand at breeding bearded dragons.
Just be sure to keep your pets’ best interests in mind, use the information presented above as a guide, and don’t be afraid to make small adjustments when necessary. With luck, you could be looking at an incubator full of hatchling bearded dragons in just a few months’ time.