By Jennifer Greene
Frilled Dragons in the Captive Environment
Few reptiles are as prehistoric looking and exotic as Frilled Dragons. These fascinating reptiles have captured the interest of many a reptile keeper, and are typically associated with their main country of origin, Australia. They are found in New Guinea as well, although the dragons that come from New Guinea are often significantly smaller than their Australian counterparts. Frilled Dragons, while not overly difficult to care for, are still fairly uncommon in US collections. It is my hope that by putting more information out there about their care and behavior, it can help the curious keeper make that step into keeping one of these fantastic creatures. One of the key aspects of caring for a Frilled Dragon is also understanding their natural history to a certain extent. It is important to consider whether you have an Australian Frilled Dragon or a New Guinea Frilled Dragon. Australian Frilled Dragons are always captive bred, as Australia does not export, and they can reach up to 3 feet in length, making them quite large! They prefer, and should be offered, somewhat hotter and brighter conditions than I will be recommending for their cousins, the New Guinea Frilled Dragon. While both are considered the same species, Frilleds from New Guinea are going to mature much smaller (between 18 and 24”), and have slightly different needs than their cousins from the hotter and dryer Australian mainland.
The Natural History of the New Guinea Frilled Dragon
The island of New Guinea is divided in half between two countries – the eastern half of the island, closest to Australia, is the country of Papua New Guinea, while the western half (informally referred to as West Papua) belongs to Indonesia.
West Papua is split into two provinces, Papua and the province of West Papua. In the past, the region has gone by several names, including (but not limited to) Papua, New Guinea, Irian Jaya, and these names combined with modern names as well as regional names have served to make it exceptionally confusing to understand where exactly some reptiles come from. In the case of the Frilled Dragon, they are commonly farmed on the Indonesian half of the island (West Papua), where they are fairly common and easy to breed due to their high prevalence in the area. This means if you did not purchase your baby frilled directly from a breeder in the US, they were likely hatched in their country of origin and sent over to the US.
With the knowledge of where your baby frilled comes from comes the ability to determine what your frilled truly needs. A Frilled Dragon from the island of New Guinea is accustomed to a tropical rainforest, heavy rainfall, and dense foliage blocking a majority of sunlight. Frilleds spend a majority of their time up in trees, seeking out food, shelter, and thermoregulating. The island of New Guinea is one of the most biodiverse in the world, with hundreds of species found in the island, and new ones discovered regularly. As one could imagine, this implies that in the wild, Frilled Dragons have access to an extremely wide variety of prey items, which in addition to insects also includes small mammals and other reptiles that they can overpower.
Applying Natural History to Captive Husbandry
With our knowledge of the habitat Frilled Dragons originate from, we can draw some conclusions on how best to set them up. With their access to large expanses of forest and jungle, they will require a large cage. At the minimum, I recommend raising babies in either V222 Vision Cages (ideal for holding humidity) or in large front opening terrariums, like the ones manufactured by ExoTerra. These cages will provide your babies with enough space to move around in for the first few months to the first year of their life, after which they will require an even larger cage. A small adult could be housed in the largest size ExoTerra glass enclosure, which is 36” tall by 36” wide, and only 18” deep. Of the commercially manufactured cages available, Penn Plax offers a large size at 47” x 20” x 35” that would be ideal for up to two small adult Frilled Dragons. If you wish to truly spoil your dragons, consider having a custom cage built that is even larger, which will be a must if you plan on housing more than one or two together. Space for your Frilled Dragons is vital for their well-being. Once they have become established in your care, they are extremely active animals that leap from perch to perch, and will readily dive into available water sources. Providing them with adequate space allows them the room to exercise as well – another aspect of care that can be extremely beneficial to their overall health.
When it comes to furnishing your large cage, look for large branches that will fill the cage. Consider using silicone or magnetic ledges to attach perches and branches higher up in the cage. In my experience with Frilleds, they greatly prefer very large cork rounds throughout their cage to climb on and hide behind. Your frilled will climb up the rounds, often hiding behind them to escape prying eyes and (they think) avoid detection. Large pieces of grapewood are also excellent additions to cage décor, allowing your dragons to climb up them and access higher points within the cage. Large and broad pieces of wood work best for adult dragons, as they prefer to climb and hide on perches and branches that are about as wide as their body. Sitting on wider perches means that they can more comfortably bask as needed, and flatten out to hide when they feel it is necessary. In many instances, you do not need to clutter the cage with dozens of wood pieces – one or two large cork rounds and an extra large piece of wood that takes up space between them can be all they really need for basic furniture. To avoid the concern of feeder insects, dirt, and debri getting lodged in the gaps of common wood products, consider using bamboo roots instead.
Once you have your basic large pieces of wood placed in the cage, add two or three (depending on cage size) additional, smaller perches and hiding places for them. I prefer to use silicone to attach cork flats to the larger wood pieces in larger, permanent cages, or in cages you want to adjust more frequently, magnetic ledges are extremely useful. You can also utilize magnetic vines to create “bridges” between wood pieces, by wrapping smaller branches in vines and using the magnetic bases to attach them. Hatchling to small juvenile sized Frilled Dragons can use just the magnetic vines to climb on, but larger frilleds will not be supported by the vines alone. I highly recommend using artificial vines and plants to add foliage to the cage, which will help your Frilled Dragon feel more secure and safe within the cage. There is a wide variety of available foliage options out there, and you should not be afraid to try numerous types of décor to see what you and your frilleds like best. Remember that your frilled comes from a dense jungle, and decorate accordingly! Not only with the foliage help your dragon feel secure, but when you mist the cage, water will settle on all the leaves and branches within the cage, doubling the available surface area for water to evaporate from. With all the water on all those surfaces within the cage, the evaporated moisture will go into the air and greatly increase humidity – making maintenance much easier!
When it comes to lighting your Frilled Dragons enclosure, this is one of the more interesting aspects of their care, and can be more complicated than other diurnal species. Because in the wild, the New Guinea variety typically inhabit densely forested areas with much of the sunlight filtered out by tree leaves and branches. In extremely large (as in custom built enclosures), the use of a mercury vapor bulb could be considered, as the frilleds will have the option to escape the intense UVB and heat emitted by the bulbs. For these large enclosures, I would suggest offering a second area for basking and UVB absorption, with a lower wattage plain basking bulb and a traditional tube fluorescent bulb nearby. For the majority of keepers, simply using an incandescent basking bulb and a fluorescent tube for UVB will be enough for their frilleds to thrive. A 5.0 fluorescent bulb should be enough UVB for your dragons, even in extremely tall cages. As needed, Frilled Dragons will climb up to the top of the enclosure and bask not just under the heat lights, but under their UVB bulbs as well.
Frilled Dragons are one of the most interesting reptiles I have had the fortune to work with in that they are a diurnal species that seeks out increased temperatures to bask in, but will actively avoid intense UVB exposure. When housed outdoors in climates with more intense periods of heat and sunlight, they often fail to thrive, and spend a majority of their time hiding and refusing to eat. Indoors, when basking options are limited to bulbs with intense UVB output, a similar result can occur. While frilled dragons housed under mercury vapor bulbs often do just fine, when compared to frilleds housed under fluorescent tubes and basking bulbs, they are often not quite as fat or as large at the same age. Unfortunately, very little scientific data is available regarding this phenomenon, as New Guinea Frilled Dragons are not as extensively studied as their Australian counterparts, and any further information on this topic would be welcomed.
From personal communication with other Frilled Dragon keepers, their need for UVB is so relatively low that one keeper houses his primarily indoors with no UVB at all, just a simple 150 watt incandescent basking bulb on a 4 foot tall cage. However, this keeper does take his Frilleds outdoors during spring and winter months for natural sunlight – it could be theorized they get enough naturally occurring D3 during these times that combined with vitamin supplements in the diet, they do not need UVB provided full time. Please note that I do NOT recommend that the keeper just beginning to keep Frilled Dragons tries this – at the very least, provide your frilled dragons with compact fluorescent bulbs over at least one portion of the cage. More experienced keepers with older Frilled Dragons may consider the implications of seasonal outdoor housing during certain times of the year combined with no indoor UVB, but again, the beginner or intermediate keeper should continue to use some sort of indoor UVB option.
I provide my Frilleds with a wide range of temperatures to choose from, which is an option afforded by having an extremely large cage to house them in. Their warmest basking zone is about 100 degrees, and the warm top side of the cage is typically 90 degrees. They will spend a few hours each morning basking directly under their heat lights, and then often spend the rest of the day alternating between the cooler areas under their UVB bulbs (about 75 to 80 degrees) and the various warm areas within the cage. At night, they can take temperature drops down to the low 70s, and can tolerate very occasional drops down to the high 60s. I would not recommend letting your Frilled Dragons routinely experience night time drops to the 60s, but if a bulb blows out or you experience an unexpectedly cold night, they can tolerate it briefly. They come from a part of the world that does not experience significant differences in seasons, and this should be considered when setting up their captive conditions.
For example, here in Southern California my ambient household temperatures range about 10 degrees between summer (80 degrees) and winter (70 degrees). Due to this, I utilize two sets of lights, one with low wattages for summer, and one with higher wattages for winter. In addition to winter lights, the use of ceramic heat emitters, radiant heat panels, and heat pads are all acceptable methods of increasing ambient temperatures within your frilled’s cage to suitable levels. New Guinea Frilled Dragons do not experience the same seasonal hardships that the Australian kinds do, and as such should not be exposed to extreme high or low temperatures.
In addition, while humidity is important for your Frilled Dragon, excessive attention should not be given to a precise number on a dial. Instead, watch your animals. Again, for my animals at home, I do not monitor a precise or specific humidity percent. Instead, I mist them heavily in the morning using a pressure spray bottle, mist them again a bit at night, and utilize damp sphagnum moss spread throughout the cage so that they can seek out higher humidity microclimates within their cage if they so desire. A misting routine of twice daily, once in the morning and once at night, mimics the natural spikes in humidity that occur in the wild around dawn and dusk, and helps keep the sphagnum moss within the cage damp. Once or twice a week, if your Frilled Dragons are accustomed to handling and are comfortable with you, consider taking them out and giving them a lukewarm shower in the tub for 15 minutes or so. These occasional soaks will help ensure that they stay hydrated if you are concerned about humidity levels, and also mimic to a small extent the periods of rainfall they would be exposed to in the wild. Pay attention to your animals – if their skin is smooth, they shed easily, they are bright eyed, active, and healthy, then what you are doing for humidity is working. If they start to get a wrinkled appearance, or become listless and develop crusty eyes, increase how often you mist them or consider getting a timed misting system.
Feeding Your Frillie
Feeding Frilled Dragons is fortunately rather straight forward. When their cage conditions are ideal, they are voracious little beasts, readily consuming anything small enough to fit in their mouth. Large crickets,mealworms, superworms, waxworms, silkworms, hornworms, reptiworms , any of these can be used to feed your dragon. As mentioned earlier, in the wild Frilled Dragons have access to an extremely wide range of food options, and in captivity the effort should be made to offer them as wide a variety as you are able to get ahold of.
I highly recommend establishing a captive roach colony, with my preferred species being dubia roaches due to the fact that they do not climb smooth surfaces or fly. Any species of roach is relished, so order and maintain those that you are comfortable with. In addition to insects, the occasional offering of rat and mice pinkies make for excellent nutritional boosts for your frilleds. Large adults will eat mice as large as small hoppers (3 to 4 week olds), and my largest adult male has even managed to catch and consume loose house geckos within his cage. If you (inadvertently, in my case) find that your frilleds have consumed other lizards, I recommend having a vet perform a fecal on them every few months to ensure they are not picking up parasites from their lizard prey items.
The only hitch that you may experience with the feeding of your Frilled Dragons is that if they are overfed, or stressed, they will often stop eating. This bout of non-feeding can go on for several weeks, and is not in and of itself a cause for concern. Check your cage, make sure that they are within acceptable temperatures
The Frilled Dragon as a Pet
In my experience maintaining Frilled Dragons, I have found them to be extremely rewarding, fascinating lizards. Once established, they seem to recognize their keepers, and can be downright comical at times. They are extremely alert to their surroundings, and when set up appropriately, do well in areas with high foot traffic that provide them with activity to watch and survey. New Guinea Frilled Dragons are personable, smaller Frilled Dragons that accept handling well and make fantastic pets. Farmed babies that have been raised in captivity are often indistinguishable from captive bred babies, and often will sit calmly on their keeper’s shoulder, watching the world from their human perch. Frilled Dragons are arguably one of the most dinosaur-like of the midsized lizards that make great pets, and I highly recommend them for the keeper looking for something new and awesome to keep as an interactive pet.