By Erin Lane
What to expect
While there are a plethora of guide books for expecting parents, there are a scant few that give detailed information on how to care for your gravid reptile pet. Although many are quite happy never delving into the world of breeding, others find themselves, sometimes unexpectedly, prepping for eggs and babies. Many care books have a short chapter on breeding, but few give up many secrets that can help you to figure things out when they don’t go according to plan. Over the next few issues we will be discussing the ins and outs of breeding bearded dragons, from conception to hatchling care. My hope is to provide some tips and information that I have picked up over the years, and would have found helpful my first time out with my own breeding endeavors. In this issue we will start with the basics: how to prepare your female for breeding season, and how to care for her once she becomes gravid.
Female Translucent Bearded Dragon Basking
Any discussion on breeding should at some point address the importance of being a responsible pet owner. My assumption is that anyone reading this article is not in need of this section, but it never hurts to review the basics. So, let’s quickly cover the bases! An obvious point to make here is that the health of the female is the most important aspect in the breeding equation. If your female beardie is underweight, lacks proper lighting, nutrition, or supplementation, breeding should be out of the question. Make sure that you are providing optimal care for your animal before you consider breeding.
Dragons are hardy animals, and will often trudge along for years with suboptimal care. Just because your animal eats when offered food, basks under its heat lamp, or sits calmly on your shoulder doesn’t mean that it is in good breeding condition. Before introducing a male, make sure that your enclosure is an adequate size, you have ample visual barriers and basking space, and that your female has good body weight. We sometimes have the tendency to overfeed our animals, often creating numerous health issues in the process that can greatly shorten the life of our pets. A little thin isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to beardies. However, I think it better in some cases to have a little extra body weight than not quite enough. The best way to check is by looking at the base of the tail. If the pelvic girdle, or hips, are showing, your animal is probably underweight for breeding.
Female Bearded Dragons enjoying some calcium dusted mealworms!
Counting the calories
Preparing your healthy female bearded dragon for breeding season can mean little more than a few extra feedings a week and more attention to calcium. While some species require a realbrumation, beardies do not seem to need a cooling off period in order to breed. From personal experience, females can be kept awake all winter and go on to produce multiple fertile clutches the next season. In this case, preparing her for gravidity (reptile version of pregnancy) can start as early as late winter.
When it comes to nutrition, the more varied the diet, the better. A beardie can do just fine on a diet of gut loaded crickets and greens, but I have found that my animals do best when supplied with one that includes a wide variety of protein and vegetable sources. Some authors will warn against feeding rodents to dragons, as those that get a diet high in fatty pinky mice tend to become obese. In moderation, mouse pups can be an extremely nutritious addition to your lizard’s menu. As my females gear up for breeding, I generally increase the number of rodents in the diet to between 2 and 3 fuzzy mice a week. Though this may be too much protein and fat for a bearded dragon during most of the year, a breeding female will need all the calories she can get before long. A heavier feeding routine should start as early as 4-6 weeks prior to pairing her with a male. I continue to provide a relatively heavy offering of mouse pups until the end of breeding season, especially right after the female lays.
Adding rodents to the diet is a good way to add a lot of calories to a meal, but don’t neglect insects. Dubia roaches are becoming increasingly popular these days as they are easy to breed and offer a great ‘flesh’ to exoskeleton ration in comparison to crickets. If you can get over any lingering fears of cockroaches, I highly recommend them as a staple. Superwormsand mealworms are also great sources of protein, with the former being a real favorite among my pets. Superworms also offer a lot of meat, and I have found that, unlike mealworms, you can generally feed them in small quantities to young dragons. But remember—regardless of the type of feeder, you MUST gutload. Neglecting the feeders is a rookie mistake that can have a big impact on your animal, and subsequently, your breeding success.
Greens are also important as they offer moisture, vitamins, and minerals into the diet. Supplementing is always stressed, and you should do so for a number of reasons. However, a nutrient found in a whole food is better than a nutrient you get in a jar in almost all circumstances. A diet that includes a wide variety of veggies (mostly dark leafy greens) is best. I try and provide a wide range of greens for my dragons, but I am careful to also include a good general supplement, such as Repashy Calcium Plus. This has worked great for my dragons, which are housed indoors during the winter.
Bearded Dragon getting a drink in the shower
A quick note on hydration
When your dragon is gravid, don’t neglect hydration. Bearded dragons can go a long time without drinking, but usually take advantage of a good soak when offered. I try and water my dragons once a week as a rule, but this is especially important for expecting moms. Make sure to provide water once a week, and perhaps even every other day when she is getting ready to lay.
Although she may not need it, it won’t hurt to offer. I have seen gravid beardies go from looking a little heavy in the belly to looking full of marbles in less than a day after getting a much needed soak. This is especially important once she is finished laying. As soon as one of my females is done in the lay box, I put her in the shower, and leave the water on until she stops drinking. She will be surprisingly thirsty—and no wonder!
You may be wondering about a water bowl… Though I have seen some dragons drink from a water bowl, many beardies will simply ignore it. A great way to hydrate your pet is to set them in the tub in shallow luke warm water, or to turn the shower on. Try to avoid water levels that force your animal to float or swim. While they can do it, they don’t seem to enjoy it. Either a shower or shallow water is best.
The lay box
There are some really easy ways to set up a lay box for your beardie. As long as you have (only) slightly moist substrate, deep enough for her to dig in, placed in a warm private spot, you should be good to go. There are some that will insist that you set up a lay box outside of her enclosure. While that works for the majority of dragons, don’t be afraid to set up one inside of the tank if she seems reluctant to lay in a new environment. Though I typically use a separate lay box, I have had no issues arise from making up an area inside of the cage. Just keep in mind that you will want to collect the eggs pretty quickly to avoid desiccation or disturbance. Either way, the principles are the same.
Laying Box with organic potting soil
I like to use organic potting soil as a laying substrate, though a coconut husk product, such asExo Terra Plantation Soil or Zoo Med Eco Earth work well. Vermiculite can also be used, and is very easy to wipe off of the eggs once you retrieve them. While any of these substrates works well, it’s important to make sure that it is not bone dry or too wet. If too dry, it’s harder for her to dig a tunnel. If too wet, the eggs will be ruined by sitting in water at the bottom of the box. Add water in small quantities, mixing it into the substrate, until you can make a hole about the size of your hand without it falling in on itself. Make sure to check the temp in the box. Too hot or too cold can cause problems. You don’t need to provide a hot basking spot, but upper 70’s or mid 80’s ambient is probably good.
As stated above, you can really set this up anywhere. I use a large plastic tub, filled with about 16-18” of substrate. Although they can work with less, I would recommend at least a foot of substrate. She will probably scratch at the bottom of the tub for a while, trying to dig deeper. Eventually, she will leave off, turn around, and deposit her eggs.
Bearded Dragon in the middle of laying eggs.
It is sometimes hard to time things out, as you rarely see the actual copulation. A good guideline is to start looking for signs that your female is gravid between 5 and 6 weeks after pairing her with the male. A month and a half is generally what I have found to be the time between mating and laying in this species. Best practices would be to observe her behavior and body condition on a daily basis, and be prepared with a lay box ahead of time.
With some females, it is easy to tell when they are going to lay. They spend a few days digging or scratching in the substrate, they seem antsy, undeterrable. They are also chocked full of eggs, which make it look like they’ve swallowed a bag of marbles. At this point, you can start introducing her to the lay box. Leave her alone, and check on her after an hour or so. If she hasn’t started to dig, place her back in her home cage—she probably isn’t ready yet.probably isn’t ready yet. An important note: not all females are visibly
gravid! Although uncommon, some females will have no palpable eggs, and go on the next day to lay a normal clutch. If your female has been with a male, and she is showing other signs, treat her as if she is gravid.
Once she has deposited her eggs, she will begin to bury them. I have found, through trial and error, that it is probably best to let her finish burying the eggs before you take her out of the box. At that point, they are running on a program that won’t let them stop until they have dug, laid, and buried. If you remove a female too soon, she will often continue to pace and scratch. Leave her in the box until she seems to have stopped—which usually means there is no sign of where she made her burrow. After, throw her right into the shower for a good soak, and then back to her quiet home cage. If at all possible, house her by herself for at least a week to give her a chance to rest and recover. If she must go back to group housing, make sure to check on her daily, and provide extra food just for her.
After she has laid, don’t be surprised if another clutch is on its heels in 4-6 weeks. Even if you have separated the male at this point, a female can, and usually does, continue to lay throughout the season. Like many other animals, bearded dragons can store sperm in their reproductive tract that can be used to fertilize multiple clutches throughout a season. My first female laid three consecutive clutches one summer after being bred one time by my male. So, if you have one clutch, be prepared for more.
Bearded Dragon depositing a healthy clutch of eggs!