What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Baby Bearded Dragon Care – August 2013

By Erin Lane
All Photos by Author

What to Expect

In the last few issues of the Retile Times we have looked at the various steps involved in breeding bearded dragon lizards. From mommy care to egg incubation, we have discussed tips of the trade that have hopefully helped you in your own current breeding endeavors.  In this last installment, we will cover the basics of baby care, from what to do when they first hatch, how to house them, and what, when, and how much they eat.

Breaking out

As you approach the end of incubation, it can be hard to know just when the eggs are going to hatch.  There are a few signs that can tell you when hatching is immanent, but there is often little way of knowing exactly when it will take place.  Bearded eggs incubated in the low to mid 80’s F will typically hatch between 60 and 75 days after being laid.  I usually start checking the incubator once a day or every other day as they approach the 2 month mark.

As the eggs get closer to hatching, you may notice that they begin to dimple.  This will also happen if there is not enough moisture in your egg substrate.  However, if you know that it is moist enough, and you notice dimples, then it may mean that your eggs are about to hatch.  The same is true for condensation on the eggs.  Although this often indicates too much moisture, this can be a sign that you will have some new hatchlings in the next day.

Newly hatched bearded dragon

Hatchlings will typically be worn out from the hatching process, and may not seem responsive at first.  While beardies are hardy, remember that these are neonates.  Leave them alone while they are hatching, and do not attempt to ‘help’ them out of the egg.  Even after they have emerged from the shell they will typically appear lethargic.  Leave them alone for 24-48 hours.  It is probably best to leave them in the warm humid egg box inside of the incubator for a while until they have recovered from hatching.  Anecdotally, the movement from the new hatchlings may help stimulate clutchmates to hatch as well.

New digs

Once your new hatchlings have had a chance to rest a while, you can move them to a more permanent enclosure.  While a baby dragon can more or less be set up as an adult, there are a few tricks that make the transition a little easier.  I have found that babies tend to become dehydrated more easily than adults.  It is important not only to soak or spray them daily, but I also like to provide them with a cage substrate that helps increase humidity.  Pulverized coconut products, such as Exo Terra Plantation Soil, or Zoo Med Eco Earth work well.  I prefer the bricks, as they are easy to store and you can buy them in a three pack.  When working with any moist substrate make sure that you don’t add too much water.  You don’t want the cage floor to be boggy, just slightly moist.  These substrates also seem to hold up better to frequent misting, and can be swallowed without a significant chance of impaction.  Babies can also be kept on sani-chips, though I usually wait until they are a few weeks old before I do.

New hatchlings will often be lethargic after first hatching.  Best practice is to leave them in the egg box in the incubator for a couple of days.

Just like adults, baby dragons appreciate something to climb on.  A sturdy piece of wood, diagonally placed piece of cork flat, or a basking platform are an important addition to the cage.

Keep in mind that crickets like to hide in nooks and crannies in pieces of wood, and even underneath flat cage furniture—the last thing you want is an army of crickets hiding in your baby cage. Look for pieces that don’t have cracks or gaps, or use a basking platform or rock that will make it harder for them to hide under.

The size of the enclosure should be dependent on the number of babies you have.  I have found that smaller clutches (10-15) can be kept all together in a 20 gallon long tank until they are 4-6 weeks old.  A larger clutch should be divided into 2 or more smaller groups to ensure that they all have access to food and a good basking spot.  Keep an eye out for babies that look smaller than the rest, seem weak or tired often, or have tail and toe nips.  These can be signs that there are too many dragons in the enclosure, and that some are not getting what they need.

Light the way

Good lighting is extremely important to new babies.  The lighting scheme should be similar to what you have for your adult dragons, keeping in mind that a smaller tank heats up faster than a larger one.  Be careful to not over-do it on the heat.  Before you set up your babies, make sure that your lighting is right, and that you have temped out the cage.  You still want nice hot basking spots like you do for adults (around 110 F), but you also need to keep a good temperature gradient.  The cool side should be no hotter than the low 80s F, preferably a little cooler.  To keep an eye on temperature, have a thermometer in the cage at all times.  I prefer one with a digital probe that I can move from one side to the other relatively easily.  A temp gunis also useful, and has the benefit of being fun to use.

A 10.0 UVB florescent bulb, such as the Zoo Med brand, is the best way to provide UVB to your hatchling bearded dragons.  If you decide to go for the newer and sleeker Zoo Med T5 high output bulbs, a 5.0 will be sufficient.  I have in the past avoided compact florescent bulbs for baby beardies as you need multiple bulbs to run the length of the cage.  However, if they are placed horizontally, and you use a few, these will also work.  Mercury vapor bulbs are another option that provide both heat and UVB.  The Zoo Med Powersun is an excellent product that I have used for both adult and baby dragons alike.  Regardless of which lighting option you choose, be sure to purchase a higher end brand—when it comes to UV, not all bulbs are created equal.

It is also important to remember that UV bulbs may still be putting out visible light as they age, but the amount of UVB will decrease over time.  A UV radiometer is a great tool to have when you keep reptiles, and it can allow you to monitor the UV output of your bulbs.  However, they are expensive, and may not make sense if you only have a few adults, and babies once a year.  In that case, it is best to replace your bulbs every 6-12 months.  Unless you have a set of bulbs you only use for baby dragons once a year, it is probably best to get a new set every season.  In the end, having healthier baby dragons will outweigh the expense of new bulbs.

Baby dragons should be kept on substrate that hold humidity.

When and how

Neonate reptiles will often take a few days to a week to ‘discover’ their appetite.  They have some nutrients left in their system from their yolk just prior to hatching, and will generally show little interest in food.  Don’t be alarmed if it takes a few days for them to start chasing crickets.  Offer a few small prey items a few days after hatching.  If they don’t go after it, try again the next day, being sure to remove the uneaten insects.  Keep this up until they begin to go after the prey item.  From then on, carefully add feeders, a small quantity at a time, until they have eaten their fill, or when they stop chasing them.  Babies are best fed small quantities of insects throughout the day.  If you can manage to feed them 2-3 times a day, they will be in better condition for it.

Dark leafy greens can be offered every other day, in addition to daily insects. This will help keep your babies better hydrated, and supply additional nutrients.  However, greens are not enough to keep a young dragon from drying out.  Make sure to mist the babies and enclosure a couple times a day.  An alternative is to soak the babies every day or every other day in shallow luke-warm water in addition to occasional misting.  This way they will be sure to get enough water without making the cage too wet.

As mentioned earlier, be careful that feeder insects are not hiding in the cage.  For this reason, I only keep one climbing apparatus, and nothing else, in the enclosure. There is nothing more heartbreaking than finding a baby dragon that has been mutilated, or even killed, by crickets.

On the menu

There are unfortunately few good feeder insects available for baby dragons in the US.  While adults can eat just about anything, babies are limited due to their size.  Crickets have their downside (e.g., low calcium to phosphorus ratio, predation on babies), but they are still the most widely available feeder insect on the market for baby beardies.  Unlike mealworms that can lead to impaction in small animals, crickets are more or less easily digestible and can be purchased in a number of sizes.  Just remember that a varied diet is best, and that gutloading and dusting with vitamins and calcium is key.

Put only as many crickets into the enclosure as can be consumed in a short period of time.  Feeder insects can wreak havoc on baby beardies if left in the cage unattended.

Many people erroneously believe that ‘pinhead’ crickets are the most appropriate feeder for neonate dragons, not realizing that 1) pinheads are as small as they sound, and 2) babies will have a hard time catching something that tiny.  Go for ‘small’ crickets, which will usually run between ¼” and ½” in size.  In most cases, babies will be ready for ‘medium’ crickets in 3-4 weeks.

Roaches have become increasingly popular feeders in the past year, and are more readily available now than ever.  B. dubia (a.k.a. dubia roaches) have been touted as the new big feeder.  They don’t jump, climb glass, prey on baby reptiles, or smell bad, making them ideal to keep and feed off.  They are also more nutritious than crickets, and induce as much excitement (if not more) as crickets in baby beardies.

Worms (wax, super, and meal) can be used as a significant part of an adult bearded dragon diet, but are not preferred for hatchlings.  Waxworms make a good treat as they are loaded in fat and soft bodied.  However, mealworms and even small superworms tend to cause issues with impaction.  I have experimented over the years with feeding mealworms and even cut up superworms to young dragons with mixed results.  While small amounts of either under ideal conditions (e.g. hot basking spot, good hydration) are usually okay, youngsters that over indulge will in the best case regurgitate, and in the worst die of impaction.  It is best not to chance it—steer clear of meal and superworms until your beardies are juveniles.

Hatchling next to eggs from the same clutch

Greens can include any that you would offer to an adult.  Small amounts of fruit are okay to mix in, but shouldn’t be a large part of the diet.  Although many greens contain oxalates, which can interfere with calcium absorption, providing a varied mix is more ideal than providing only one or none at all.  Stay clear of iceburg lettuce, as it can cause diarrhea when fed in large quantities.

Dietary supplements can also be given to babies as they would to adults, though you may increase the frequency.  While an adult dragon may only need to have every other meal dusted in calcium (calcium with D3 for animals housed indoors), babies should probably have every meal dusted.  Since they will often eat multiple times in one day, if you want to dust only the first meal, that is probably sufficient.  Too much of anything is, by definition, bad—and that includes calcium.  However, if you keep your babies well hydrated, it is probably fine to go a little heavy on the calcium when they are small.  Only use vitamin supplements once or twice a week.

In conclusion

Breeding bearded dragons can be a fun experience that will teach you more about your animal than you could have anticipated.  In the last few editions of The Reptile Times we have discussed how to prepare your female for breeding, care for her eggs, and successfully raise hatchlings.  Although it can take time and effort, it is hopefully worth it in the end when you find yourself with a healthy bunch of tiny dragons.  While baby care is similar to adult husbandry, it is important to keep in mind that they are still fragile, dehydrate easily, and have a much quicker metabolism.  Regular misting and feedings, good light and heat, and enough room are essential to raising up healthy babies.  Hopefully your breeding endeavors are well on their way for the season, and that you have lots of little mouths ready to be fed.

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