Harness the Sun: Outdoor Housing of Bearded Dragons

Harness The Sun

By Jonathan Rheins

INTRODUCTION

The awesome power of the sun plays a tremendous role in the lifecycle of nearly all reptiles and amphibians.  While some species bask in its glory, even those that avoid its brilliance rely on day length as a seasonal clock. Whether in nature or in the terrarium, solar wavelengths and intensity play an integral role in basking behavior, brumation schedules, and reproduction among herps.

Indoors, we must make every possible effort to mimic outdoor conditions for our charges, doing our best to ensure that appropriate photoperiods and lighting type and intensity are provided.  However, in certain climactic zones, select species have proven quite content to enjoy the region’s outdoor weather.

Case in point is the Inland Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps).  Perhaps the most popular and beloved pet herp across the globe, Bearded Dragons are personable, attractive, and love getting some sun!

Bearded outside

Pugsley soaking up some rays.

HABITAT TYPES

During much of the year throughout most of the United States, Bearded Dragons will be maintained indoors, with outdoor housing reserved for impeccable weather.  However, in Mediterranean and desert climates, such as Southern California, ‘beardies’ will thrive outdoors from late spring into late summer if certain preparations are made.

Outdoor habitats for any species should first and foremost be secure.  It is our responsibility as the keeper to do everything in our power to ensure the well being of the animals under our care.  Protection against escape and rural predators should be high on the priority list.  Thoughtful habitat construction and careful husbandry routines will reduce the risk of either worst-case scenario.

Glass-walled enclosures or aquariums should never be placed in direct sunlight for any reason.  Animal overheating is likely to occur.  Even when outdoor ambient temperatures are relatively cool, the light of the sun can be magnified through the tank walls, creating a see-through oven!  Herps housed outdoors for anytime period should be in screen or mesh type enclosures.

Custom-built enclosures are an option, but one must consider the time, efficiency, and cost of such endeavors on a small scale.  Zoo Med Laboratories manufactures two fantastic products that are both equally well-suited for the occasional sunning or seasonal housing of one or two mature dragons.  Granted, they are geared towards keepers of tortoises, but Bearded Dragons are equally happy to make a summer home of either enclosure type.

The Zoo Med Tortoise Pen is a medium sized outdoor sunning enclosure that is ideal for getting one or two adult dragons outside when temperatures are acceptable.  A built-in shelter is provided to allow for thermoregulation so as to help prevent overheating.  The floor is open, which allows for placement over organically grown grasses and dark, leafy greens such as kale, dandelion, and romaine–all dragon favorites!

Also from Zoo Med is the Tortoise House, a slightly larger and expandable take on the Tortoise Pen.  With the Zoo Med Tortoise House, more Bearded Dragons can be kept per enclosure, and a solid floor is incorporated should escape by digging be of concern.  Additionally, these units can be combined in a linear fashion, and the built in shelter is larger, allowing for lay boxes or heating devices.

Beardeds in Reptariums

Some of the author’s Bearded Dragons basking in Reptarium Screen Cages

I have found that for small to moderately sized dragon collections, Reptarium brand mesh enclosures are quite acceptable, and perhaps preferable, when a larger number of animals are being maintained.   They are modular, easy to clean, and allow for a maximum amount of “leg room” for each dragon.  Furthermore, acceptable amounts of heat and UVB easily transfer through the heavy duty replaceable mesh cover.

HABITAT PLACEMENT

Once the overall design and attributes of the outdoor habitat have been determined, physical orientation to the sun must be taken into consideration.  A fair amount of observation, measures, and experimentation may be necessary before an acceptable configuration is adopted.

Obviously, it is important that the area selected for your outdoor enclosure receive a good amount of sunlight, but also offers the animal(s) some refuge from the heat of the sun.  I try to locate outdoor habitats in areas that receive nearly direct sunlight for a few hours in the morning and afternoon.  This correlates to the general activity patterns for most dragons.  And, during these hours, the sun is lower in the sky, providing a constant but not overly intense amount of exposure.

Natural features around your property can also be utilized as a natural shade cloth.  I have found that the citrus trees in my yard provide partial shade to my Reptariums during the hottest parts of the day, allowing dappled light to reach the enclosures.

bearded in cage

No reptile of any species should ever be housed outdoors for any period of time without access to water and a shaded area.  Even though most reptiles like it hot, it is still vitally important that they have the ability to cool down if needed.

By ensuring that no outdoor habitat is placed in direct constant sunlight, both shaded and illuminated sections within the enclosure can be established at the same time.  This allows for easy thermoregulation of the dragons as they move in and out of shaded or sunny areas.

TEMPERATURE CONSIDERATIONS

While the primary reason for housing Bearded Dragons in the backyard is to allow access to natural sunlight and high levels of UV light, air temperature must be considered before animals are placed outdoors.  If Bearded Dragons are placed outside when the temperature is too cool, they may become stressed or ill.  Furthermore, reptiles can only effectively utilize the beneficial UV rays of the sun when they are within their preferred temperature range.

It should be noted that air temperatures and surface temperatures within the enclosure can vary greatly.  A high quality digital thermometer with a minimum/maximum feature should be included in every enclosure.  I also highly recommend the use of an infrared temperature gun that can be used to easily measure surface temps of basking surfaces and the animals themselves.  Temp guns are perhaps the most useful tool in herpeteculture today, and will prove truly invaluable when establishing outdoor housing for any herp.

When given a variety of basking and hiding areas, Bearded Dragons are incredibly adept at maintaining a body temperature between 90 and 100 degrees F, almost regardless of air temperature.  As long as ambient temperatures are above 75 F, dragons with access to full sun will quickly and efficiently achieve their preferred thermal range.

Only when conditions are optimal should animals be left outside overnight. Keep in mind that while wild dragons can and do thrive when nighttime temperatures drop into the 50’s F, pet dragons are usually not acclimated to such changes in temperature. It is good practice to bring your pet indoors after dark, unless lows hover around 70 degrees. In most cases, the threat of predators (such as cats and raccoons) and the risk of chill greatly outweigh the advantages to keeping Bearded Dragons outside over night.

Beardeds basking

Beardeds basking on wood inside a reptarium.

FURNISHINGS AND SUBSTRATE

Just as with any indoor habitat, some attention must be given to the choice of enclosure floor covering, as well as decorative and functional decor.  Outdoor habitats are subjected to different extremes in temperature and humidity, so what may work wonderfully indoors may or may not be an acceptable outdoors.

Products that are conducive to easy cleaning and replacement are ideal for use in backyard herp enclosures.  I have had much success keeping larger dragons on a substrate mix of cypress mulch and large grade redwood chips (Repti Bark).  These products combined are aesthetically pleasing, easy to spot clean, and hold up well when exposed to weather.

When housing small groups of hatchlings or juveniles outdoors, coconut husk type beddings are ideal.  The small particle size makes accidental ingestion practically a non-issue, and it has the same weather-resistant properties of other substrates.

All bearded dragons housed in outdoor enclosures must have multiple basking areas, either of wood, rock, or both, to ensure that each animal being housed has access to its own basking area.  Large pieces of driftwood,African mopani wood, and slate slabs work well.  One of the newer products to hit the market (and a personal favorite of mine) is bamboo root.  This all-natural product is very funky in appearance, having all sorts of angles and branches.  One main advantage of bamboo root is that unlike grapewood, it has no cracks or crevices in which crickets and other feeder insects might hide.  Additionally, when it comes to cleaning large numbers of enclosures, anything with a smooth surface is easier to clean and disinfect.

Whatever cage furniture tickles your fancy, make sure that you give your pet a couple of basking and shade options. A few pieces of strategically placed wood perches and a nice warm basking rock can turn a ho-hum screen cage into a comfy outdoor vacation spot for your scaly friend.

Bearded

Ferrari, a translucent Italian leatherback.

IN CLOSING

Harnessing the power of the sun for herpeteculture is not only natural, but self-sustaining. While special UV and heating bulbs will likely constitute the majority of your pet’s basking media, take advantage of the terrific weather that we usually enjoy in southern California. Bearded Dragons are especially well suited for outdoor housing in the summer as they love to soak up the rays in what we would consider unusually hot weather.

When considering outdoor housing options, remember that your pet’s safety and comfort come first. Make sure that your pet is secure from escape as well as from your inquisitive pet tabby.

Placement of your enclosure is also equally important. Too much sun is as bad as too little. Make sure that it receives some direct sunlight, but also has a naturally shaded area, like that of a nearby tree, to give your pet a temperature gradient. Just like indoors, you want to give your pet the option to get away from the heat.

Appropriate furniture and substrate can help by providing lots of heating and cooling spots, which can also be aesthetically pleasing.

In the end, it is our responsibility to keep our herps happy, whether indoors, or out. With a little thought and creative use of resources, your Bearded Dragon can enjoy its own summer getaway spot right in your own backyard.

10 Questions with Chad Brown

10 Questions with Chad Brown

By Scott Wesley

Chad Brown is a former all-pro linebacker in the NFL and is the owner of Pro ExoticsShip Your Reptilesand The Reptile Report. Chad and Robyn have done some amazing things for the reptile industry through the years, and continue to this day with their newest venture – The Reptile Report. Check it out and bookmark it!

1. What was the very first reptile you owned?

The first reptile I owned was a beautiful boa that I named Fear. I named her that because everyone in my dorm was afraid of her. I got her my freshman year at the U. of Colorado. By that time in my life, I had caught 100’s of snakes and lizards around my home in southern California, but that boa was the first snake I bought and owned.

2. Is Robyn your “Brofriend”, “Man Crush” or “BFF” and how long have you known each other?

I met Robyn when I was a junior at U of Colorado. I guess that was 1991? He got his first snakes from me, a baby boa I produced and a ball python I took in as a rescue and nursed back to health. We have worked together at PE for almost 20 years. We have a great business relationship, and a great out of the office friendship as well. But none of that “Man Crush” stuff. ok :)?

3. What is your greatest accomplishment – on or off the field besides your family?

Playing in the NFL for 15 years was pretty special. Being married almost 20 years is pretty special too. But to answer the question, I’m hoping I haven’t had my greatest accomplishment yet. I’m only 41, too much life to live to have already to the high point.

4. Where did you go on your last vacation?

I just got back from Marco Island, FL. The NFL retired players union have their annual meetings there. I’m a beach kind of guy, so hanging out with great football players, my family and getting in some body surfing is always a great time! I’m hoping to go to west Africa soon with a film crew to do a special on ball pythons! Be on the look out of this sometime next year

5. What was the first reptile company / big breeder you can recall back when PE started?

Before I started PE I was friends with Kamuran Tepedelen of Bushmaster Reptiles. He was and still is a great inspiration to me as far as reptiles go. To have the chance to go to his house and see and hold reptilesthat I had read about in books was truly awesome.

6. What was the last movie you saw in the theater?

The last Twilight movie. I’m not a fan but I try my best to be a good Dad, so I took the kids when it came out. I’m much more of a watch a movie at home kind of guy. Comedies seem to be my first choice.

7. Who hit harder – you, Hines Ward or Bill Cowher? 

I’ve tackled Hines a few times but I’ve never been hit by him. I guess lucky me, right? I have been spit on a number of times by Bill Cowher. He is a very close talker, and like the saying goes, “say it, don’t spray it”!

8. One thing you could change about the reptile world / community?

Each time I go to a show or a reptile event, I’m saddened by the bad feelings some folks in the community have towards each other. Our reptile world is pretty small and it’s too bad we all can’t get along. It makes dinner plans at the shows tricky! Can’t have these guys together, or that guy doesn’t want to go because this guy is going. So my one change to the reptile world would be somehow get all my reptile friends to be friends.

9. What is the coolest reptile you have hatched at PE in your opinion?

Wow, tough question. I still get a thrill from hatching Leopard Geckos! Over the years at PE we have hatched everything from super high end ball pythons, to our own line of striped blood python, to Gilas, to Arizona banded geckos. But the coolest reptile we have hatched are Green Tree monitors. It took us a longtime to get babies hatching, but man, the wait has been well worth it!

10. If you could live somewhere else besides Colorado – where would it be and why?

San Diego has always been a place I’ve talked about moving when my kids are older. I love the ocean, and LLLReptile is there!

Captive Breeding of Dwarf Day Geckos – From Issue 1, May 2012

The Reptile Times

day gecko header

By Jennifer Greene

Some of the most stunning geckos available today are the geckos of the Phelsuma genus, in addition to select species of the Lygodactylus genus.  Fortunately for keepers, many of the smaller Phelsuma species such as Lined Day Geckos, Peacock Day Geckos, or even the exotic looking Klemmeri Day Geckos are readily available in the reptile hobby, making it easy to keep your very own rainforest jewels at home!  If breeding these geckos is your ultimate goal, I recommend using a cage larger than the bare minimum – for example, for my Electric Blue Geckos I use and recommend an 18 x 18 x 24” terrarium.  This can be suitable for a small group of dwarf geckos, with one male and up to 3 females, or for a single pair of Klemmeri geckos.  For the slightly larger Peacock Day Geckos or Green Day Geckos, the new larger terrariums manufactured by Exoterra are recommended whenever possible, especially if you plan on housing more than just one pair of geckos in the cage!  The large sizes of these cages allow for the use of bulbs such as the Powersun bulb, which is what I use at home.  The intense light and UVB keeps your geckos’ colors bright and vivid, and the nice, hot basking area will create zones within your cage that the females will utilize to select egg laying sites.

Day Gecko Setup

Above is a perfect example of a small day gecko setup!

Large cage sizes also allow for the female(s) to escape the attention of the amorous male.  Male geckos in nearly every species are quite determined, and will attempt to mate constantly, making it important for the health of the female to provide her with numerous places to hide and get away from him.  The male’s courtship display is distinct and somewhat comical.  When the female comes into sight, he will lift up his entire body, bobbing his head and wiggling his tail at her.  With each fit of bobbing, he will edge closer and closer to the female, until he is close enough to touch her, and then breed with her. She will either indicate readiness to mate with reciprocal head bobbing, tail wiggling, and general in-place squirming, or she will reject the male by biting him on the head or simply running away.   Mating will take place year round if the cage is kept warm enough, although this can be quite draining on the female.  A winter cool down, with nighttime temperatures dropping below 75 degrees, is usually enough to stop egg laying for a few months, which allows the female to recuperate.  I provide a heat pad on the side of the cage for my geckos, and allow nighttime temperatures to dip into the high 60s/low 70s for 3 to 4 months a year.

breeding day geckos

2 of the author’s geckos in the breeding process

You will begin to see the female swell up with eggs about a week after copulation is noted, and after about 3 to 4 weeks, she will lay a clutch of one or two eggs.  When eggs are laid, they are pasted to a surface within the cage that the female deems suitable.  In a planted vivarium, this can be anywhere, and once established in her cage the female’s choice of egg laying sites is impeccable in leading to high hatch rates.  She will lay them around the lining of the top of the cage, on plants, in wood crevices, nearly anywhere in the cage above ground.  Keep the cage humid without getting the eggs themselves wet, whenever possible – for mine at home, I run a fogger 4 times a day, for ½ an hour each time, in addition to light spraying with a mister in the morning.  Little additional maintenance is required to encourage these eggs to hatch; providing your female with a large, planted vivarium that she thrives in will also provide a suitable environment for egg development.  Females will continue to lay eggs every 3 to 4 weeks for the duration of the breeding season, which is most of the year.

fogged terrarium

An interesting note – sometimes females can and will consume eggs.  They will almost always consume the shells of hatched eggs, and often do so within the first 24 hours of the babies hatching.  My females have always consumed the eggshells, and will often eat infertile eggs as well. They seem able to detect something about the eggs that is not good, as sometimes they will leave the eggs for several weeks before consuming them.  When I have caught them in the act, the insides of the eggs have indicated that they had no embryo inside.  They will sometimes even consume freshly laid, infertile eggs – the female Electric Blue pictured here ate her own egg within minutes of laying it.  She has not been with a male in several months, and the egg was undoubtedly infertile.

gecko eating egg

One of the author’s geckos eating an egg just a few weeks ago!

Incubation time can vary wildly from as little as 2 months for eggs laid close to the heat source to up to 4 months for eggs laid further away or during cooler months of the year.  I have even had one egg laid in November hatch in March – an incubation period of about 5 months!  If you are only keeping dwarf geckos in your vivarium, it is possible to just leave the neonate geckos in the cage with the adults. All of my babies have been raised this way, and from personal communication with others who have successfully bred these geckos, this seems to be the most common way to successfully raise hatchlings. I have even observed babies watching adults feeding from the powdered gecko food placed out for them, and once the adults have left the babies will head down to the food and eat as well.  In addition to gecko food, babies will also feed on springtails, pinhead crickets, fruit flies, and other tiny invertebrates found within the cage and substrate of an established and well planted vivarium.  Supplementation should be very minimal, as these babies are tiny and need only minute amounts of vitamins to grow properly.  To be frank, I have never intentionally provided extra supplementation for my baby geckos – they get what they need from the gecko MRP (which has vitamins in it) or on the rare occasion among the small dusted crickets provided for the adults, a few pinheads that they can eat are in there as well.

baby williamsi day gecko

Once they are about 3 to 4 months of age, most geckos are well started enough to consider moving to their own enclosures.  Between 4 and 6 months of age, they begin to develop sexable characteristics, although it can still be difficult to sex them accurately until they are over a year old.    Raising the baby geckos can be one of the most rewarding aspects of keeping them, and it is difficult to think of anything more adorable than a newly hatched dwarf gecko.