By Jonathan Rheins
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!
Pugsley soaking up some rays.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Ferrari, a translucent Italian leatherback.
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.