Sleepy dragons

Bearded dragon in the wildIn some respects, reptiles are better equipped to survive a downturn in environmental conditions than mammals. Their energy requirements are significantly lower, as they are cold-blooded, and so they are less dependent on having access to a constant supply of food.

Bearded dragon distributionBearded dragons originate largely from the central region of Australia, as seen in the distribution map shown right (courtesy self-made). The climate here is hostile, being very hot and dry during the day, with the temperature falling away dramatically at night. In the more southerly parts of their range though, bearded dragons are exposed to greater seasonal variations in temperature through the year, with this figure falling in winter. 

Climatic impacts

Cold weather at this stage will mean that plant growth is reduced, and there will be fewer invertebrates available as well. A lower diurnal (daytime) temperature also means bearded dragons will be less active at this stage, because as with other reptiles, they depend on the warmth of their environment to support their activity. 

Wild bearded dragonAs a result, in order to conserve their energy levels until environmental conditions improve again, the lizards slow their metabolism down, and will seek shelter. This behaviour is known as brumation – it is a completely natural behaviour, having developed in reptiles over the course of millions of years.

Bearded dragons in vivarium surroundings will sometimes start to behave in this fashion as well, which can be very alarming for an owner, especially if you have not encountered this situation before. A bearded dragon entering this state becomes lethargic, hides away and loses interest in food – all of which could be seen as typical signs of illness!

Sensitive to their wider surroundings

It then becomes a matter of being able to distinguish between brumation and an underlying health issue that could account for such behaviour. This is where the experience of a reptile vet can prove invaluable, and a health check-up is always advisable if you are concerned about your pet’s welfare. 

Sleeping bearded dragonNevertheless, there are some pointers that can be suggestive of brumation, starting with the time of year. Speaking awhile ago with one of the country’s leading breeders of beardies, it seemed pretty clear from our conversation that these lizards are sensitive to external pressure changes which affect our weather patterns.

Housed in a vivarium, they can also register changes in daylength through the year, and may pick up on temperature shifts too. Cases of brumation in bearded dragons tend to be most commonly reported during the winter, particularly when the weather is cold for any period of time.

Clearly, in spite of being kept in warm, well-illuminated surroundings and provided with adequate food in their quarters, these lizards can still detect adverse climatic conditions in the wider world around them, with their bodies Bearded dragon in close-upreacting accordingly. 

Old habits die hard!

It may be tempting these days, especially given the range of colours and the increasing number of scale types that now exist in bearded dragons, to see these lizards as long-domesticated pets. In reality though, they have only been kept and bred as pets on any scale for barely 30 years or so.

This is not even equivalent to a millisecond in terms of their evolutionary history. Unsurprisingly therefore, traits such as brumation that have served them well, ensuring their survival, have not yet been significantly diluted or even lost as the result of domestication.

Baby beardie or bearded dragonYoung bearded dragons tend not to brumate, so be suspicious of an individual in this group that appears to start showing signs. It is more likely to be suffering from a build-up of parasites or some other form of illness. 

Brumation does not just occur in the winter though. It can occur in the summer, particularly during very hot spells of weather, as it is a reaction to any adverse change in the climate that could affect the lizard’s chances of survival. 
Furthermore, as they originate from the southern hemisphere, this would naturally be the bearded dragon’s winter in Europe or North America.

What to do

So what should you do if your beardie starts to brumate? Try to ensure that it remains adequately hydrated through this period. Make sure that you offer small quantities of food with a high water content, and an occasional opportunity to soak in tepid water can be recommended.

Brumation lasts for a variable period of time – typically averaging around two months, but provided that you are sure that your pet is healthy at the outset, then this should not be a matter of great concern, especially as it is a natural process.

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