How to Care for Water and Frilled Dragons

Undoubtedly, the most popular pet lizard in our industry is the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps). They are hardy, grow like weeds, come in some spectacular color morphs, breed prolifically and are easy to maintain. But their big selling point is their personality: I like to call them the puppies of the lizard world.

They are almost naturally tame, and due to their propensity for hanging out on scrub and desert-rocky outcroppings, they will comfortably perch on your shoulder, from which they will view the world with an appearance of combined judgmental disdain and Buddha-like indifference. No reptile is affectionate, but their tolerance for us comes quite close.

But, there are other pet dragons to be had. There is a smaller version of the bearded, the Rankins dragon (Pogona henrylawsoni), that is far more uncommon and much pricier. For the purposes of this article, I will focus instead on two dragons from other genera, one of which has been in the trade far longer than beardies and the other that’s a relative newcomer. 

While my shop had some of the first beardies in the country and was breeding them by 1980, we were already well acquainted with their distant cousin: the water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus), a standard in the business and often mistaken for iguanas due to their vague resemblance… although they’re nothing alike.

Water dragons are almost exclusively carnivores, subsisting in captivity on a diet of dusted crickets and roaches with the occasional rodent sprinkled in. They are also native to Southeast Asia and China, while iguanas are strictly New World inhabitants. And, unlike beardies, waters are tropical rainforest dwellers and drawn particularly to bodies of water, just as their name suggests. Their personalities are even more stoic than beardies, often content to sit in one position for hours on end. This reflects most reptiles’ propensity for conservation of energy, combined with a good defense strategy (predators are attracted to movement in animals that are otherwise well camouflaged). Once spooked, however, dragons will shoot away like a bullet!

You have no doubt noticed that water dragons in captivity are often subject to brutal-looking damage to their noses and mouths. Their facial tissue is quite delicate, and if they are startled, they will dash away—straight into the side of the tank!

This is tragic in that the solution to preventing this is rather simple: Set up their tanks correctly from the get go. Make sure the cage is at least twice the length you would assume for any other lizard. Make sure the sides and back are heavily "planted" with plastic plants, sticks and the like, so that if your dragon does bolt, it will run to the side and up into the foliage rather than straight into the glass. Problem solved.

The other trick to setting them up—particularly in a well-traveled store—is to not put the cage at eye level. I suspect that in the wild, they are predated by some kind of primate and it takes them some time to adjust to the idea that we are not going to eat them. If their enclosure is at floor level, or slightly above face-level, they tend to adjust to cage life very easily.

In short: Keep water in a tropical rainforest setting, with a temperature range of 80 to 95 degrees, and include a large water bowl and plenty of cover. A UVB bulb is essential. Expect an adult size of two to three feet. They are beautiful creatures with a forest green coloration and scales like tiny jewels; they are lightly banded in black, and males will develop vivid pink coloration on the throat. Once used to human interaction, they will handle very well, though they are less engaging than beardies.

The newcomers to the pet scene are the frilled dragons (Chlamydosaurus kingii). They are native to Australia and New Guinea, though the ones you will see in the hobby are almost certainly the smaller New Guinea variety. They tend to be a patterned gray (oddly, not unlike our native gray ratsnake), but their frills, when extended, have quite vivid orange and yellow flash colors. While the waters inhabit river banks and tend to be terrestrial/semi-aquatic, the frills are quite arboreal and prefer a taller, slightly drier—though still humid—cage. Again, with a little work, they become quite easy to handle.

Just as the film "Holes" generated a renewed interest in the bearded dragon, many people became familiar with the frilled dragon due to the appearance of a similarly designed—and very fictionalized—dinosaur in the first "Jurassic Park" film. I would like to set one thing straight: That dinosaur’s use of its frill was entirely contrary to reality. No creature (to my knowledge) tries to terrorize—and thus warn—its prey. Predators are stealth, predators use guile, predators do not give away the game. 

The real frilled dragon uses its frill to appear larger and more terrifying than it actually is as a way of deterring other predators, in the same way that a cobra uses its hood. A word of caution: People are sorely tempted to make a frillie do its display, but it’s a defensive move that can only be solicited by causing stress to the animal. As the owner of a frillie, your goal should be NOT getting it to frill!

Frillies are indeed impressive beasts, and breathtaking to calloused old herpers like yours truly and novices alike. Keep them in a large cage with plenty of basking limbs, ample heat and UVB, and a large water dish at the bottom. As babies, they are largely insectivores, but as adults they tend more toward small vertebrate prey, like rodents and even hatchling chicks. Like leopard geckos, their diet in the wild surprisingly consists largely of other species of lizards! This is not advised in captive situations, as wild-caught lizards will carry parasites deleterious to your dragon. It is also not advised, for obvious reasons, to try mixing lizard species. 

Beardies are the standard bearers of captive dragons for a good reason, but we work in a hobby that often attracts a clientele that’s seeking something different, something out of the ordinary, something unique.  PB

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.