Bearded dragons are commonly kept pet lizards, but their behavior can be more colorful than expected.
Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) exhibit several behaviors in communication with others of their species, as well as people and perceived enemies.
Most of their behaviors are meant to convey messages of dominance, interest in a mate or emotional state, with others simply being a result of environmental factors.
1. Puffed-Out Beard/Black Beard
The namesake trait of the bearded dragon is perhaps it’s most startling, especially for one who hasn’t seen them before. This is essentially a large throat pouch that these lizards can stretch outward, and its shape resembles that of a full human beard.
The scales on the beard can turn pitch black — in stark contrast to the usual lighter colors. The lizard may hold its mouth agape and puff up his body to add bigger effect to his threat display. This is a clear warning to any would-be foes to stay away or face the consequences.
However, a blackened beard can also signify that the lizard has something else on their mind. If in sight of a female, a male will blacken his beard and head bob to let her know he’s interested in mating with her.
Both male and female dragons can do this, but generally speaking, a male’s display is much more intense.
A darkened beard can also be a sign that a bearded dragon is in fear of something in its immediate environment, and this could be something as innocent as a stuffed animal or a hat. If this happens, remove the offending item from the lizard’s view to reduce stress and calm them down.
Occasionally, a black beard is a sign that a bearded dragon isn’t feeling well. If lethargy and any loss of appetite are noticed along with this behavior, take the animal to the vet as soon as possible. This could mean there is a serious health issue going on, so don’t wait.
2. The Wave
Bearded dragons have been recorded on video all over the internet doing the arm-wave, both at other dragons and at their humans. The meaning behind these little arm waves can be described in 2 ways:
- It’s a way of saying that they acknowledge your or another dragon’s presence in their vicinity. A simple “I’m here, and you’re there” sort of statement.
- It’s a signal of submission, usually when there is another dragon around. This is their way of communicating that they don’t want trouble. Females also do this to submit to a male she’s decided to mate with.
3. The Head Bob
This behavior is typical of male dragons, usually accompanied by a blackened beard, and is used to impress females during breeding season. Using this behavior in territorial disputes and dominance displays is also common.
Head bobbing can be so pronounced that dragons may also incorporate a push-up movement for an extra bit of show. It’s amazing how riled up these lizards can become during a head-bobbing episode. If you’ve ever held a bearded dragon while they’re doing this, you can feel their increased heart rate.
If you notice that your bearded dragon is performing head bobbing frantically or scrambling around like crazy, you can wrap them in a towel and take them to a different room that is neutral territory. Sometimes this helps calm them down while they’re experiencing their hormonal periods during the year.
4. Vertical Tail Curl
If you’ve ever watched a bearded dragon run, you’ll notice how they hold their tails curled backward like a scorpion. Most lizards have a horizontal curl, whereas these Aussie lizards have a vertical curl.
This is a general trait of alertness and possibly dominance. Most dragons carry their tails like this when walking or running.
A basking dragon will often open its mouth while basking under a heat source. Gaping is what they do when they’ve reached optimum temperature, and by opening their mouth they are able to release excess heat.
6. Eye Bulging
One of the weirdest things you’ll see these lizards do is bulging out their eyes. Why they do it is a mystery, but it’s likely to do with stretching the skin around the eyelids during or before shedding.
7. Changing Skin Color
Color changes occur most noticeably when under a heat source or under natural sunlight. Some of the bumpy scales, along with faint tiger stripes, will darken under the sun.
Some dragons with more striking color patterns may become brighter, too. By turning darker, these lizards can maximize the heat their bodies absorb.
This bearded dragon loves blueberries. A lot:
This is when a bearded dragon flattens out their body while basking. This is to maximize surface area for absorbing heat.
The shape resembles a strange sort of pancake with lizard features attached. Undoubtedly, this term was coined by an avid keeper.
9. “Sexy Leg”
Another term used by many bearded dragon keepers worldwide describing the often lazy but perhaps suggestive leg positions of these lizards. Usually displayed when basking, the “sexy leg” is usually left dangling or stretched out to keep us all on our feet for photo ops.
Bearded dragons are inquisitive and surprisingly alert. They’ve even shown that they can learn through imitation. By using communicative body language, they hint at an intelligence without uttering a word.
With most of their gestures recorded and decoded, their human keepers can understand most of what they’re trying to say.
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Angela DeRiso is a freelance writer passionate about the proper education, care and rescue of all animals we share our lives with. Her articles have been published on HealthyPets, Tampa Bay House Rabbit Rescue, the Suncoast Herpetological Society newsletter and more.