Bearded Dragon Brumation - What is it, how long does it last, and should I be concerned?
What you'll learn in this article
If you have a Bearded Dragon, you may have heard about the curious behavior known as “brumation”. Inexperienced owners often confuse this natural behavior with a serious illness. In reality, it is actually a natural part of the Bearded Dragon life cycle. Keep reading to learn everything you need about brumation including what it is, why it can be healthy, and how to help your scaly little monster through the process!
What is Brumation?
Brumation is an extended period of dormancy. Bearded Dragons are native to Australian deserts and shrublands, which are typically scorching hot! However, Australia has a winter season, too. For about 2 ½ months out of the year, bearded dragons must survive these lower temperatures.
As ectothermic animals, lizards and other reptiles can only regulate their body temperature through their behaviors. When ambient temperatures become too low, many reptiles and amphibians retreat into hibernation. For instance, the Wyoming Toad digs a deep burrow and slows its metabolism to a near-stop. This allows them to survive the brutal cold of Wyoming winters.
Bearded dragons cannot survive freezing temperatures, because it never gets that cold in the deserts of Australia. However, the temperature will drop below 60° Fahrenheit at night and only get up to about 75° or 80° during the day. Instead of going into full hibernation, wild bearded dragons simply slow their movements and digestion during this period to conserve energy. This is brumation!
During brumation, bearded dragons will show altered behaviors. They will be less active, less responsive, and they will only take food opportunistically. The only reason you should be concerned about these behaviors is if your pet is displaying these behaviors when there has been no change in the temperature or light cycle.
Why do Bearded Dragons brumate?
Besides conserving energy through a period of less light and lower temperatures, scientists think that brumation is actually part of a natural cycle that helps bearded dragons reproduce. Lower temps and shorter daylight cycles mean that winter is approaching. Winter is the least opportune time for these lizards because there is less edible plant material and fewer prey insects for the lizards to feed on.
However, after winter comes spring and summer. These seasons provide massive amounts of food and insects for bearded dragons to eat. Spring and summer are the most opportune times for bearded dragons to have babies because their babies will have the greatest amount of resources to survive.
Brumation encourages Bearded Dragon Reproduction
Thus, brumation actually primes male and female lizards to reproduce at the most opportune times! So, if you are trying to breed your bearded dragons, brumation is a natural and helpful cycle prior to letting your lizards mate.
That being said, stimulating brumation can be tricky. If temperatures drop too low, the lizards can experience suboptimal health, poor digestion, immune system malfunction, and increased disease risk. Brumation is not necessary for captive lizards, and studies have found that lizards will be just as healthy without it.
If you still want to get your beardy to brumate, follow these instructions closely to ensure you don’t hurt your pet!
How to Initiate Brumation
To initiate brumation in captive lizards, the heat and light cycles must be changed. Typically, beardies are housed in the following conditions:
- Temperature (Day) - 80°-85°F with a 95°F basking spot
- Temperature (Night) - above 70°F
- Light Cycle - 14 hours day / 10 hours night
Brumation is induced by slowly changing these temperatures and times to the following:
- Temperature (Day) - 75°-80°F with an 80°F basking spot
- Temperature (Night) - above 60°F
- Light Cycle - 10 hours day / 14 hours night
While you can theoretically induce brumation at any time, it is easiest to follow a natural Northern Hemisphere winter (if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, follow that cycle). Starting in December, slowly start reducing the temps and changing the light cycle throughout the month. By January, you should reach the lowest temperatures and be at 10 hours of daylight. Then, from January to mid-February, you can begin reversing these back to normal. The total brumation time should around two and a half months. That’s it!
Your lizard should get sluggish, not eat as often, and retreat to its burrow more regularly as temperatures and light are reduced. As the temperatures and light increase, your lizard will slowly come out of brumation, and they should start eating regularly again, basking normally, and chasing prey.
Brumation Concerns - Dehydration
The only real concern with brumation is dehydration. Because your lizard is not eating regularly during brumation, there is a chance they may become dehydrated. In order to combat dehydration, you can easily give your brumating lizard a little bath.
Fill a shallow pan or dish with an inch or so of luke-warm water (80°-90°). Let your lizard soak in this bath for 15-20 minutes, once a week or so. Keep the water shallow! Sluggish and cold lizards could drown if they are not active enough to keep their heads up. Even if your lizard doesn’t actively drink, they can absorb some water through their skin and cloaca. This will ensure that they don’t get dehydrated.
Behavior Changes after Brumation
After brumating, your lizard should get its appetite back, be much more active, and start defecating regularly. All of these are signs that your lizard is healthy and happy. However, after brumation, you may also see more reproductive behaviors.
For instance, males housed together will tend to fight more after brumation. The two males are fighting for dominance and the right to breed with any females present. Even if there are no females, you may still see males fighting, head-bobbing, and flaring their beards to intimidate other males. It may be best to separate males during this time, so nobody gets hurt.
Females will show behavioral displays that let the males know they are receptive to breeding. A common display is the “arm wave”, where a female will lift one of her front legs as a sign of submission to a male. You may also see females posturing towards a male, another sign they are ready to breed! Brumation has primed the lizards for reproduction. So, if they are healthy you should see many of these behaviors.
Learn more about Brumation
If you want to learn more about Bearded Dragon husbandry, below are two excellent resources:
General Husbandry and Captive Propagation of Bearded Dragons, Pogona vitticep
Bulletin of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians
Companion Animal Care and Welfare: The UFAW Companion Animal Handbook
Chapter 19: Central Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) (Pages: 395-411)