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The world of tree dragons
Practical Reptile Keeping

The world of tree dragons

Posted 14 April 2015   |   2043 views   |   Family & Home   |   Comments (0) Specialist breeder James Hicks provides key information about the care and breeding of this fascinating and striking but misunderstood group of lizards.

The description of ‘tree dragon’ is usually applied to the arboreal Asian agamids, and they belong to the same family as bearded dragons and water dragons. Tree dragons are found in the subfamilies Draconinae (represented by true Asian agamids, such as the mountain horned dragon) and Amphibolurinae (which comprises all Australian species, including the beloved bearded dragon, and others found further north in Asia, such as the green water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus).

Less familiar species The tree dragon group includes some of the most sought-after, bewildering and exotic-looking lizards in existence. Many are adorned with amazing crests and stunning colouration. Unfortunately they have also proven to be fairly specialised in their care, for the most part.

Read any publication on lizard husbandry that mentions this group and it will invariably write them off  as too difficult or delicate to attempt to keep, let alone breed. Regrettably, this has undoubtedly discouraged people from even attempting to learn these dragons’ secrets in the past.

Unfortunately, this prejudice still attaches to these lizards, even in today’s hobby (certainly in both the UK and North America). Any requests for information about their care posted on forums and groups by young hobbyists, inspired by pictures of these beauties as I was, are likely to be immediately shrugged off  by supposedly more experienced keepers, who claim they are impossible to keep successfully.

Perseverance pays off
Rest assured – they are not! I am hoping this article will help to break down the misconceptions about this group of lizards, and help people to understand their needs better. Tree dragons are indeed specialised in their care, and most tend to react badly to changes in their husbandry fairly quickly. However, if you can keep them in a suitable environment, which is certainly possible, they make interesting and rewarding vivarium occupants.

The mountain horned dragons (genus Acanthosaura) and the green water dragon (P. cocincinus) both inhabit similar habitats to these rarer agamids, sometimes living alongside them and yet these have been established in the hobby for years. In time, the other tree dragons will hopefully also become established in the hobby too, with support from dedicated specialists.

Careful acclimatisation
I will cover three of the genera I keep, each of which has fairly diff erent care requirements. There are the so-called garden lizards or bloodsuckers, forming the genus Calotes; Gonocephalus, which comprises the angleheads, and the crowned dragons (Hypsilurus).

It is fair to say that these lizards would not be recommended for beginners to the hobby, and it is important to gain experience keeping other arboreal forest lizards fi rst. This applies especially if you are confronted by wild caught (WC) specimens in poor condition, as these need to be considered with a degree of caution.

Tree dragons are only available very infrequently in the UK. When they are, they tend to be in need of care, not because they are inherently ‘difficult’, but simply because they have often not been looked after properly up to this point. Nevertheless, with appropriate care, many will pull through. As with any animal, choose the specimens in the best visual condition that are active and behave defensively when approached. Individuals that are dark in colour (assuming they are in suitably warm surroundings) or are not keen to move may have more serious issues, and can prove to be a liability.

Avoid thin animals if possible, but bear in mind that most tree dragons are naturally very slender animals. If, however, you can spot protruding hip bones, this is a sure sign that the individual is in a poor, malnourished condition.
Parasites are a problem
When acquiring any of these lizards, be prepared to get a full faecal test done as a matter of course, whether the animals could be showing signs of internal parasites or not. Qualified reptile veterinarians are obviously benefi cial in these circumstances, to advise on treatment if required.

If possible, it is preferable to get tree dragons feeding regularly for a week or two before attempting any medication, in my view. This will be controversial with some keepers who prefer to treat immediately. However, I feel the stress of catching the animal and getting it to settle in unfamiliar surroundings is sufficient, without having to handle it again, forcing its mouth open and squirting foul tasting medication down its throat! By all means, do treat for parasites, as is likely to be necessary, but it is probably best to allow the lizards to get used to their new enclosure first.

As they are tropical agamids, tree dragons require high humidity. Daily spraying with warm water is essential for drinking and shedding purposes, but do not allow this to build up excessively, in order to avoid problems with mould. Good ventilation is also important for this reason.

A drainage system can be incorporated into the substrate to keep it from stagnating. Moving water can be created with 12V pumps in a standard water container and is desirable although not essential for most species. If conditions are too dry, skin shedding becomes problematic and “stepping” may occur on the crest spines, giving them a jagged appearance.

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