Bearded Dragon Behaviors and Body Language and Meaning

Bearded dragons are not vocal except for a few instances where they may hiss. However, they do display particular body language (physical gestures) and colors to communicate to you, other lizards, pets, or animals.

Therefore, you need to correctly decipher some of their primary communication cues and act accordingly as well as support some of their behaviors.  Doing so, together with proper care and a perfect habitat, will ensure these pets live longer, are happy and healthy.

bearded dragon beard display
Beard display

However, as you try to decode the meaning of their different behaviors, don’t forget to consider the contest since it may indicate something else besides the assumed reason.

Finally, by continually observing your pet and growing a bond such as through handling, hand feeding, and bathing, it will be easy to understand a bearded dragon’s normal and abnormal behavior. Don’t stop at that, find out and correct reasons for any unusual reactions.

Are they social?

Bearded dragons are not social animals, i.e., they are solitary animals that won’t get lonely so long they are adequately housed,i.e., in the right tank size and have furniture, toys, and other enrichments.

However, you may get them basking or feeding together in popular places that have food or places to perch. Being in groups only happens when they have to share common resources.

Are they hierarchical?

Yes. These lizards maintain social hierarchy based on appeasement by the submissive one or aggression by the dominant one. Hatchlings and baby bearded dragons may not show hierarchical tendencies or aggression. However, as they grow beyond four months, these tendencies will begin cropping up.

For instance, in a social group, the largest or dominant beardie will take the best basking spots, such as the highest point, while others will be at lower places. Additionally, the dominant one may also deny the subservient a chance to eat, UV light if not covering the whole enclosure, and so on.

Finally, they will affirm their dominance by head bobbing while those on the lower rank will arm wave slowly or quickly. Otherwise, a standoff will ensure if the lower-ranking one does not show submission.

Are they territorial?

Yes. Besides keeping social hierarchy, beardies are very territorial and compete for basking spots, food, females, and so on. For instance, a dominant beardie takes an assertive stance, such as inflating its beard, head bobbing, and so on and prepares to face off to another male over territory, basking area, food, females.

If the subservient doesn’t acknowledge or show submissive gestures such as arm waving and walking away, aggression may occur.

Although females are also territorial, head bobbing or beard puffing is not how they show it. Their size dictates it.

Finally, since they are solitary, territorial, and hierarchical, always house them separately if you have more than one.

Common gestures and body language and meaning

Beardies have various gestures or body language show dominance, aggression, stress, wanting to mate, and so on. Comes ones include:

1. Beard display and turning black

Beard display occurs when puff and darken their glutaral pouch beneath their chin, i.e., these pets will inflate and darkens their beard. In some cases, it may appear jet black. Both male and females display their beards, but males do it more often.

Why do they display their beardie? Is it an indication of a good or bad thing?

  • Firstly, it is a means of defense when something threatens them. Flaring the beard makes them feel bigger
  • Secondly, it may be a sign of aggression, especially when accompanied by head bobs or other aggressive behavior.
  • Also, it can happen when this reptile is under stress, unwell, or upset. However, more than often, beardies will bob their head instead of displaying their bearded.
  • Finally, it may signal mating time, i.e., it may be part of the mating rituals when they want to breed or other forms of essential communications.

2. Head bobbing

It happens when this reptile raised and lowers its head, and it can happen together with a beard display depending on why it occurs. Both the males and females head bob, and it is a means of communication. Furthermore, it can happen at different paces to mean various things.

For instance, males head bob to females as a way of impressing them or to smaller males as a sign of dominance. The smaller males will respond by bobbing their head and waving their arm as a sign of submissiveness while females may arm wave if in response to a male head bobbing to avoid aggression.

a). Fast bobbing

If it occurs rapidly, it is a sign of dominance (mark social hierarchy) if done by a male. You will see male beardies quickly bobbing their heads if they see others in their territory. They are only sending a warning message. Usually, it occurs together with a beard display.

Also, it can be a sign of stress and wanting to be alone in both male and female beardies.

b). Violent head bobbing

When a bearded dragon violently nods their heads, it happens with much vigor setting their entire body in motion. It occurs before mating in males and such a case, it may happen simultaneously with stomping.

Violent head bobs may also occur in both males and females, when under intense stress and want to be left alone.

c). Slow head bob

Slow head bobs are a female’s gesture to show submission to a male beardie. Similarly, the smaller males will respond by bobbing their head and waving their arms while females may only arm wave if in response to a male head bobbing to avoid aggression.

3. Waving

Why do bearded dragons wave their arms? The answer is simple. It is a sign of submission done by the submissive beardie.

When it occurs, the subservient beardie will lift his or her arm slowly, makes a waving like circular gesture and brings it back down. If something supports their body well, they may wave both arms. However, this shouldn’t be confused with stomping.

It occurs when:

  • Being submissive or acknowledging to be in a dominant beardie’s territories. It is a means of saying, ‘I mean no harm,’ ‘I know you are the boss here,’ and so on.
  • It is a sign of submissiveness by female or smaller males, especially after the dominant males have bobbed their heads or puffed their beards.
  • Waving and slow bobs by a female is a sign that they are willing to mate.
  • When greeting each other
  • Assert dominance if it occurs fast and accompanied by head bobbing.

4. Bowing

Some females will lower themselves downwards to the ground, wave their arms intermittently, and move away to escape or appease a dominant male.

5. Mouth open or gaping

Besides beard display, these pets may open their mouth, showing their mucous membrane, and it happens for several reasons like:

  • As a means of defending themselves from a perceived threat that may be or not real, including you as you handle them if they are still new. They will also inflate their beard, hiss, or and perform small leaps or jumps towards the attacker.
  • Also, when basking under heat lamps or even on the sun, they do gape or open their mouth. If it occurs, you need to be happy since it means that they have reached their optimum basking temperatures. They do so to help dissipate excess heat or thermoregulate since they don’t sweat as we do.
  • When mouth breathing, they will open their mouth. Mouth breathing could be normal or an indication of a respiratory disease if it happens continuously. For instance, if kept under high humidity, this agamid lizard may suffer from respiratory diseases. Such a case is likely to show other symptoms, including labored breathing, wheezing, and so on.

Since mouth gaping may be due to thermoregulation, always create a thermal gradient so that this pet can decide if to be on their basking platform or move to the cooler side.

6. Hissing, body flattening, inflation, and tilting

When under a predator threat, they may hiss, flatten their body on the ground, puff out their spiny neck, darkened beard, open their jaws and tilt towards what is threatening them or if they want to remain undisturbed. Doing so makes them look and feel larger.

However, they will hardly bite despite their strong jaws, and it will be the last resort when they are threatened not from competition from their kind.

Finally, as they bask, your beardie can lie on their belly and flatten their body, making it broader and looking like a pancake. If you notice it happen as these lizards are basking, it means they want to maximize heat absorption, especially when there isn’t enough heat.

7. Lying on top of each other (stacking)

Not to be confused with copulation pose, a bearded dragon lying on another is a sign of dominance where the dominant one stacks on top of the subservient, particularly during basking.

Also, baby beardies may stack on large ones if housed together while basking.

8. Tail up

Tail up happens when they curl their tail upwards like a scorpion. It is not a common thing they do, and it may indicate that this reptile is showing dominance or being alert. Also, they may curl their tail upwards when running or walking.

9. Eye bulging

At times, your bearded dragon may bulge their eyes. Young beardies bulge their eye more, and one reason is to skin stretching just before or as they shed their skin. Doing so supports the shedding theory since they slough their skin more when they are young.

Secondly, it may be a way that they yawn or an evolutionary behavior as some horned lizards do squint blood after accumulating it in their eyes.

Third, it may be an indication of high blood pressure as in the case of chameleon if it happens for a long time, i.e., more than 30 minutes.

However, unless accompanied by other symptoms of illness such as tearing or happens for a long time, eye-bulging shouldn’t bother you.

Finally, it may be a sign of infection or injury, especially if swollen, infected, or sore. Loose substrate like sand may get into these lizard’s eye and cause irritation and soreness. See your vet if you suspect infection.

10. Tail twitching

Not all bearded dragons twitch their tail, and juveniles tend to show this behavior more than adults. Twitching involves the raising of their tail like a scorpion and moving it back and forth.

This behavior happens when hunting or stalking prey, about to fight or want to be alone, such as if under stress. Also, during mating, a male may flip his tail over the female.

11. Stomping

Male interested in females may stamp one or both their arms on the ground. Usually, this happens with vigorous head bobs. They will raise their feet and stamp as they lower their head. Being stressed or upset can also cause this behavior.

12. Yawning

Not to confuse it with gaping, these lizards do yawn, i.e., open their mouths wide for a short moment and then closing it completely. It commonly occurs when they wake up, or when their lights go on. Before yawning, they may severally inflate their beard.

13. Leg stretch

Also referred to as ‘sex leg.’ this gesture happens when a bearded dragon lazily stretches one of his hind legs back as he or she basks.

14. Biting

Bing is a sign of aggression. While these pets may nip conspecific when extremely necessary, they don’t bite human beings, and it will only happen in rare instances.

However, in rare cases, it can happen as you try to handle them. In such a case, wear gloves to prevent because they do carry some zoonotic disease or parasites.

Furthermore, if your beardie shows any signs of aggression as you try to handle him or her, avoid and reduce handling time until she gets used to you.

15. Licking

Licking is one of their typical behaviors that happens when they are trying to familiarize with their environment or taste something new.

Buy licking and retracting their tongue into their mouth, the  Jacobson’s organ on top of their mouth roof will taste and detect the smell.

Some owners have noted that subservient beardies may lick their alpha (superior) male as a sign of submissiveness.

16. Hyperactivity

It is okay for these pets to be very active, especially when in perfect habitat. Younger beardies tend to be hyperactive than adults or old ones.

17. Rubbing

You will notice your bearded dragon rubbing against various things inside their vivarium before are after they have just finished shedding. They are doing to so to help remove skin that is about or may not have come out.

Aggression behavior

While considered laidback, they do show signs of aggression, particularly to their species, and it may be due to territory invasion (to protect their turf) and when competing for resources like food, females, or basking platforms.

Common signs of aggression include head bobbing (the rapid it is the more serious the hostility is), hissing (when they feel threatened), biting, and beard display.

If not interrupted, a fighting stance, circling, and biting may occur. Always separate these lizards to avoid injuries they may get as they fight. Sometimes, they can fight until one is injured or dies.

Sometimes, they may be aggressive to you as you try to handle it, something usual of these pets. It may indicate some issues like stress, health, and so forth.

Bearded dragon aggressive all of a sudden

If your bearded dragon suddenly becomes aggressive, it may be a sign it is unwell, hurt, it is shedding, or is under much stress. Wrong habitat conditions including temperature and humidity, housing them together, seeing another beardie it deems as rival coming to its territory, and so on.

Visit your vet if you aren’t sure what makes her aggressive and wear gloves as you handle this lizard to avoid scratches if she tries to struggle away.

Basking

While in the wild, bearded dragons bask in the morning and late afternoon. They do so to help get some warmth from the sun. Being excellent climbers (semi-arboreal), you will find them basking on elevated and exposed rocks, tree branches, broken or fallen trees, posts, and so on.

However, when the sun gets so hot, they will retreat to burrows and shaded places like rock hollows, grasslands, beneath logs to take cover.

In captivity, these pets also need basking platforms. These can include basking rocks, climbing branches, hammocks, and so on. Also, ensure you maintain the right temperature using correct heat lamps as well as UV light sources. Thermometers will be handy in ensuring you keep the right temperature.

Finally, don’t forget to have an area with lower temperatures by creating a thermal gradient to give these pets a chance to move away from their basking area if they so choose.

Climbing

Beardies are semi-arboreal, meaning they love climbing on trees. However, they don’t live on trees, i.e., they are not arboreal. Besides basking and exploring, climbing helps them feel safer as they can see far away. Also, as they climb, some rough surfaces help in nail wear.

While in the wild, they do climb on rocks, fallen trees, dead grass hammocks, tree branches, and so on. Just any elevated surface that they can climb.

In their habitat, don’t forget to give them climbing branches and logs. Ensure you use safe wood, and it shouldn’t allow them access heat or UV lamps such as mercury vapor lamps as they may get burnt.

Digging and burrowing

Digging is one of these pet’s natural behavior that they participate in even while in the wild. Some of the reasons why they dig include:

  • When gravid (egg carrying) and want to lay an egg, mainly if you house a male and female. Females can also lay infertile eggs without exposure to males.
  • When they are about to brumate, they may burrow and hide in the ground to shield themselves from harsh weather elements.
  • To find a cooler hiding spot if you don’t have a thermal gradient and sheltered places in your tank. Instead, ensure you have some basic décor and furniture in their enclosure like a hideout.
  • If they are stressed and want to hide or be alone, and they happen not to have a hiding place.
  • Create a more comfortable place to bask when they don’t have basking spots.
  • Trying to tunnel out and escape from their enclosures.

Besides these reasons, some may dig as it is one of their fun and natural behaviors. However, it can also be a behavioral issue if they keep digging for no apparent reason.

Can bearded dragons be trained?

Yes, they can learn specifically by watching one of their kind doing something. Afterward, a beardie will learn to do it too. “An experiment demonstrated that after one individual was trained to open the door to reach a food item, most other bearded dragons watching this action were able to perform it as well.” (1)

Glass surfing

This behavior involves either scratching, leaning on, or attempting to climb from their enclosure, especially the glass terrarium types while standing on their hind legs. They may also run back and forth onto their enclosure wall.

While many beardie owners assume it is having fun or excited to see their reflection, this is not the case in most instances. This abnormal behavior is an indication that all is not well.

Surfing is an indication of stress or boredom as well as issues such as wrong temperature, small terrariums, a sight of a perceived threat such as a dog or cat, seeing another beardie, etcetera.

Finally, while it may seem fun to watch, ensure your vivarium doesn’t have sharp points or edges that may harm their snout, feet, or underside (stomach).

Brumation or hibernation

Bearded dragons brumate during winter when temperature or photoperiod reduce as well as food become scarce. These pets don’t hibernate since hibernation occurs during summer or hot seasons.

During brumation, they will have various symptoms like reduced appetite, sleeping more, inactivity, not basking, always keeping to the cooler side of the vivarium, or in their hiding places, among other symptoms.

On when it occurs, how long it takes, how to care for them during brumation, do juveniles or baby beardies brumate, among other issues, we have an exclusive post on bearded dragon brumation that will give you a deeper understanding and help you prepare for it.

Hiding from predators

Hiding from predators is typical behavior among these lizards. Usually, these agamids do keep coved places or permanent burrows that protects them from predators. Their common predators include snakes, dingoes, birds, foxes, feral cats, and goannas.

Behaviors to watch for

While many are ok, there are those you need to watch out for, such as those that indicate your lizard is unwell like lethargy, wobbly, jerky or twitchy movement, no movement, cannibalism, coughing, excessive soaking, sneezing, among others.

On cannibalism, while they hardly eat each other, if congested together in a large group with limited resources including food or excessive heat, i.e., they may cannibalize the smaller ones.

Finally, younger beardies may also nip each other’s tail and toes when hungry, a reason why you should avoid housing them together.

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