Chinese Water Dragon Husbandry | Expert Interview
Expert Interviews | Chinese Water Dragon with Alex Myers
With limited information on Chinese Water Dragon husbandry available online, Zen Habitats set out to get answers to some of your most frequently asked questions. We reached out to a highly experienced Chinese Water Dragon keeper, Alex Myers, who was kind enough to share his knowledge about this incredible species.
What type of habitat would be best for CWD’s? What kinds of enrichment should be provided for them within their habitat?
Answer: An ideal habitat for a Chinese water dragon should have a minimum size range of four to six feet in length, two to four feet in width, and should be at least four to six feet tall. Bigger enclosures are always better for this species, therefore spacial considerations aside from the previously described minimum requirements should be considered prior to one’s acquisition of a dragon.
Enclosures should be made of solid-sided materials since water dragons are unable to comprehend clear barriers. Any habitats made of glass, screen, acrylic, mesh, or any other transparent material should be avoided entirely as water dragons will relentlessly smash their faces by running into the walls of clear sided enclosures. The front of the enclosure can have viewing areas, but these should be minimal, ideally, the first lower third of the enclosure will be solid-sided with the higher areas possessing the viewing area to prevent nose-rubbing behaviors (Langerwarf, 2006).
The term “environmental enrichment” was first described in 1991 regarding captive animal welfare to understand and provide animals the ability to exhibit natural behaviors through means of enclosure and habitat design (Young, 2013).
Environmental enrichment for Chinese water dragons is most effectively achieved through habitat setups that allow them to exhibit their natural (non-stress/prey response) behaviors through means of climbing, thermoregulating, hunting/feeding, soaking/wallowing, and breeding/nesting in the case of female specimens.
It is important to note that these lizards are not ‘domestic’. Outdated and misinformed ideas such as giving them ‘toys’ or ‘hammocks’ will not meet their enrichment needs. Keepers should provide various shelves and branches to encourage captive water dragons to use their muscles for climbing. Additional necessities include soil substrate for nesting females to dig in, different feeder insects for them to hunt, and varying the methods at which food is presented. This will keep them stimulated and enriched.
2. What drew you to Chinese Water Dragons?
Answer: I have always been fascinated by the ‘dragons’ of the lizard world. In the beginnings of my reptile keeping endeavors, I was always drawn to the sailfin lizards of the genus Hydrosaurus. However, my resources were limited as far as acquiring and housing Hydrosaurus. Thus, the appeal of the water dragons being smaller, readily available, and calmer, led me to start working with them.
While the brownish colors of juvenile water dragons may turn away the average hobbyist from wanting to pursue the species. I’d like to state and emphasize that an adult green water dragon is a sight to see. Few lizard species come close to the array of blues, orange, yellows, occasional pinks, chocolate speckling, and of course the classic green color throughout the body that is associated with this species.
3. How do Chinese Water Dragons care differ from other lizards?
Answer: Chinese water dragons, like any captive lizard have their own specific needs that must be met for them to thrive in a captive environment.
In contrast to some of the ‘bread and butter’ species such as leopard geckos and bearded dragons. The needs of a Chinese water dragon are not as easily met to the average first-time keeper. Enclosure needs are often difficult for new-time keepers to meet and maintain from a finical standpoint. Chinese water dragons require precise aspects to their care even if compared to other commonly maintained tropical species. For example: it is easy to maintain high humidity for crested geckos in captivity since they do not require high ambient temperatures, in contrast: a bearded dragon enclosure is easily kept arid using intense heating elements to achieve the warm temperatures they require. Then enter the water dragon who needs both immense daytime ambient heat with high levels of humidity…it can throw a lot of new keepers through a difficult loop. It’s important to note the ‘hardiness’ of these lizards in captivity regarding some aspects of their care being met and lacking in others. I’ve noticed many keepers have water dragons with short or stunted spikes due to a lack of improper humidity. If one were to compare wild Chinese water dragons with tall and elegant spikes, to a ‘rough’ backed captive specimen simply ‘getting by’ with insufficient levels of humidity, it becomes quite clear how much they can tolerate. For a water dragon to truly thrive in a captive environment, every aspect of the enclosure must be dialed in precisely.
4. What are some challenges when it comes to keeping CWD's?
Answer: I think the better way to ask this question is: ‘what isn’t challenging about keeping Chinese water dragons?’
Arguably the most pain-staking aspect of keeping Chinese water dragons in captivity is the fact that this species does not comprehend, nor understand transparent barriers. Glass, mesh, screen, acrylic, and plexi-glass should be avoided. If they can see through something, they will attempt to run through it. Thus, enclosures should have minimal viewing areas, or if one wishes to have a large viewing area: depth of an enclosure should be prioritized to create as much distance between the lizard and the transparent barriers that make up its habitat. Lighting is another aspect that I often see many keepers getting confused about regarding Chinese water dragons. It is common for most keepers to have a mindset of “tropical” and “desert” reptiles with no consideration for how a specific species utilizes lighting in it's given environment. It is because of the misinformation and arguably marketing of certain specialty lamps that I frequently see water dragons suffering from insufficient lighting exposure. Despite hailing from tropical, riparian environments. This species basks in direct sunlight over streams, where they can then retreat to shaded areas along the bank side and tree cover. Providing high levels of UVB through linear fluorescent lamps such as the Zoomed T5 ReptiSun 10.0 over a basking zone will enable water dragons to grow and develop properly. It is then the duty of the keeper to ensure a UV gradient is met by supplying hides, foliage, and other areas for the dragon to escape the intense UV levels, just as they would do in the wild.
While some may find an insectivorous diet easy to supply, to others: the diet of captive water dragons can be challenging to meet. They are specialists that consume dozens of invertebrate genera in their natural habitat. Yet in captivity even the ‘best’ keepers can provide under a dozen or so feeder species. It’s important to highlight that recent studies have shown no traces of fish, rodent, reptilian, or avian prey in the diet of wild water dragons (Van Hoang et al. 2018). Yet there are countless ‘care guides’ suggesting that this species ‘must’ consume fish and rodents in captivity. Consequently, other literature sources state that Chinese water dragons are prone to fatty liver issues (Köhler, 2006) which is arguably attributed to outdated information suggesting that this species should consume feeder rodents, fish, or reptiles in captivity. While I have not conducted any professional research into the subject. I have no doubts through my own experience and anecdotal evidence that captive Chinese water dragons will thrive long term on a strict diet of invertebrate prey. Instead of offering rodents and fish that will lead to fatty liver diseases, gout, and other illnesses attributed to dietary items that are exceptionally high in protein and fat.
5. Have you learned anything surprising about CWD's since keeping them?
Answer: Many things are surprising (and rewarding) to learn when keeping this species. For one: my first “wow” moment was working with a wild caught female back in 2014. Upon removing the animal from its enclosure, it quickly slipped out of my hands and proceeded to run bipedally across the reptile room! It is one thing to see this species jumping from branch to branch, but to see them move at full speed and work up the momentum to run on their hind legs was astonishing (and slightly concerning in hopes it didn’t dash under the nearest snake rack!) Now having kept and bred this species for some time, I think the most shocking aspect of keeping these lizards has been seeing how their behavior and activity is much more natural when basing my care on known facts via observations and studies of the species in the wild.
The behaviors this species exhibits are amazing. Variations of head bobbing, arm waving, and tail thrashing serve as a fine reminder that even though they are not capable of speaking. They are still incredibly intelligent as far as communication between individuals go. Seeing such forms of communication in captivity is incredibly rewarding. Hearing people comment how “water dragons don’t thrive in captivity” when compared other lizards never felt right to me. Why would so many people complain about losing captive individuals if the previous concepts of care and husbandry were deemed ‘correct’? By tweaking my own husbandry techniques and not following the ‘expert care guides’, the true surprise is seeing healthy water dragons living long lives. Who’d of thought that following their natural history and keeping them based on wild data would yield lizards acting the way they do in nature!? Surprising right!
6. Share something you wish you knew about Chinese Water Dragons before you began keeping them !
Answer: When I first began working with Chinese water dragons. The sheer amount of ‘cover up’ or lack of education on whether I was purchasing a wild-caught lizard was disappointing to say the least. I, like many others, assumed I was picking up a healthy captive bred specimen. Only after seeing missing fingers and runny feces did I begin to suspect something was ‘off’. I realized that the first specimen I purchased (like thousands of others) was another animal snatched from the wild. While I am happy to state that I still have the very first water dragon I ever purchased, I can only imagine the hundreds of other keepers experiencing die offs from sourcing what they’d imagine to be ‘captive bred’ water dragons in large pet shops or expos as they see with more common species. Nonetheless, there are more and more serious hobbyists taking an interest in breeding Chinese water dragons year after year. I do hope with this continuing trend that new hobbyists purchasing their first captive bred water dragon will be rewarded with a positive experience as opposed to the vast majority that have dealt with wild-caught specimens.
7. Who is best suited to keeping Chinese Water Dragons?
Answer: Chinese water dragons are most suited for experienced hobbyists who can provide the space and finical needs this species requires. Unfortunately, like many wild-caught species in the industry, hundreds of Chinese water dragons die every year at the hands of inexperienced keepers who are drawn to the low-price tag of the species. Many without any insight to the necessary husbandry that is required. I always like to tell people that “the little fifteen-dollar lizard will cost about fifteen-hundred dollars to setup properly!” (To which most people start scratching their heads asking what they got themselves into…)
Truthfully, I suspect that there are plenty of experienced keepers within the reptile industry that can maintain Chinese water dragons sufficiently in captivity. However, the main reason why I suspect that few do, is simply from the high mortality this species experiences in captivity regarding wild caught specimens. A keeper may purchase a trio of freshly imported water dragons, begin raising them up, only to experience death of the group six months later. Therefore, their first experience with the species is negative and the keeper is discouraged from working with them. Such an experience could be changed if there were more captive bred specimens available as opposed to the thousands of wild-caught specimens that fill the reptile market.
8. How has the CWD's recent addition to the list of CITES protected species impacted your thoughts on keeping Chinese Water Dragons?
Answer: For those who are not aware, CITES is the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, this organization assess species of flora and fauna regarding how they are utilized and or traded by humans, and whether said methods of trade or utilization are detrimental to a species. While Chinese water dragons are not listed as an Endangered species, they were considered Vulnerable after a recent population assessment (Stuart et al. 2019). Due to the potential for this species to become endangered via overcollection for the pet trade (Gewiss et al. 2020) they were given complete status under CITES Appendix II in February 2023.
With this recent addition, I feel that the demand for Chinese water dragons will rise immensely, they are frequently sought after by collectors and hobbyists wanting their next pet reptile. I also feel that there should be a stronger emphasis on captive breeding of this species to meet the demand for them in the current pet trade. Too many reptile and amphibian species have become non-existent due to the supply of animals originating from wild-caught specimens. When we look at Chinese water dragons: the fact that thousands of water dragons are exported out of Vietnam every year to supply the pet trade and few people are breeding them is reason enough to further the need for ethical, captive born and bred specimens to take pressure off wild populations which are already dwindling.
Lastly, and arguably my most controversial opinion of the subject. I do feel that the updated appendix status will reduce their accessibility to unfit owners and thus, less wild-caught specimens will suffer in captivity. I frequently receive emails and messages from people asking for care advice as they had purchased these lizards because they are “cool” and were “affordable”. After reciting the minimum needs that this species requires, and frequently receiving a shocked reaction, I am usually followed up by a message months later asking if I have any captive bred dragons for sale as the wild-caught specimen they started with had perished due to initial improper care. The simple facts are that most people who actively seek out Chinese water dragons as pets are unfit to care of them properly. By reducing their accessibility to the public and having the majority sourced among breeders who can vet out those looking for a “cheap pick up”. More captive specimens will end up in better conditions. The needs of a Chinese water dragon are not easily met by every keeper. This new status will allow wild populations to be safe, and with the increase in price. Discourage unfit owners from impulsively purchasing a captive water dragon.
● Gewiss, Laurenz Rafael, Hai Ngoc Ngo, Mona van Schingen-Khan, Marta Bernardes, Anna Rauhaus, Cuong The Pham, Truong Quang Nguyen, and Thomas Ziegler. "Population assessment and impact of trade on the Asian Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus Cuvier, 1829) in Vietnam." Global Ecology and Conservation 23 (2020): e01193.
● Köhler Gunther, and Köhler Gunther. Diseases of Amphibians and Reptiles 13 Tables. Krieger, 2006.
● Langerwerf, Bert. Water Dragons. TFH Publications Inc, 2006.
● Stuart, B., M. Sumontha, M. Cota, N. Panitvong, T. Q. Nguyen, T. Chan-Ard, T. Neang, D. Q. Rao, and J. Yang. "Physignathus cocincinus." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019 (2019).
● Van Hoang, Nguyen, Ngo Van Binh, Ngo Dac Chung, and Nguyen Quang Truong. "Diet of the Indochinese water dragon Physignathus cocincinus Cuvier, 1829 (Squamata: Sauria: Agamidae) from Thua Thien Hue Province, Vietnam." Russian Journal of Herpetology 25, no. 3 (2018): 189-194.
● Young, Robert J. Environmental enrichment for captive animals. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Thank you so much to Alex Myers for sharing his knowledge and allowing us to publish this valuable information!
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