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THIS DRAGON WILL SLAY YOU

In the old days, before computerized special effects, bearded dragons might have made great dinosaurs in monster movies. With some clever low-angle trick photography, these spiny-faced, scaly-bodied, dragonish herps could pass for the terrifying lizards of long ago.

In recent years, bearded dragons, named because their spiny "beard" under the chin inflates when a predator poses a threat, have certainly caught the public's imagination. Their celebrated visual appeal is the number one reason pet-seekers decide to take a closer look at them in shops.

The personality of these lizards from the central regions of the Australian outback matches their good looks. Though wary by nature, the bearded dragons available today as pets are all captive-bred and docile. However, male dragons should be housed separately.

Their behavior is typically gentle toward humans, although small ones may be skittish until they become accustomed to people and their movements. The lizards' own slow movements make them well suited to handling, and many seem almost to enjoy the attention.

This tame disposition and their small size (adults are about 12 to 18 inches long) combine to make bearded dragons ideal pets for novices. Squirminess is seldom an issue with animals longer than about 9 inches and biting is virtually unheard of in the adults, although their sharp nails may leave minor scratches as they cling to an unsheathed arm. To make holding your lizard more comfortable, consult a veterinarian experienced in working with reptiles for guidance on how to properly trim nails.

Due to the varied size and growth rate of reptiles and their individual needs, you should consult your qualified reptile veterinarian to determine specific housing requirements. The size and shape of the habitat should be appropriate to accommodate your pet's normal behaviors and exercise.

Be sure to provide multiple hiding areas, branches for basking and access to cooler areas. Calcium-based sand or decomposed granite make good substrates, and the red varieties show these lizards off as they might look in the wild. Also, add a thick sloping log that allows your pet to bask near the top of the cage.

The last essential environmental ingredient is a heat lamp, situated above the end of the tank where the branch rises highest. Ensure the light is situated so your pet does not come in contact with it. This gives bearded dragons access to the heat they crave during parts of the day to warm up. They also need it to digest their food which consists of live insects, chopped veggies and some of the new commercial pellets. A fluorescent light that emits ultraviolet rays is also needed.

If your personable pet roams your home periodically for his exercise, you may find he enjoys basking quietly on the back of a chair near a sunny window or on a desk under a warm light.