What to Know About Australian Water Dragons


In this Article

  • What Is an Australian Water Dragon?
  • Australian Water Dragon Habitat
  • What Do Australian Water Dragons Eat?
  • Australian Water Dragon Lifespan
  • Australian Water Dragons as Pets

As their name suggests, Australian water dragons are a semi-aquatic lizard species native to Australia. They have a distinctive pattern on their skin, making them easily recognizable. While found throughout Australia’s east coast, they can be pets.

What Is an Australian Water Dragon?

The Australian water dragon (Intellagama lesueurii) is a lizard species from the same suborder as iguanas. There are two subspecies of Australian water dragons: Intellagama lesueurii lesueurii, the eastern water dragon, and Intellagama lesueurii howittii, the Gippsland water dragon. Both species are native to Australia. The eastern water dragon lives along Australia’s east coast, while the Gippsland water dragon lives further south.

In 1845, scientists entered the Australian water dragon into the genus Physignathus with their cousins, the Chinese water dragon. DNA testing over the last few decades showed that Chinese and Australian water dragons are biologically different enough to warrant their own genera.

The two species have similar looks. The Australian water dragons’ size can be up to three feet long, with their tail making up two-thirds of their body length. Their tails are mostly muscle and act as an oar when the water dragons swim. They have a nuchal crest, a row of spikes down the back of the head that continue along the spine to the tail, where they split into two rows.

Both species are olive-green and striped with primarily black but also cream bands. Their undersides are brownish-gray. Both species have loose skin folds under the jaw, similar to bearded dragons. 

There are a few key differences that can help you distinguish between the eastern water dragon and the Gippsland water dragon:

  • The eastern water dragon has a black stripe from its eye back to its ear, while the Gippsland water dragon doesn’t.
  • The male eastern water dragon has a red flush across its chest, while the Gippsland water dragon has an olive-gray-colored chest area.
  • The male Gippsland water dragon has colorful markings on its throat in shades of blue, orange, and yellow, while the eastern water dragon doesn’t.

Like many species of lizards, Australian water lizards are sexually dimorphic, meaning there are differences between the males and females of the species. The males have broader heads and more prominent jaws. Male eastern water dragons have a red chest, while females don’t, and male Gippsland water dragons have colorful markings on the throat, while females don’t.

The term “water lizard” comes from them being semi-aquatic. They spend a lot of time in the water and will use the water as an escape from predators. They can stay underwater for up to 90 minutes. While in the water, they can slow their heart rate and perform gas exchange across their skin. They can also eat underwater.

Australian water dragons have powerful limbs and claws, allowing them to climb trees and grip branches. They can also run bipedally on their back legs to avoid predators.

Australian Water Dragon Habitat

Australian water dragon species live along Australia’s east coast. The eastern water dragon takes up most of the coastline, while the Gippsland water dragon starts at Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, about two and a half hours south of Sydney. 

Both species prefer to live in trees near running water like rivers and streams. Because of the diverse environments along the east coast of Australia, they can live in a range of biomes, from tropical rainforests to alpine streams. Eastern water dragons have even been found in urban areas, so long as there’s a water source nearby.

What Do Australian Water Dragons Eat?

Australian water dragons are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. They have a wide and varied diet that includes items like:

  • Algae
  • Crustaceans and mollusks
  • Flowers
  • Frogs
  • Fruit
  • Insects

These water dragons forage for food in various places. They’ll eat ants from the ground, cicadas from trees, crabs, and crayfish from the water. Occasionally they eat fish and skinks, a type of small lizard, but it’s not clear how common this is.

Australian Water Dragon Lifespan

Australian water dragons have relatively long lifespans. It’s unclear how long they usually live in the wild, but some research indicates they may live at least 16 years. They can live much longer in captivity, with a maximum age of 28 years, although there are claims that one lived for 40 years.

In the wild, Australian water dragons reach sexual maturity at about four or five years old, but this can happen at a younger age in captivity. Females will lay anywhere from 6-18 eggs, and it can take anywhere from 68-120 days for the eggs to hatch. 

Like many animal species, hatchlings have the most significant growth over the first year. Juvenile Australian water lizards are a light brown color, and their heads and feet will be disproportionately large compared to their bodies.

Australian Water Dragons as Pets

Australian water dragons can adapt and aren’t usually aggressive to humans, making them good pets. Like other sizable lizards, they have sharp claws and can deliver a nasty bite if they feel cornered, so some caution is needed. If you plan to add an Australian water dragon to your family as a pet, there are some unique requirements you need to consider, including the following:

Australian water dragons are sizable lizards and need a lot of space, so keeping them outdoors is best if the climate allows. At a minimum, enclosures should be three times the lizard’s length, with a width two times the lizard’s length. 

Water dragons need an area to swim that should be deep enough to submerge themselves. Ensure they can get out of the water effortlessly to prevent drowning. Clean the water consistently, as the lizards often use it as a toilet. Australian water dragons need items in the enclosure that let them climb and hide. 

Whether your enclosure is indoors or outdoors, it needs UVA and UVB light. Without this light, the water dragons will not get the proper nutrients. Outdoors, your water dragons will get UV rays from the sun, but indoor enclosures need UV lights.

Australian water dragons are very sensitive to temperature. Their enclosures should have a colder end that stays around 68-77°F (20-25°C). The temperature should gently rise until the warmer end, which should be 86-95°F (30-35°C).

Water dragons are social creatures and, in the wild, live in groups with one male and several females. Males can become aggressive with each other, though, so it’s not good to keep males in the same enclosure.

Hatchlings and adults have slightly different dietary needs. Hatchlings primarily eat insects, and they need to eat every day. Prey larger than two-thirds of their head size can block their gut, so it is vital to keep them small. Offer supplements about every third feed, and ensure they always have access to fresh drinking water. 

Juveniles and adults, meanwhile, need more fruits and vegetables than their younger counterparts. These must be soft and small enough for the dragon to fit in its mouth. The insects they can eat can be larger than those of the hatchlings, such as crickets and mealworms, and even small rodents like pinky mice. Juveniles and adults only need to be fed three or four times a week rather than every day, but like hatchlings, they need consistent access to fresh water. 

Be cautious when using wild-caught insects. Insects exposed to insecticides can poison your water dragon.

Show Sources

ACT Herpetological Association: “Captive Care of the Eastern Water Dragon.”
Australian National Botanical Gardens: “Yes, there are dragons in the Gardens…”
New South Wales Fauna and Marine Association: “Australian Water Dragon.”
Zootaxa: “Intellagama lesueurii (Gray, 1831), the correct binomial combination for the Australian Eastern Water Dragon (Sauria, Agamidae).”

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