Dragon Lore

Written for Scales & Tails Magazine - Launch Issue                  by Shannon Benson {Plummer}

About the author

This article is made up of exerts from Captive Care of the Central Netted Dragon by Shannon Plummer. Shannon is a wildlife photographer and expert in her chosen field. Her style of fine art photography caught the attention of the international photography community where she won several prestigious international awards and acclaim from her peers. She is also a wildlife carer for sick, injured and orphaned Australian wildlife, specialising in reptiles. Shannon has a deep interest in dragons, monitors and pythons, which she keeps and breeds along with other various reptiles needing rehabilitation.

Central Netted Dragons are popular in captivity due to their

striking appearance and great temperament.


It is their easy-going temperament and unusual colour combinations that has led to the appeal of Central Netted Dragons in recent times. Scales and Tails is excited to bring you an in-depth article on these native Australian reptiles by one of the experts in the industry – Shannon Plummer. Her wildlife photos are truly stunning and her love of cold-blooded animals has led to a book and critical acclaim by her peers. This extract from, Captive care of Central Netted Dragons, explains in detail how to keep and breed these amazing reptiles.

Central Netted Dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis) are small, energetic agamid lizards and their temperament allows for them to be handled easily. One of the reasons these lizards are so popular is their striking appearance. A dark reticulated pattern overlays a body colour of pale brick-brown with a pallid unpatterned belly. They have a rounded head with a row of enlarged scales curving under both eyes and above each exposed ear, and small spines made up of soft skin around their head and nape. Central Netted Dragons are sexually dimorphic. A general size for an adult male is 25-28cm from snout to tail with about 10cm being snout to vent length (SVL) with females usually being smaller. Males have larger heads in relation to their bodies compared to females.


A dark reticulated pattern overlays a body colour of pale brick-brown with a pallid unpatterned belly.

Right Photo -Two females (left) are distinctly smaller than the two males (right).

Comparing femoral pores is one way to determine sex.


The Central Netted Dragon inhabits a vast area of central Australia. They are found throughout the desert plains of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and also in western Queensland and parts of New South Wales. They are abundant in open sandy areas with sparse vegetation and the numbers of this species seem to increase substantially in areas artificially cleared of vegetation.

The lizards are diurnal and terrestrial, spending their days basking on logs, stones and termite mounds. Predators include larger reptiles like monitors and snakes, birds of prey as well as feral animals such as foxes and cats. When the desert temperature peaks in the middle of the day, Central Netted Dragons retreat to their burrows to cool down. They are known to have several burrows, usually found at the base of Spinifex shrubs or stumps.

Typical C. nuchalis habitat.          Photo: iStock Photo

Life span

While it is hard to estimate the life expectancy of most wild reptiles, the general consensus is the Central Netted Dragon is relatively short lived. Captive lizards are expected to live around six-to-seven years, however there are reports of some living over nine years of age. But, in the wild they are subjected to predators, disease and lack of food and water and therefore generally survive only two-to-three years.

Outdoor housing

If you live in one of the Australian regions inhabited by the Central Netted Dragon an outdoor enclosure is ideal as it mimics their natural environment. You can add bits and pieces for your dragon’s comfort – things like several hides, basking areas, shade, a balanced diet and clean water. The walls will need to be high enough to prevent escape attempts so, when you design the enclosure keep in mind the height of any basking areas like shrubs or stumps. These lizards have very strong limbs and are quite capable of jumping very high. Make sure the walls of the enclosure are smooth to avoid injury as your lizard will initially spend a lot of time trying to escape (including rubbing its snout on the walls and trying to climb out). You can also cover the enclosure with wire or shade cloth to prevent predators getting in.

The enclosure should be as large as possible so your lizards have enough space to run and dig. Position your enclosure where it gets the most sunlight. Of course, adequate shade must be available at all times and can be created through enclosure furniture. Even though the Central Netted Dragon is a desert-dwelling lizard, fresh water must be available at all times either through a water dish changed daily, or a pool at ground level. Make sure the sides of the pool have a gradual decent to allow easy access. Alternatively, a large rock or branch set in the pool gives the lizard something to cling to while submerged or drinking. Central Netted Dragons are capable swimmers, but prefer to be touching something in the water if they cannot reach the bottom.

The water quality can be maintained by the addition of a ‘waste degrader’ such as Exo Terra’s® Biotoze™, a probiotic waste digester that contains natural, healthy bacteria that eliminates organic waster.   Water still needs to be changed at least once a week and if faeces can be seen in the water it must be changed immediately and the container cleaned and sanitised. Heavy rain can flood an outdoor enclosure so it’s important to have sufficient drainage. This also provides a shady area protected from the elements. Elevated furniture like stumps, logs or stones will provide a retreat should water build up.

If the enclosure is positioned to take full advantage of the sun it won’t be necessary to provide extra heat or light. However, if the enclosure is not in an ideal location it will be beneficial to include an additional basking spot using a heat source such as a heat lamp or ceramic heat emitter if you have access to external power.

Example of an outdoor enclosure design.

Indoor housing

An indoor enclosure provides the most versatile housing for keepers in any climate and is a good way to observe your lizard. Keep in mind the Central Netted Dragon is terrestrial so buy the largest enclosure you can afford with the most available floor space. A guide for minimum sizing is 1000mmx400mm with a reasonable height of at least 400mm. An enclosure this size will accommodate up to three lizards. If you want to keep more than one lizard don’t house males together. Central Netted Dragons are highly territorial; they will fight for dominance resulting in stress and possible injury. House a male with one or more females, or keep only females if you don’t want to breed them.

Ventilation is important and the top of the enclosure needs to allow for this, often with the use of some form of mesh. You can also have part of one side of the enclosure made purely for ventilation. If you choose the second option, make sure you install the mesh at the ‘cool’ end of the cage. But, be careful when using wire mesh or screens – if the reptile can reach the wire they will rub their snouts trying to escape and injure themselves. With this in mind, position any side ventilation about half way up the enclosure, or at least above head level. An open mesh top is important to allow the passage of light and heat.

Your enclosure should be easy to clean, ideally with smooth surfaces that are watertight making cleaning extremely simple. Substrate choice should be determined by replicating the lizard’s natural environment and in the case of the Central Netted Dragon that is sand. There are many varieties of sand available, everything from reptile-specific sands from your pet store to sand from your local hardware store. An economical option is bulk sand bought as fine white sand like that used in children’s sandpits. Be sure to choose sand that can be used for water filtration; this is a safer option than sand that has been heavily bleached or chemically treated. Central Netted Dragons are avid diggers so provide as much sand depth as possible to allow them to dig to their heart’s content.

The most important items of furniture in your enclosure are hides – they give your lizard an area to retreat to when it feels threatened. Some dragons also like to sleep in a protected area, so a hide is essential to minimising your lizard’s stress levels. When housing more than one lizard, each animal should be given a hide each. Since these lizards love to dig, furniture items should be positioned so they are steady and won’t tumble on to your lizard if it digs under or around it. As a general rule, try to place heavy items so their bases touch the bottom of the enclosure with sand around them so your lizard doesn’t dig under and get stuck and subsequently suffocate or injure itself.

The addition of some plants will add the finishing touch to your enclosure and make it feel like home for your lizard. Plants like Spinifex or succulents can be used as long as they don’t have spikes that can cause injury. There are also plenty of fake plant styles to choose from made of plastic or silk. The choice is completely personal.

Make sure the water you provide is in a solid container that cannot be spilled.  When providing water, the container must be cleaned and water replaced daily. When using tap water, condition the water using a reptile water conditioner such as Aristopet Repti 5 Safe. This product removes chlorine and chloramines as well as ammonia. If you see any faeces you need to empty the container, clean it and then sanitise it before putting it back in the enclosure. I recommend using F10 veterinary disinfectant for cleaning furniture items and the enclosure itself.

Enlarge Diagram

Heating and lighting

A temperature gradient allows your dragon to thermo-regulate its body by moving between the low and high temperature areas of the enclosure. During the day the ambient temperature should be around 25˚C, this will become the cold end of the enclosure while the hot end and basking area should be maintained at around 35˚C-40˚C. These temperatures should be constant with minimal fluctuations.

Place a thermometer at the basking area to make sure the temperature does not exceed a maximum temperature of 43˚C. Depending on the size of the enclosure, the light generated from the basking area may be enough for the entire enclosure, however if you feel the cooler end is not light enough use a low wattage fluorescent or halogen globe and position it to still achieve an acceptable minimum temperature range. Make sure you have a second thermometer placed in the cold end to monitor the gradient. 

A general summer guide is lights on around 5am and off around 6.30pm. This provides at least 13 solid hours of UV light and closely replicates a summer day. During winter the photoperiod should be reduced to around eight to 10 hours a day and overall temperatures reduced.

Since Central Netted Dragons are desert-dwelling lizards, lighting is one of the most important aspects of caring for your dragons. It cannot be emphasised enough how critical it is to provide an ideal lighting set-up for the physical and psychological health of your dragon. In the wild, the sun fulfils all the dragon’s heat and light requirements. Reptiles are tetrachromats, meaning they possess four cone types in their eyes. This gives them the ability to view the UVA range. Studies show correct reptile colour rendering of artificial light is not only necessary for intersexual recognition, but also motion perception for foraging and for maintaining the animal’s sense of well-being. The immune system depends on the correct heat and light as much as the nutrients derived from diet.

While no artificial light can replicate the full benefits of direct sunlight, there are ways to provide the best possible substitute using current technology to fulfil the dragon’s needs. This cannot be done with a single lamp and needs a combination of specific bulbs.  While I don’t have the opportunity to go into fine detail in this article about the pros and cons of various lamps and how to use them appropriately, I can recommend the best combination of lamps based on several years of experience and research for my book, Captive Care of the Central Netted Dragon, which does explore this subject in much more detail.

Ultraviolet Light is very important to your dragon’s health, in particular the spectra known as UVB. UVB light allows the lizard to synthesize Vitamin D3 in its skin, which in turn mediates the absorption of calcium and the development of strong, healthy bones.  Vitamin D3 is also needed for the health of muscles, including those of the gut and reproductive system, and the immune system. Without UVB, dragons of any age can develop Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). However, UVB light will not prevent MBD without adequate levels of calcium. Vitamin D3 allows the reptile’s body to absorb the calcium needed for bone strength. Since Central Netted Dragons are mainly insectivorous, they are susceptible to MBD since most insects are not rich in calcium. This is why a calcium supplement is vital.

        UVA and UVB can be obtained through the provision of a Mercury Vapour Lamp or fluorescent tube, however not all brands are alike and making the right choice will greatly affect the health of your dragon. I recommend researching www.uvguide.co.uk – a website dedicated to testing and publishing information on various brands of UV-emitting bulbs.  Replace Mercury Vapour bulbs every 12-to-18 months and fluorescent bulbs every six-to-12 months. Mark the installation date on the bulb so you remember when to replace it.

A male and female C. nuchalis.


Central Netted Dragons wait for insects to pass before striking; often leaving an elevated basking spot to feed on a passing insect before returning to bask. An 18-month field study of Central Netted Dragons conducted in 1970 in Alice Springs and The Simpson Desert determined a summary of stomach contents from 156 individuals over all seasons. The summary found the diet of dragons in natural habitats were made up of 71.9% insect prey, 24.3% vegetation, 3.7% sand and debris while the remaining 0.1% was made up of lizard prey (1 of 156 stomachs).

It is important to provide a safe and healthy diet for your dragon so it achieves optimum heath. Only use live insects that have not been exposed to insecticides or chemicals. Feed adult dragons two-to-three times a week and allow them to eat as much as they want over the course of about 20 minutes. It is often suggested to feed small reptiles like Central Netted Dragons more often, even up to five times a week. This is not recommended and can result in an overweight dragon with health problems like a fatty liver. However, growing juveniles need to be fed up to five times a week.

C. nuchalis relish small insects such as crickets and woodies.

The most popular choice of staple diet are crickets and cockroaches also known as woodies, but dragons also love mealworms and silkworms so make sure you offer these occasionally for variety. Whether you choose crickets or woodies they should always be ‘gut loaded’ before feeding them to your dragon to provide the most nutritional value. To prepare the insects you can feed them vegetables and fruit as well as cat or dog food, moist or dry. I use orange, apple and carrot sprinkled with some Wombaroo Insectivorous Supplement and a calcium powder. The orange keeps the insects well hydrated without having to use additional water sources. To avoid impaction, only feed your dragon insects that are equal to, or smaller than, the width of the dragon’s head. If in doubt it’s always safer to go smaller. No crickets or woodies should be left in the enclosure after each dragon has finished feeding. These insects are master hiders until nightfall when they will come out and harass your dragon by biting at them, which will interrupt their sleep and can result in sore open wounds, especially in young dragons. It’s important to supply your dragon with a balance of vitamins and minerals such as a multi-vitamin supplement to avoid common deficiencies. Too much can also be harmful so don’t use the multi-vitamin more than once a week. 

Some dragons will actively eat certain leaves and flowers offered, while others will refuse. It’s good to provide fresh leaves and flowers to accepting dragons on a regular basis. There are many toxic plants as well as plants and vegetables that provide little or no nutritional value, so be careful what you offer. Some also result in diarrhoea. One culprit is iceberg lettuce, so avoid it. The most popular plant is the dandelion and for good reason.  dandelion leaves are high in Calcium and Vitamin A and dragons usually love the young flower buds. Bok choy is also high in Calcium and Vitamin A and seems to be accepted by dragons that enjoy dandelions. Hibiscus flowers are also a favourite, but be sure they are not subject to pesticides or insecticides.


To breed your dragons the reptiles need to be healthy and happy and provided with the ideal environment in which to encourage mating. To determine the sex of a Central Netted Dragon there are a few things to look for:

Head size:  males have a larger head-to-body ratio compared to females.

Femoral and pre-anal pores:  males will have larger more distinct femoral pores (located underside of hind thighs, known as pre-anal pores when situated above the vent).

Tail:  a male’s tail will taper more gradually to the end whereas a female’s tail will start out thick at the vent and then rapidly taper to a slender remainder of tail length.

The younger the dragon the harder it is to accurately tell its sex and the only certain way is to take the dragon to a reptile vet to be probed.

Central Netted Dragons are sexually dimorphic as seen here with the smaller female in front.

Male C. nuchalis bite the females’ nape while attempting copulation.

Central Netted Dragons like many other lizards have some very interesting behaviour when it comes to courting. When a male and female are housed together a male will display his dominance by vigorous head bobbing and chasing the female around the enclosure. The female will respond with smooth-head bobbing and slow arm waving as a sign of submission. The male will attempt to bite the female at the back of the neck then mate with her. Females are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. Females can lay two-to-three clutches of two-to-six eggs during spring and summer. Gravid females need warm summer temperatures to effectively develop eggs. It’s best to provide a specific covered area for the female to lay, which contains moistened sand or vermiculite, the same medium used during the incubation process. By covering this area she will feel protected and less vulnerable especially if she is still housed with the male. Be careful if you have water bowls in the enclosure as gravid females may lay their eggs in it, which will ruin them. Only provide supervised access to a water bowl until she lays. She may want to drink regularly, so it’s important to provide regular access to water. The female will become quite restless prior to laying her eggs and will dig all over the enclosure looking for the perfect spot to lay. It’s not unusual for gravid females to stop eating especially in the weeks prior to laying. You will notice that after she has laid she will seem to have suddenly lost a substantial amount of weight. This is the best indication that she has laid and it’s time to carefully search the enclosure for eggs. When you locate the eggs very carefully excavate them without turning them. They need to remain in the same position as you found them. They will be very soft leathery white eggs and should be handled with care. The eggs need to be incubated between 28˚C-32˚C and will take about eight-to-11 weeks to hatch.

The enlarged abdomen of this female shows she is gravid and due to lay soon.

Hatchlings need a high level of care compared to a juvenile or adult dragon. They should not be housed with older dragons as they will be seen as food and quickly killed.  Keep them in a very simple set-up at first consisting of damp paper towel as flooring and a basking area and several hides in varying temperature ranges. Keep the paper towel moist by misting with filtered water several times a day for the first week or so then reducing to once a day. Offer food immediately including small crickets and tiny woodies as well as access to fresh, finely chopped dandelion leaves.


A hatchling breaks through the soft egg and takes its first breath.

It may take several hours, or even more than a day for a hatchling to fully emerge from the egg.

Hatchling C. nuchalis are tiny as seen here next to a 20-cent piece.

Hatchlings quickly determine a hierarchy.

For more complete and detailed care information obtain a copy of

'Captive Care of the Central Netted Dragon'

available online and through selected pet stores

* See Captive Care of the Central Netted Dragon for details and complete bibliography.