Scaleless dragons evaporate more water than those with scales

The following is a guest blog by Nick Sakich

Nick Sakich here.  The first paper from my MSc has just been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The paper is entitled, “Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) with reduced scalation lose water faster but do not have substantially different thermal preferences.”

In it, we examine both “wild-type” bearded dragons and two phenotypes unique to captivity (i.e. not found naturally): animals with scales of reduced prominence (known as “leatherbacks”) and completely scaleless animals (known as “silkbacks”). The following slideshow depicts the 3 variants:

There has long been speculation as to whether or not scales play a role in reducing evaporative water loss across the skin in reptiles. The seminal studies that most point to are by Licht and Bennett (1972) and Bennett and Licht (1975). Those authors looked at aberrant partially scaleless individual snakes found living in the wild and found that they did not have higher rates of water loss than “normal” snakes. However, these studies had some methodological issues, most notably sample sizes of only one (Licht and Bennett, 1972) and two (Bennett and Licht, 1975) partially scaleless snakes, respectively.

Furthermore, can reptiles (or lizards and snakes, at least) detect their rate of evaporative water loss and respond accordingly? If they can, animals with higher rates of evaporative water loss will perhaps choose cooler temperatures compared to animals with lower rates of evaporative water loss. The rate of evaporative water loss is partially thermally dependent, so for the animals this would be a way to compensate and bring their rate of evaporative water loss down.

In this study, we set out to test two hypotheses. First, we hypothesized that scales are indeed a barrier to evaporative water loss, and so leatherbacks and silkbacks would have higher rates of evaporative water loss than wild-types. Second, we hypothesized that, because of this increased rate of evaporative water loss, leatherbacks and silkbacks would have lower thermal preferences than wild-types.

We found support for our first hypothesis: both leatherbacks and silkbacks evaporated water faster than wild-types. It is likely that most of this occurs across the skin, rather than through changes in breathing or metabolism, given the simultaneous measurements we made of metabolism. This confirms what many who keep silkbacks as pets have long suspected. However, we didn’t find a statistically significant difference in thermal preference between the three phenotypes. This suggests that either leatherbacks and silkbacks can’t tell that they’re losing water faster than wild-types, or that they can tell, but they make a strategic decision to prioritize warmth over water.

I’d like to thank Arnold Liendo and Paula Rodriguez, Mandy Peck, and Kirk Riddle for supplying us with lizards for this study. I’d also like to thank Tom Eles and Wynne Reichheld, without whom keeping up with the nuts-and-bolts of animal acquisition and care would have been impossible.


Sakich, NB and Tattersall, GJ. 2021. Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) with reduced scalation lose water faster but do not have substantially different thermal preferences. Journal of Experimental Biology. 224 (12): jeb234427.

A link to the pdf of the manuscript can be found here (limited to 50 clicks). Otherwise, requests for pdfs can be made on Researchgate.


Licht, P. and Bennett, A. F. (1972). A scaleless snake: tests of the role of reptilian scales in water loss and heat transfer. Copeia 1972, 702-707. doi:10.2307/ 1442730

Bennett, A. F. and Licht, P. (1975). Evaporative water loss in scaleless snakes. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. A Physiol. 52, 213-215. doi:10.1016/S0300- 9629(75)80155-1