September 09, 2007

Old Lizard Thinks He's a Dog

I haven't written anything about Tycho, our bearded dragon, in much too long. This is especially unforgivable because he turned 11 last month and I made no announcement of his big day. By way of making it up to him, here's his latest portrait:

Bearded dragons normally live for as long as 10 years, with the average lifespan of a well-cared for captive animal pegged at around eight. In dragon years, Tycho is 88 years old, then. He doesn't show a single sign of slowing down, though. As a matter of fact, he just completed his first full shed in about two years which means that he's still growing.

We've had Tycho since shortly after he was born, having purchased him as a hatchling at a reptile show in Sacramento in 1996. LL and Tycho really chose each other. When they first met, Tycho was in an aquarium with about 50 other tiny dragons. As soon as she got near the cage, Tycho began scratching frantically and LL knew that he was the one.

Despite being a reptile and most assuredly not having the neural circuitry for imprinting, affection, or social behavior, Tycho has managed to cobble together some kind of sociality. He's a bit like a dog in some ways. He's convinced that he's one of the family and hates being left out. He'll follow us around from room to room and if we go outside, he must go outside as well. He spends very little time in his cage, even though that's where his heat lamp is. Instead, he'll sit with us when we watch television and if LL and I curl up together, Tycho wants to sit on top of one of us. When we leave the house for the day, Tycho goes to sleep, but he wakes up when one of us gets home and then wants to be out and about. He loves going for rides in the car; he's got a favorite spot that he likes to perch on along the passenger side window where he can watch the world going by. In that situation, he's somehow figured out that you don't pester the driver. He used to want to sit on the driver's lap, but he stopped doing that a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, once we're out of the car, Tycho wants to ride on somebody's shoulder until he sees a good spot in the sunshine, and then he wants to be off on his own. He never runs away, however, and won't let us out of his sight. Again, he'll follow us around, even outdoors. This is not an animal who longs to escape, but a member of our family in every way. He's in his cage now, since LL and I will be out for the day and he needs to warm up, but even so he's perched on a high spot and watching me intently as I type this.

I should say that we have not followed the various care sheets for bearded dragons since Tycho was perhaps a year old. He gets to eat pretty much whatever he wants, including the occasional mac-n-cheez, bits of chicken, and scrambled eggs (all major favorites of his). I can't say it with certainty, but I suspect that allowing Tycho to do what he thinks best for him might be why he's lived so long. Reptile behavior is, I'm told, hard-wired into their primitive little brains whereas we humans may think we're doing what's best for them, but we have no clue what it's like to be a bearded dragon. Perhaps more important than specifics of diet, heat regimens, etc., is simply being happy and stress-free, which Tycho definitely seems to be.

I suspect that might have a lot more to do with human longevity than is generally acknowledged, too. We don't get the benefit of such an existence for the most part, though, so it's hard to say anything about that. It certainly seems to be working well enough for Tycho, though. I hope I look as good as he does when I'm 88!

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