Whether scales reduce cutaneous evaporative water loss in lepidosaur reptiles (Superorder Lepidosauria) such as lizards and snakes has been a contentious issue for nearly half a century. Furthermore, while many studies have looked at whether dehydration affects thermal preference in lepidosaurs, far fewer have examined whether normally hydrated lepidosaurs can assess their instantaneous rate of evaporative water loss and adjust their thermal preference to compensate in an adaptive manner. We tested both of these hypotheses using three captive-bred phenotypes of bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) sourced from the pet trade: ‘wild-types’ with normal scalation, ‘leatherbacks’ exhibiting scales of reduced prominence, and scaleless bearded dragons referred to as ‘silkbacks’. Silkbacks on average lost water evaporatively at about twice the rate that wild-types did. Leatherbacks on average were closer in their rates of evaporative water loss to silkbacks than they were to wild-types. Additionally, very small (at most ∼1°C) differences in thermal preference existed between the three phenotypes that were not statistically significant. This suggests a lack of plasticity in thermal preference in response to an increase in the rate of evaporative water loss, and may be reflective of a thermal ‘strategy’ as employed by thermoregulating bearded dragons that prioritises immediate thermal benefits over the threat of future dehydration. The results of this study bolster an often-discounted hypothesis regarding the present adaptive function of scales and have implications for the applied fields of animal welfare and conservation.

You do not currently have access to this content.