What to Know About Sailfin Dragons

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 21, 2022
4 min read

Sailfin dragons are a unique species of lizard from Indonesia and the Philippines. These dragons can grow to about three feet long, have vibrant coloring, and a large “sail” down their back. Unfortunately, a few types of sailfin dragons have become vulnerable due to the exotic pet trade and the destruction of their homes.

Sailfin dragons, also called sailfin lizards, are lizards from the genus Hydrosaurus. Hydrosaurus lizards are the biggest in the Agamidae family, a family of iguana-like lizards.

There are currently five species in the Hydrosaurus genus:

  • Hydrosaurus amboinensis: Amboina sailfin lizard or Moluccan sailfin lizard
  • Hydrosaurus celebensis: Sulawesi black sailfin lizard
  • Hydrosaurus microlophus: Indonesian giant sailfin dragon, Makassar salfin lizard, or Sulawesi giant sailfin dragon
  • Hydrosaurus pustulatus: Crested lizard, Philippine sailfin lizard, sailfin lizard, sailfin water lizard, or soa-soa water lizard
  • Hydrosaurus weberi: Weber’s sailfin lizard

Hydrosaurus means “water lizard,” a good name for these creatures who love to swim. They use the water as a place to escape from predators.

The bodies of sailfin dragons are a bland greenish gray, but as they mature, their dorsal crests, faces, and tails take on bright markings in vibrant shades of blue and purple. The dorsal crests are the sailfins that earned the dragons their name. These crests are tall, stretching from their heads down their backs to their tails. The fringe on their flat toes lets them run across the surface of water. Like some other lizards, they have a pineal eye on their forehead, which is sensitive to sunlight.

The size of the sailfin dragon depends on whether it's a male or female. The largest males can grow up to 3.5 feet long, while the females will be somewhat smaller. The Philippine sailfin dragon (Hydrosaurus pustulatus) is the most popular breed of sailfin dragon. These typically grow to be between 2-2.5 feet. The males also have much larger crests.

Sailfin dragons, particularly the Philippine sailfin dragon, are often taken from their native homes by the exotic pet trade. Although it’s illegal to trap and export sailfins from the Philippines, wild-caught sailfin still sometimes show up in the U.S. They are losing their home due to deforestation, and sometimes they are hunted for food. Philippine sailfin dragons and Weber’s sailfin dragons are considered vulnerable species.

Sailfin dragons are native to Indonesia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia:

  • Hydrosaurus amboinensis lives on several Indonesian islands, including Ambon Island, Cream Island, and Western New Guinea.
  • Hydrosaurus celebensis lives in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • Hydrosaurus microlophus lives in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • Hydrosaurus pustulatus lives in the Philippine archipelago.
  • Hydrosaurus weberi lives on Halmahera Island and Ternate Island in North Maluku, Indonesia.

Sailfin dragons prefer to live in forests and inland wetlands on these islands.

Sailfin dragons are omnivores, meaning they eat prey and plants. In the wild, these lizards have a varied diet and often eat:

  • Fish
  • Frogs
  • Fruit
  • Insects
  • Vegetables

Hatchlings eat more meat in their diets than adults do. Sailfin dragon adults don’t have diverse teeth, so a carnivorous diet would be difficult.

On average, sailfin dragons live to about ten years, but some live longer. 

Female sailfin dragons lay 8-11 eggs at a time, taking about 65 days to hatch. At about six months old, sailfin dragons grow the beginning of their telltale sail.

Sailfin species are declining around the world due to the exotic pet trade. If you’re looking for a sailfin dragon as a pet, look for one captive-bred and not taken from its natural home.

Sailfin dragons are not a good choice for a pet for beginners. While sailfin dragons handled regularly tend to be tamer, they are still more high-strung than other lizard species like iguanas.

Habitat. Because of their large size, sailfin dragons need large enclosures, at least several feet long. They also can be skittish, so they need enclosures big enough to let them run without running into the walls. 

The substrate, or bottom layer, can be made of bark and cork. Sailfin dragons like to climb and swim, so they need places in their enclosure to do both. Large plants and branches will give them a place to climb and bask. Some good branch options include:

  • Clover
  • Cornstalk
  • Cut-leaf philodendrons
  • Dracaena
  • Grape
  • Hibiscus
  • Pothos

There should be a tub or pan of water large enough for the sailfin dragon to swim. They also tend to use this as a bathroom, so it requires daily cleaning.

Sailfin dragons prefer hot environments. During the day, their enclosure temperature should stay between 84-88°F (29-31°C). At night, it can drop to 75-80°F (24-26.7°C). Their basking spot should not get hotter than 90°F (32°C). While UV light isn’t essential, sailfin dragons need UVA and UVB light exposure. Sailfin dragons should be kept in individual enclosures, as they don’t get along well with others of their species. Males will fight each other, and females can be aggressive as well. Putting sailfin dragons together can cause stress, which may lead to them hiding most of the time or becoming listless.

Diet. All sailfin dragons are omnivores, but the number of plants and meat they eat will depend on their age. New hatchlings need about 70% of their diet to be meat and the remaining 30% plants. Juveniles should eat 60% meat and 40% plants. The diet for adults is about 50/50. 

Good bugs to feed sailfin dragons include:

  • Crickets
  • Mealworms
  • Superworms

To add nutrients, you can sprinkle calcium and vitamins over the bugs before feeding them to your sailfin dragon.

The plants you can give your sailfin dragon are about the same as the plants you might feed an iguana, such as:

  • Alfalfa
  • Chards
  • Collard greens
  • Dandelion
  • Green beans
  • Mustard greens

Handling. Consistent handling of your sailfin dragon can help tame it, and sailfin dragons seem to like to be handled. Holding your dragon also allows you to inspect its health. Trim their nails regularly.