The discovery that changes in heart rate and blood flow allow some reptiles to heat faster than they cool has become a central paradigm in our understanding of reptilian thermoregulation. However, this hysteresis in heart rate has been demonstrated only in simplistic laboratory heating and cooling trials, leaving its functional significance in free-ranging animals unproven. To test the validity of this paradigm, we measured heart rate and body temperature (Tb) in undisturbed, free-ranging bearded dragons (Pogona barbata), the species in which this phenomenon was first described. Our field data confirmed the paradigm and we found that heart rate during heating usually exceeded heart rate during cooling at any Tb. Importantly, however, we discovered that heart rate was proportionally faster in cool lizards whose Tb was still well below the 'preferred Tb range' compared to lizards whose Tb was already close to it. Similarly, heart rate during cooling was proportionally slower the warmer the lizard and the greater its cooling potential compared to lizards whose Tb was already near minimum operative temperature. Further, we predicted that, if heart rate hysteresis has functional significance, a 'reverse hysteresis' pattern should be observable when lizards risked overheating. This was indeed the case and, during heating on those occasions when Tb reached very high levels (> 40 degrees C), heart rate was significantly lower than heart rate during the immediately following cooling phase. These results demonstrate that physiological control of thermoregulation in reptiles is more complex than has been previously recognized.