The behavioural response of the sleepy lizard Tiliqua rugosa to an extended drought was examined in spring and summer 2002. Observations of the behaviour and use of microhabitat by radio-tagged lizards for spring in 2000–2002 showed that the lizards in 2002 suffered decreased body mass and increased mortality, were less active, showed reduced mating behaviour and increased use of burrows when compared with the more normal wetter years of 2000 and 2001. The lizards lost significant mass owing to dehydration and starvation. An ‘onboard’ data logger recorded lizard stride frequency and body temperature continuously for 4 months on 11 lizards during the drought of 2002. The normally diurnal heliothermic sleepy lizards responded to rare rainfall events during the drought whenever they occurred, day or night, by emerging from burrows or other shelters for extended periods of activity with sub-optimal body temperatures as low as 8.5°C. They moved more often, and with higher stride frequencies during periods of rain than during dry periods, both overnight and during the day. As a consequence of this extended activity under physiological stress, the lizards were able to respond to naturally occurring transient opportunities for food and water that would not have been available if they were only active at optimal body temperatures. In an area where freestanding water is rarely available, the lizards were able to access limited water by licking substrate. They also gained water and perhaps nutrition by consuming the temporarily rehydrated thalli of the free-living terrestrial cyanobacterium Nostoc commune. Such behaviour enabled lizards to regain much of the mass lost before the rainfall and probably enabled many lizards to survive until more normal food sources became available. These rare events may have a significant effect on the shaping of the sleepy lizards phenotypic capacities outside routine day-to-day activities.