Important Factors in Reptile Habitats

Reptiles need an appropriate habitat to regulate body temperature and to live their best lives. Hobbyists convert discarded armoires, prefabricated shower stalls, jewelry or deli display cases and sturdy wooden bookcases into reptile enclosures.

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Some species require specific substrate types; rocky pond edges provide basking and antipredation refugia for snakes and lizards. Others need a range of upland microhabitats, including leaf litter, woody material and animal burrows.

Substrate

The substrate is the material at the bottom of a habitat. It is important for a reptile habitat to have a variety of substrates so that the different conditions can be recreated. These include different textures, humidity, and temperatures.

In biology and chemistry, the term “substrate” has specific meanings. However, the general concept is the same across all sciences. For example, a substance that grows bacteria is considered the substrate in a petri dish. In geology, the term substrate refers to an underlying layer of a rock.

Many people try to create the look of a reptile’s natural habitat by creating interesting layered substrates, plants, branches, molded back and side walls, and even ponds. The problem with this is that it often interferes with the reptile’s ability to move around, thermoregulate, and access the necessary microclimates.

A bare substrate works best for some reptiles, including snakes and tortoises. Other popular options include cypress mulch (Zoo Med Forest Floor Substrate), which retains moisture and is safe if accidentally ingested, as well as coconut husk fiber chunks. In addition to these, sphagnum moss is a good choice for amphibians and certain lizard species. It is also useful for placing under shelters and hides to create humid microclimates.

Light

Reptiles that are kept in captivity must have a habitat where they can select their own heat, visible and ultraviolet radiation gradients, shelters and basking areas. They must also have a variety of ground surface temperatures, as well as shade and sun exposure.

Reptilian lighting is critical for their health and behavior, regulating their circadian rhythms, influencing the secretion of the neuro-hormones melatonin and serotonin and helping to maintain proper bacterial skin flora. In addition, it can provide the necessary energy to complete their metamorphosis and promote the emergence of hibernation sites (for egg-laying species).

Nocturnal reptile lights and dark decorative red, blue or green incandescent bulbs provide dim lighting that will not disturb diurnal reptiles during sleep periods. Decorative fluorescent bulbs that produce a very weak level of UVB are available in a variety of wattages and at lower prices than the reptile lamps that you will find in pet stores.

Some “daylight” fluorescent tubes and bulbs that are marketed for reptiles at the pet store produce very little or no UVB, but many do and some are coated to affect their color – all this does is add more expense. Linear tube lighting that produces a very soft purply-blue glow will work fine for nocturnal reptiles, but be sure to use it in a fixture rated for the appropriate wattage.

Temperature

Temperature is one of the most important factors in reptile habitats. As ectotherms, reptiles are cold-blooded and regulate their internal temperatures by seeking out warm or cool areas in the environment. This ability to thermoregulate is crucial for health and survival.

As the climate changes, reptile habitats may experience altered thermal niches. These ecological shifts can have direct impacts on population dynamics. For example, warmer winters allow for earlier spring activity and shorter hibernation periods. This can allow for more generations to be produced in a year, thereby increasing the rate of population growth.

The temperature of the habitat itself can also affect behavior and digestive processes. For example, turtles and some plant-eating lizard species use their tongues to feel for food particles on the ground, and these behaviors are affected by environmental temperature.

It is recommended to provide a wide range of temperatures (within the preferred range for each species) from one end of the enclosure to the other. This is called a thermal gradient. This can be achieved by placing a heat lamp, ceramic heat emitter or night-specific light over an area in the habitat that is elevated, such as a rock.

Humidity

The humidity can be tricky to maintain in a reptile habitat. There are a lot of factors that affect it such as how much water is added to the cage and the temperature in the room. To help with this, a hygrometer can be used to monitor the humidity.

The substrate used can also play a big role in the humidity level. Shredded paper, sand and timothy hay are dry substrates that will reduce the amount of water in the air while orchid bark, cypress bark and sphagnum moss are more absorbent substrates that can help increase the humidity. Some reptiles may even require a combination of substrates in their enclosure.

Having plenty of water available will also make a difference in the humidity. For small reptiles, this can mean a water dish placed on the substrate. For larger reptiles, a pool of some size will be necessary. It’s best to place the pool in a depression on the floor of the cage so that the water will cover a wider surface area and create more water vapor.

Water

Reptiles that inhabit wetlands, pond edges and other water bodies need access to clean, aerated water for feeding, mating and other activities. Water management is also important to reduce levels of toxic organic wastes and disease-causing organisms in some aquatic habitats, especially for semiaquatic species (those that spend part of their lives in water).

As ectothermic animals, many snakes, lizards and crocodilians rely on ambient temperatures to maintain critical physiological processes. Climate change is expected to affect these animals by affecting their hibernation periods and causing changes in sex ratios, growth rates and daily activity patterns.

In captivity, a reptile’s cage must be large enough to provide a suitable substrate and a food dish. It should also be cleaned with reptile-safe disinfectants and deodorizers on a regular basis. Most reptiles require a separate water dish from their food dishes, because they tend to drink by soaking their skin in the water. Some aquatic and terrestrial species can lose significant amounts of water through shedding, so it is essential that they have access to soaking areas.