Madison Area Herpetological Society

How to Choose the Best Lighting and Heating For Your Reptile or Amphibian

How to Choose the Best Lighting and Heating For Your Reptile or Amphibian

 

Perhaps one of the most essential components for all living plants and animals, and not just amphibians and reptiles, to be able to survive and thrive is lighting and heating. This holds true for all animals, whether they are living their lives out in the wild within their native, natural ranges, or whether they are being kept as pets, or for other reasons in captivity. The proper lighting and heating provides innumerable physical, physiological, and psychological benefits all animals need for their growth, development, and survival, and much more could be gone into much greater detail as to these benefits. As with all animals, the sun is what provides the natural circadian rhythm of many daily and routine activities an animal may engage in, which include, but may be far from limited to determining their preferred feeding, hunting, and foraging behaviors, their basking and thermoregulatory preferences, reproductive methods and behaviors, sleeping cycles, and many others. Without this proper circadian rhythm and balance, all animals can experience much greater stress and failure to thrive in the wild or in captivity as a result.

So when we are keeping these animals in captivity and as pets, how can we choose and select the best lighting and heating for them in order to avoid these problems? It certainly must be considered that most, if not all reptiles and amphibians are ecothermic, or to be even more precise, poikilothermic animals, which means they are largely unable to self-regulate their own bodily temperatures and some other physiological processes, and instead must rely on their ambient environment and surrounding temperatures to regulate their internal and external temperatures through basking and selecting cooler or warmer areas in which to do so. As it turns out, there are numerous lighting and heating products that are available to help us meet their needs, but choosing the right ones for the right animals is almost, if not as essential, as their needs for heating and lighting themselves. Selecting the right products for what may be best for one’s pets can seem overwhelming, as the modern reptile community and industry continues to grow and evolve, and with new products continually refined and developed. However, this article and guide will cover what needs to be known further about these animal’s needs when it comes to these specific needs, and the whys and how’s of how they can be best provided to our pets’ considerations.

How Do They See and Use Light?

As it turns out, humans and reptiles/amphibians see and view light and the world around them quite differently from one another, and in a number of different ways and adaptations. Many reptiles and amphibians have the ability to see UV light waves which humans cannot, and many species even have one or more parietal eyes atop their heads, or sometimes located elsewhere on their bodies. These parietal, or vestigial eyes do not act in the sense that fully developed eyes do, but are able to sense changes in overhead light and associated photoperiod cycles and circadian rhythms to help influence their many different behaviors. As a result, many reptiles and amphibians can see things illuminated by UVA lighting as part of their visible spectrum. While they may not be able to see aspects illuminated by UVB or other wavelengths to the same degree as UVA, as sometimes believed, they are still able to sense these other wavelengths, and UVB is associated with assisting in the development of vitamin D in their skin and scales, and which also plays significant roles in their overall immune systems and other vital organ systems. Two methods most animals have in order to be able to acquire vitamin D3 are through UVB induced synthesis through their skin and scales, and/or through ingesting whole prey items consisting of a sufficient amount of vitamin D, as in the case of most carnivorous to omnivorous species. But even when an animal may be able to acquire most of its vitamin D through their food, there continues to be emerging evidence that UV induced synthesis can at least be beneficial for all reptiles and amphibians.

In addition to vitamin D3, calcium also plays a vital role in the growth and development of eggshells, bones, and countless other biological processes at the cellular or molecular level as well. Without the proper regulation and amounts from the appropriate lighting and heating providing these two essential vitamins, D and calcium, a reptile or amphibian’s body must then alternatively acquire it from elsewhere, most often from their bones, which unfortunately, very often leads to metabolic bone disease and other nutritional deficiencies.

The Ferguson Zones

One useful guide which has been created to help consumers and pet owners better select the right lighting and heating for their animals are known as the Ferguson Zones. Created by Dr. Gary Ferguson of Texas Christian University, and renowned herpetologist and researcher, examined the daytime and nighttime activities of many different species of commonly kept reptiles and amphibians in the wild, and recorded the UV indexes they were found in. Over time, and with contributions from additional scientists and researchers, these useful observations and recordings were used to create these Ferguson Zones. So which zones should each animal ideally have? Several considerations must be made, including the zone which best matches your pet’s needs, the enclosure size and dimensions for the animal(s) housed within them, and then selecting the correct lighting and heating products based on this knowledge and information. For shade dwelling and nocturnal or crepuscular species, a UVI Index rating of 0 to 0.7 places such animals in zone 1. Animals which may prefer mostly partially shaded and sunny conditions to occasional full sun exposure are placed in zone 2 with a rating of about 0.7 to 1.0. Zone 3, of which animals which experience mostly full sunny conditions and occasional partial sun fall under, are rated approximately 1.0 to 2.6 UVI. Zone 4, which consist of animals which are heavy and frequent daytime baskers during the warmest and/or brightest portions of the day, lastly belong to a UVI index of 2.6 to 3.5 or greater. It should also be worth noting that any UVI index greater than 7 should be avoided for any and all animals, as access and exposure to these high levels should be prevented.

A Little Bit About UV and Wavelengths

In order to better understand the different types, or wavelengths of light and heat that can be provided to our reptile and amphibian pets, a little bit about the light spectrum needs to be examined and understood. A light’s wave length, or the distance between the two nearest peaks (the highest points) and troughs (lowest points), is most typically measured in nanometers, or nm. Different types of light on the spectrum are broken up, or separated by their wavelengths, with most of the visible or color spectrum being approximately 500 to 700 nanometers in wavelength. However, when it comes to the lighting and heating needs of most reptiles and amphibians in captivity, it is the UV, or ultra-violet, spectrum below this visible color spectrum that are perhaps most important for their needs, and can be further classified into three main types of UV lighting, all of which occur within natural sunlight, and each with differing wavelengths and differing roles in being able to keep one’s pets happy and healthy. The first is UVA, which ranges from approximately 320 to 400 nm in wavelength, and helps to regulate an animal’s behaviors such as feeding, regular daily movement and activity, reproduction, and other similar functions. Below this is UVB, which ranges from approximately 260 to 320 nanometers, and helps to regulate the development, absorption, and synthesis of calcium, vitamin D3, and other essential vitamins and nutrients absolutely required for many reptiles and amphibians in captivity. The last UV spectrum is UVC, which ranges from approximately 200 to 260 nanometers. UVC is typically less essential for most reptiles amphibians, and high levels of exposure to this range can be harmful, although UVC can provide some additional benefits such as reducing bacteria levels and maintaining a cleaner and more sanitary environment.

When selecting a lighting or heating device for your reptiles or amphibians in captivity, it should be considered that these UV wavelengths mentioned above can become filtered by glass, plastic, or other material in between the animal and the device, and therefore may not function as efficiently or effectively as they would if these wavelengths are allowed direct exposure to the animal (but of course, not the heating or lighting device itself). UV lighting also tends to degrade and diminish over time as well, and routine and regular updates and replacements should be made to ensure the most is being gained from any products used. These recommendations can vary depending on the quality of the product or device, as well as the manufacturer, and it never hurts to consult with your animal’s product’s manufacturer to learn more about how and when a product should be replaced.

So How Can I Choose What May be Right for My Reptile or Amphibian!?

There is always an innumerable selection and array of reptile and amphibian lighting and heating products available, but how does one actually begin to choose one after all of this background information is considered? As it turns out, different bulbs and other lighting and heating devices and fixtures provide different functions, and it is always recommended to thoroughly examine the product’s packaging and details. Some bulbs and other products provide primarily heat, while others may provide one or more spectrums of visible and/or UV light, while others yet can provide both the necessary light and heat, or be able to provide different levels of output required for different species.

When selecting the most suitable product or device for your pets, it often helps to further research the environment in which the animal or species’ survives and thrives in naturally. In other words, one should ask themselves questions such as where in the world this animal is native, or indigenous to? What sort of temperatures, humidity, rainfall/precipitation/weather patterns does this area of the world experience? What micro-environments, or micro-climates do these animals utilize specifically, how and where do these animals forage, hunt, and locate food? How and where do they reproduce with one another? Knowing the natural history and overall biology of the species being maintained, and researching and learning more about them are perhaps a few of the best ways of selecting the correct products for them in captivity.  For example, many species of lizards, turtles, and tortoises are active, and heavy or frequent diurnal, or daytime baskers, and as such, will require products with sufficient and ample UVB and higher UVB output. Other reptiles, such as snakes and some other lizards, on the other hand, are more nocturnal, or crepuscular, or otherwise most active during the evening and morning hours, and while higher UV output products are neither required or recommended for these species, at least some UVB can be shown to be beneficial for the well-being of all species.

A proper day and night cycle naturally experienced by the animal or species in question should also always be considered whenever choosing a lighting and heating product. While this can vary to a large degree depending on the species and the product or manufacturer, a typical day and night cycle should be at least 10 to 12 hours per day in most cases. While it may be well-known that providing too little of these essential nutrients can result in Metabolic Bone Disease and other crippling ailments due to lack of calcium and/or vitamin D3, too much of these vitamins in an unregulated setting can also occasionally result in hypocalcemia as well. When it comes to bulbs and other lighting fixtures designed to accomplish these needs for your reptile or amphibian, there are also often further differences in the distribution and concentration of heat and/or light for your animal, some of which can be better than others. For instance, some devices are better at distributing heat or light horizontally or vertically across or within the enclosure. Incandescent bulbs may provide much more of a concentrated source of heat only, while florescent tube lighting may be able to provide the necessary UV elements, but with little to no heat, and over a more widely distributed area of the enclosure, thereby making any necessary thermal gradients these animals prefer more difficult to meet and maintain. Differing heating and lighting elements can also often be required for daytime and nighttime use, and some, such as mini halogen bulbs, can also be more energy effective and efficient as well. Your reptile product manufacturer can provide additional, more in depth guides on lighting and heating, and your reptile’s needs as well.

It is always important to attempt to replicate each species’ preferred natural conditions as much as possible, and always to provide a suitable heating and lighting gradient over the enclosure for which the animal can choose. Without this gradient, your pets can become much more stressed, overheat, become too cold or lethargic, or be unable to effectively thermoregulate in the manners they may otherwise. Each species of reptile, and even individual animal, has its own unique needs and requirements which should be thoroughly researched beforehand in order for the provider to be able to best meet their needs in captivity. It never hurts to conduct further research, and consult with the brand manufacturers of these lighting and heating needs to better understand how each one works, and for a much more in depth look at the dynamics and specifics of each product. For much more information about these vital and essential components to your animal’s care, one can be sure to consider checking out Zilla Products, ExoTerra, or ZooMed, or any other company from which a product was manufactured by, all with the hopes of being able to best give our pets the happiest and healthiest lives as possible in captivity.

The Most Common Lighting and Heating Fixtures and Types of Products

Standard Reflector Domes: Standard reflector domes are commonly available lighting fixtures typically with powder coated finishes or more economical uncoated silver aluminum coverings, and ceramic sockets. Standard reflector domes are suitable for animals that require a focused, heated spot for basking or area of focused light, but can only fit a single incandescent, florescent, ceramic heat emitting, or similar bulb at a time, and can only provide either heat or UV only. They are available in various widths and heights to best focus and distribute light or heat, and can be secured by using spring clips, stand alone, or sometimes as adjustable clamp lamp fixtures, and many are available with adjustable switches or timers. Most reflector domes can accommodate bulbs up to 150 watts, but care should be used to follow the product specifications and avoid using bulbs of too high of wattage for the fixture used. These standard reflector domes are also available as dual combination domes as well depending on the brand and manufacturer.

Halogen Mini Domes: Halogen mini domes are a newer form of lighting fixture which can provide a smaller, more compact, and convenient alternative to standard reflector domes. While they may take up less space when they are allowed to stand alone, or be secured with spring clips, they can provide a strong heat or light over a more concentrated area for your reptile or amphibian. These domes are available with an aluminum reflective interior to help them provide a more focused light or heat, and are much more energy and cost efficient than standard reflector domes. Like standard reflector domes, they are available with built in or adjustable timers or switches, and are suitable for halogen or mini halogen bulbs, but can only provide one bulb at a time, as with other standard domes.

Combination Fixtures: Several different types of overhead combination fixtures which can hold two or sometimes more bulbs are also available, and are suitable for use for reptiles and amphibians that require a heated area for basking and focused UV lighting. These can better provide both heat and UV lighting at once, and create a better overlapping of these elements for your animal. Depending on the product, they are suitable for mini UV, mini halogen, and/or other types of bulbs. Many of these fixtures are relatively new, and some are compact and concentrated, and are much more energy efficient. Others are available in low profile hoods or shrouds that contain twin ceramic sockets which can operate independently, and separate cords with separate timers and switches for each bulb used in them. Some of the newest and most innovative products can even provide multiple sockets, and customizable heat, UVB, and UVA all in one in a modern, sleek, and compact design that is much more space and energy efficient than much bulkier domes and other fixtures. These new products can also provide a much smoother and more efficient heating and lighting gradient both horizontally and vertically, with built in reflectors for maximum penetration, and with even mini versions of these fixtures also available. Some standard reflector domes are also available as dual combination domes as well depending on the brand and manufacturer.

Striplight and Hood Fixtures: Available in compact, convenient and lightweight, ready to use fixtures, striplight and similarly related fixtures are easy to mount or install within or above an enclosure, and are suitable for situations where space for lighting is otherwise limited. Available in a variety of lengths, these fixtures provide quality lighting using florescent tube lighting or similar florescent bulbs that are energy and cost efficient. They are often available with built in timers or switches, and are necessary for many reptiles and amphibians in that they promote vitamin D3 and UVB, and proper calcium absorption for your pets’ optimal health, and can greatly simulate natural sunlight. These fixtures provide a more widely distributed, rather than concentrated source of light, and most florescent bulbs designed for these fixtures provide little to no additional heat as a few of the tradeoffs.

Florescent Tube and Mini Compact Lighting Bulbs: Florescent tube lighting bulbs, which are for use in overhead striplight and other hood lighting fixtures, are available in many various sizes, outputs, and wattages to provide a full spectrum of UVA and/or UVB lighting and full spectrum natural color for your reptile or amphibian. These types of bulbs greatly assist these animals in captivity for metabolizing calcium, vitamin D3, and other essential nutrients, but typically provide little to no forms of heating. As with all bulbs, they should be replaced accordingly by manufacturer recommendations for proper and most effective and efficient use. Mini and compact florescent lighting tubes are also available, and are even more compact and energy efficient in being able to provide lighting for your reptile or amphibian.

Standard Incandescent Bulbs: Standard incandescent bulbs contain heavy duty filaments that render them long lasting, and are available in a variety of styles for daytime and/or nighttime use. These bulbs can provide UV light or heat, and contain a full spectrum of natural colors and lighting for your animal’s ability to bask and thermoregulate. These bulbs are available in many various outputs and wattages that should be selected to best meet your pet’s needs, and are best used with single or dual/combination use reflector domes, or other lighting fixtures. As with all bulbs, they should be replaced accordingly by manufacturer recommendations for proper and most effective and efficient use.

Incandescent Spot Bulbs: Featuring a unique design that better simulates the sun, these types of bulbs are able to pinpoint and concentrate heat and/or UVA and UVB light in any given area to better create thermoregulatory zones and thermal gradients in the enclosure for your pet’s happiness and health. These bulbs contain heavy duty filaments, are long lasting, and may be used with single or dual/combination use reflector domes or other lighting fixtures, and are available in several different types for daytime and/or nighttime use. As with all bulbs, they are available in differing wattages, and should be replaced accordingly by manufacturer recommendations for proper and most effective and efficient use.

Halogen and Mini Halogen Bulbs: Featuring newer and innovative designs, halogen bulbs are smaller, more compact, and convenient alternatives characterized by their ability to provide a strong heat or light over a more concentrated area for your reptile or amphibian. Available for a few different daytime and/or nighttime uses, halogen bulbs also have aluminum reflective interiors to help them provide a more focused light or heat, and are much more energy and cost efficient than many other bulbs. Halogen bulbs are also available in standard, and mini or nano sizes that are even more energy and power efficient. As with all bulbs, they are available in differing wattages, and should be replaced accordingly by manufacturer recommendations for proper and most effective and efficient use. For best use, halogen bulbs can be used with single or dual/combination use halogen lighting fixtures. These bulbs also have thicker glass and stronger filaments for at least double the lifespan of standard incandescent bulbs.

Florescent Coil Bulbs:  With their coiled design earning them their name, these bulbs provide low to moderate or high outputs of UVA and UVB lighting over a more pinpointed and concentrated area for animals that are frequent baskers or otherwise require or that can benefit from at least some UVB. Although they are able to provide little to no heat, they are available in different wattages and levels of output for different animals which may be diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular, and provide full spectrum enhanced lighting and natural colors, and are also very energy efficient means for meeting many of your reptile or amphibian’s calcium and other metabolic requirements. As with all bulbs, they are available in differing wattages, and should be replaced accordingly by manufacturer recommendations for proper and most effective and efficient use. These coil bulbs also are able to be used with most ceramic sockets for use with single or dual/combination dome and reflector, and other lighting fixtures as well.

Aquatic and Submersible Heaters: These types of heating devices, as their name implies, are fully submersible in water, can help provide warmth and constant water temperatures for your aquatic to semi-aquatic reptiles and amphibians. Available in different sizes and wattages, they do not produce light, but rather warm radiating heat rays into the water, and they can be installed vertically or horizontally. Many are durable and long lasting, and some also are equipped with internal safety shut off features to prevent overheating, and some also have protective plastic coverings and coil wrapped power cords to prevent direct contact between the device and animals, and water and/or animal damage to the device. Selecting the correct aquatic or submersible heater for the correct sized enclosure will also be important as well.

Ceramic Heat Emitters and Radiant Heat Panels: With their durable ceramic exterior material, and focused design and coil, ceramic heat emitters are available in differing wattages, and emit a penetrating heat, but no visible light, and are well-suited for daytime and nighttime use without disturbing an animal sleep and other daily activities. They are also energy and power efficient, and can well outperform many incandescent bulbs in heat output and working life. Ceramic heat emitters may be used in reflector domes, and most other single or dual/combination incandescent lighting and heating fixtures. Radiant heat panels must be used and installed separately inside or above the enclosure, and are also energy and power efficient, and have long working lives. Radiant heat panels are also able to provide sufficient heat to larger enclosures or spaces as well.

Under Tank Heating Pads: Under tank heating pads, or UTHs, consist of carbon fiber technology and designs which efficiently and effectively generate and radiate infrared heat waves to approximately one third or one half of an animal’s enclosure. These under tank heating pads are able to provide a constant and uniform heat source while giving off no visible light, and may be mounted or adhered horizontally or vertically to provide sufficient belly and/or back heat, and are also available in different sizes, wattages and outputs which should be best selected for different species using them. Some newer and more innovative designs also are low voltage, and have internal safety mechanisms to prevent overheating without use of an additional thermostat or dimmer switch, while other more economical forms such as “heat tape” must be used and regulated with a quality thermostat and/or dimmer switch, and may also not be available pre-wired.