Reptile Habitats

Reptiles are great pets for those who want a pet that is not likely to chew or mess up their furniture. Properly sized and decorated enclosures provide a natural environment.

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Many aquatic species need large bodies of water to swim, feed and thermoregulate. Some also need a dry area for basking.

Land

Reptiles are air-breathing, cold-blooded vertebrates that have scales instead of hair or feathers. They lay eggs and have evolved to live in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. These include turtles, crocodilians and “squamates” like lizards and snakes. The term reptile is also sometimes used to include birds and mammals, which split off from the early reptiles 300 million years ago.

Land habitats are critical for most reptiles, including terrestrial and semiaquatic species. Those that are semiaquatic have developed adaptations to allow them to breathe while submerged in water, such as flattened tails, webbing between toes and nostril placement and structure.

The amount of sunlight and photoperiod are important for all reptiles. This is especially true for those that come from areas with seasonal temperature changes, since they are adapted to the daily cycle of light and dark. Humidity and substrate selection are also important. Cypress mulch, for example, holds moisture and is mold-resistant. Other options for a humid environment are peat moss, sand and soil mixtures.

Water

Water is a clear, tasteless, almost odorless liquid that is abundant on Earth. When it freezes it becomes ice and when it boils it produces steam. It is the medium through which all living organisms receive energy.

Reptiles are unique among terrestrial and aquatic organisms in that they can absorb water through their skin (some species more than others). For this reason they require constant access to fresh, clean, filtered or spring water. They also lose water through their pores and can quickly dehydrate without a source of drinking water or bathing.

For this reason a water dish is an essential accessory for any reptile habitat, be it a terrarium, aquarium or something else. It should be big enough for the reptile to submerge itself in, and be regularly cleaned to inhibit bacteria growth. Water dishes can be made of many materials and come in different shapes and sizes. It is also a good idea to place a hygrometer in the habitat for those reptiles that require high humidity.

Rocks

Reptiles spend a lot of time basking to regulate their body temperature, and they often hide under or behind rocks. Having enough cover can help reptiles avoid predators and maintain optimal body temperatures, so they have more time to forage or search for a mate.

Grasslands with rocks have lower surface temperatures than those without, and the presence of large rocks can buffer environmental conditions by providing refuge from high summer temperatures for small-bodied reptiles (Croak et al., 2017).

Hobbyists and herpetoculturists are very creative when it comes to modifying existing structures into reptile habitats. They’ve been known to use old armoires, prefabricated shower stalls, jewelry and deli display cases, discarded television sets and sturdy wooden bookcases. When using a new reptile habitat, it is important to consider the reptiles’ needs and to ensure that the enclosures are safe. This means avoiding wire cages, which can snag on or injure a reptile’s limbs.

Branches

Reptiles require an environment that provides them with shelter from predators and extreme weather. As ectothermic, they control their body temperature through behaviour such as basking in the sun to warm up and seeking shade to cool down. They also need access to areas with microclimates for thermoregulation.

Branches are important for arboreal reptiles, such as snakes, tree frogs and chameleons. They add a sense of natural structure to the habitat and are useful for climbing. For this reason, it is important to choose branches that are not treated with pesticides. If using branches collected outside, it is recommended that they be baked or boiled to safely sterilize them.

Many hobbyists and herpetoculturists set up their own reptile habitats from scratch, converting items such as unused armoires, prefabricated shower stalls, jewelry or deli display cases, and even old television sets into enclosures with interesting layered substrates, plants, branches, ponds and terrarium-style molded back and side walls. However, these enclosures often do not provide enough room for the intended inhabitant to move around or to thermoregulate.

Bedding

Reptiles, like all animals, need a comfortable place to rest. Because they lack fur or sweat glands, most species will choose a substrate that is soft and allows them to burrow when resting.

Bedding can be purchased in many forms, from natural-looking terrarium mixes to cheap, recycled paper and shavings. However, it’s important to consider a few things when choosing the right bedding for your reptile.

For example, if your reptile lives in a rainforest environment, a sphagnum peat moss and extremely fine sand mix is ideal. This is not only natural, but it also retains moisture and helps maintain a humid habitat.

For a low-maintenance option, many pet owners prefer coco coir, which is made from shredded coconut fibers and works well for many species of reptiles. It can be sprayed with water and sifted regularly to remove waste and provide fresh, clean bedding for your reptile.

Heat

As ectotherms, reptiles rely on ambient environmental temperatures to regulate their internal body temperature. Temperature fluctuations may disrupt their ability to thermoregulate, causing them to expend more energy than necessary, and potentially affecting survival and reproduction.

Habitat management should take into account climate change effects on reptiles. For example, changes in landscape-scale weather patterns can influence reptile movement by reducing the number of habitat patches that are thermally favorable, altering boom-bust reproductive cycles and cohort survival. Managing landscape-scale habitat features such as rocky pond edges, rock outcrops, and cactus pads can provide reptiles with thermally favored retreats and a variety of ground temperatures.

In captivity, hobbyists and herpetoculturists often attempt to create a more naturalistic enclosure for their reptiles by adding in a variety of interesting layered substrates, plants, branches, molded back and side walls, and even “ponds.” However, the result is an overcrowded cage that doesn’t allow the reptile the room it needs to move around, access microclimates, or feed properly.