Heat & Light

To help customers achieve the right lighting and heating in reptile tanks, retailers need to understand the needs of specific species and what the options are.


New customers often come into my store looking to replace their UV (ultraviolet) lights for their leopard geckos. I always try to be delicate when I ask them how the leopard gecko has been using the UV light–after all, they are nocturnal, sleep under cover and never actually bask in direct sun. These customers are usually grateful to learn that they won’t be needing to replace that UV bulb and a bit peeved at the store that sold them the expensive bulb in the first place.

Issues of heating and lighting for herps can often be bewildering and frustrating for even experienced herpers, but retailers can be their guiding light. It is imperative that retailers be up to speed on all the ins and outs of this maze of products and practices.

The first point to realize is that heat and light are actually separate issues–they are sometimes addressed with one product, but they are still separate. Consider, for instance, that leopard geckos have strong heat requirements but no UV requirements, while Chilean Swifts take mild temperatures but need significant UV light. Understanding the husbandry of specific animals is essential.

 Each species has unique heating and lighting needs, but these needs can be met in some generalized fashion. Every herptile, being exothermic, needs to have a range of available temperatures within its cage in order to thrive. I generally look to the cool end of the cage to set a baseline temperature. Most temperate reptiles, for instance, need a cool end of about 75 degrees, while most amphibians can take even lower cool ends, say 65 degrees.

Once the cool-end temp is established, the hot end is relatively easy to work on. I tell customers that the hot end of a cage can be on fire, as long as the cool end is the right temperature. That is, of course, hyperbole, but it does give people the idea of establishing a proper range. It is a good idea to cluster your heat sources–whether heat pads, lights or ceramic heaters–at one end of the cage to make this work.

Now the customer has to decide which source or sources to use to heat up the hot end of the cage. These choices are dependent on the animal being heated, the nature of the cage and, sometimes, where the cage is kept within the house. Basking lights might work well, for instance, unless the cage is located in a child’s bedroom.

 For most reptiles in glass tanks, I find a combination of a basking light and an external heat pad to be ideal, using the pad to provide ambient temperatures and the light to provide an area of intensely concentrated heat.

People often place ceramic heating fixtures inside wooden cages. Ceramic heaters screw into a standard light fixture but produce no light. They are extremely efficient and long lasting (I’ve had some go 24 hours for more than a decade), but they should be used with care. They can be so hot as to burn you or a pet with even a glancing touch.

Always install ceramic heaters with a ceramic, rather than a plastic, fixture, and be sure to “pancake” a metal plate between the fixture and the cage surface to prevent scorching. Because they produce no light, one should also check the cage temperature regularly in case the heater itself burns out.

I have found that as long as the ambient temperature is right, reptiles will not burn themselves, but a hot bulb in an otherwise cold cage will induce the animal to cook itself, just as we might burn ourselves at a campfire if we were naked in the Arctic. Generally, this is the result of a cage being over-ventilated.

There are many and various colored bulbs on the market right now, but retailers shouldn’t mislead all customers into thinking they need them. There are few reptiles that won’t readily adapt to life with a 24-hour white basking light, as long as they are given adequate cover to get out of the light altogether. Still, colored lights look pretty, are popular with customers and may be preferable for people with bedroom tanks, but the reptiles themselves don’t seem to care much. The exception might be some of the purely nocturnal geckos, like crested and leaf-tailed varieties.

All herp caging should have heat sources modulated with either a rheostat (dimmer switch) or thermostat. Rheostats require manual adjustment and keep the cage keeper more in tune with the animal. On the other hand, thermostats, once set, make life easy and are certainly profit makers.

The Right Light
As I mentioned earlier, lighting is a separate issue. Some of the diurnal lizards, like the Uromastyx and ever-popular bearded dragons (and even some nocturnal reptiles that sleep in the sun), seem to really benefit from the addition of a 10.0 UV bulb. However, most reptiles get little if any biochemical benefit from UV lighting. That’s not to say UV isn’t of any value to herps. UV bulbs do provide the spectra of light that diurnal reptiles see. An animal that sees more clearly will act more naturally, feed more readily, and generally thrive. It is important to remember, though, that UV adds to, but cannot replace, a good regimen of vitamins and calcium, especially for those creatures that are primarily vegetarian or insectivores.

There is a lot of profit to be made with whatever heating and lighting strategy a retailer decides to recommend. Customize recommendations based first on the pet’s needs and secondly on the customer’s budget. By giving them the straight scoop, you will always come out ahead.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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