If You Can’t Stand the Heat

There are plenty of low- and no-heat herptiles available for customers that are turned off by the intense heat many reptiles crave.


The intense heat that many reptiles crave can be a turnoff to some humans. Some folks also fear that a mismanaged heat source might in fact burn down their entire house. While that fear is almost never borne out by the facts, a retailer can’t argue with emotion. Instead, why not try offering these customers low- or no-heat herps.

Temperature & Sunlight
Keep in mind that when we discuss animals that need lesser levels of heat, the factor of ambient temperature goes from being important to being essential. What works for a pet keeper living in Los Angeles will have little bearing on a setup in Fargo. Therefore, a store’s clients need to have an intimate understanding of background temperatures in their home and how they vary in both 24-hour and seasonal cycles. Also, just as any wild environment consists of a series of microhabitats, any home will also have some radically different temperature levels, even within a given room. These levels need to be taken into consideration.

One huge factor at play here is exposure to sunlight. Sunlight that travels through glass virtually eliminates most UV light (the spectra that many herps crave) and also amplifies infrared light. That infrared light, doubly amplified by the glass of the window and the glass of the terrarium, can turn even a non-heated tank into an oven. Therefore, knowing the trajectory of the sun through its daily and seasonal cycles is essential to guarding the well-being of herptile pets.

Arachnids & Snakes
In the realm of herps and exotics, what works for low- heat situations? Obviously, the vast majority of tropical rain forest and desert denizens are out of the question, except for many of the arachnids, which tend to be nocturnal and adjust very well to tanks with a limited and low-level heat source, such as an under-tank heater. Throughout my life I have kept a number of scorpions and tarantulas in nearly ambient tanks with great success, including desert hairy scorpions, pink-toed tarantulas and cave “spiders” (tailless whip-scorpions).

Garter snakes and ribbon snakes thrive in the 70 to 80 degree range, and a low-wattage basking lamp at one end of their tank generally seems to do the trick. While not at the top of my list as a handling snake (the Florida garters I grew up with were particularly snappy, musky and flighty), they are reasonably active and attractive snakes that can make an interesting terrarium candidate.

There are also some more high-end and exotic snakes that require very little heat. Two standouts from Asia are the Mandarin ratsnake, a small and stunning beauty with a striking black and yellow pattern against a grey background, and Ridley’s cave ratsnake, a large but sweetly dispositional snake with a silvery grey color and a propensity for eating bats (don’t worry, they adjust beautifully to a diet of rat pups).

It’s All About the Amphibians
Amphibians are perhaps a more obvious choice for a heatless tank, as the vast majority of them like cool, damp conditions. While I stridently caution against mixing amphibian species due to issues of toxicity, I will admit to having kept a tank populated with green tree frogs, their close cousins grey tree frogs and fire-bellied toads (a misnamed Asiatic frog with a rough skin) that thrived for more than a decade. The keys to that tank’s success were regular cleaning and water changes coupled with the fact that the fire-bellies were strictly ground-dwelling and diurnal while the tree frogs were strictly arboreal and nocturnal.

Many people are surprised to find that dart frogs, famously and rightly called the jewels of the rain forest, prefer relatively cool environments. With even moderate skills, many young herpers have developed marvelous tanks that incorporate drip-water systems, live moss and plants. Do keep in mind that as small and beautiful as these frogs are, they are also highly territorial and are apt to bully each other if not given enough space.

Another favorite of mine is the fire salamander, a dazzling European with attractive patterns of black and yellow and a bit more outgoing personality than most of the fossorial newts and salamanders. These elegant and dapper little creatures can live shockingly long lives and shy away from even mildly warm temperatures. In fact, I have known people who winter them over in the vegetable drawers of their refrigerators.

A few lizards also stand out as low temperature successes, perhaps none more so than the Jackson’s chameleon. While most chameleons like high temperature environments, the Jackson’s does not; they originate in the highlands adjacent to Mt.
Kilimanjaro. This chameleon appreciates mid-70s temperatures and a constant drip system. While not the easiest herps to keep, as they respond to even mild levels of stress by dropping dead, someone versed in keeping dart frogs, for instance, will find them an easy transition.

Of all the cool-weather herps, perhaps none is more pet-worthy than the crested gecko. These five-inch lizards are arboreal and do very well with just a small basking lamp high up in the cage. They have charming personalities, adorable faces with an expression of permanent surprise, a myriad of color morphs, are hardy and breed with wonderful predictability. I have seen the most squeamish of children melt in their presence. 

As I have shown, there are plenty of options for would-be herptile owners who can’t stand the heat. So instead of arguing with these customers or trying to convince them to buy a pet they won’t be happy with, try offering them low- or no-heat herps. It will be a win-win situation for both retailer and pet owner.

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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