Is My Reptile Warm Enough? August 2013

By Jonathan Rheins

In the world of pets, reptiles are very different from your everyday cat or dog. Your furry pets have the ability, like us, to regulate our body temperature internally, and keep it a constant and healthy level. Reptiles of course don’t have this ability. They are often referred to as cold-blooded, a term that is both inaccurate and rather unacceptable. The aforementioned term tends to spark negative connotations regarding these animals, as “cold-blooded” is so often associated with cruelty or evil.

The trend now in scientific literature is to identify these animals as what they truly are, which is poikilothermic ectotherms. These words are often used to describe reptiles interchangeably, although their exact definitions do differ slightly. Poikilothermic literally translates from Greek to mean “variable temperature.” In other words, poikilotherms are any animals that have a variable body temperature. Although a healthy human may have a body temperature of 98.6 plus or minus a few tenths of a degree, we are not considered poikilotherms. Rather poikilotherms are animals that not only have an inconsistent body temperature, but also one capable of massive highs and lows without harming the organism.
A basking Blue Tongue Skink

Now that we understand that aspect of reptilian physiology it is somewhat easier to understand the vital importance of providing captive reptiles with an acceptable range of environmental temperatures. The key word in the above phrase is “range.” Maintaining any reptile or amphibian at a constant temperature is neither healthy or natural. Instead we should strive to provide a thermal range, or gradient, for our pets so that they may choose the correct temperature for their specific needs at any given time. In the wild, reptiles are constantly moving around searching for microclimates within their environment that meet their needs. Aquatic turtles are a good example. On a sunny day, a turtle may haul itself onto a warm rock or log, and when it reaches its preferred body temperature, slips back into the water to cool down. A given animal may go through this series of behaviors literally dozens of times a day. Although I used turtles in my example, the same holds true for snakes, lizards, and amphibians (although to a lesser degree).

For any given species, a little research should quickly yield a set of vital temperatures that you should learn and love. One of these is the ambient temperature required by your species. This is essentially the background temperature, and additionally functions as the cooler temperature that you will eventually use in creating your gradient. The other temperature typically given is that of the basking spot. This is the temperature you want to achieve in the warmest spot in the cage. The basking temperature is usually limited to one or two local areas within the enclosure where the reptile can bask as needed to raise its body temperature.

As an example lets look at a popular species, the bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. Individual sources will vary, and the age of your pet and size of enclosure ultimately come into play when developing a proper gradient. Nonetheless, lets assume that beardeds require an ambient temperature of 78-82 degrees with a basking spot of approximately 110 degrees. This can simply be interpreted as: make cage 80 degrees with a localized basking spot of 110. The concept is fairly simple when you break it down.

Understanding the physiology and mechanisms behind reptilian thermoregulatory behavior is a large part of the battle. We are fortunate to live in a time where reptile keeping has become mainstream enough to allow the average consumer access to a wide variety of reptile care supplies. Therefore, the educated hobbyist can easily find and purchase any number of heating devices designed specifically for reptile use with which to provide a proper thermal gradient for their pets.

Reptiles like this Panther Chameleon cannot thrive without the proper temperatures.

The first and perhaps most important tool you can have when keeping reptiles is a high quality thermometer. Standard adhesive strip thermometers are very reasonably priced, and can provide the keeper with ambient temperature information at a glance. Analog thermometers are another option. Though slightly more expensive, the cost is offset by increased accuracy and precision, as well as the ability to move the device throughout the cage.

I typically recommend at least two thermometers per cage, or one easily movable one. One thermometer should be placed in the warmest spot in the enclosure (the basking spot).

This thermometer should allow the keeper to ensure that the basking spot does not exceed the safe level for the species being kept. The second thermometer should be placed away from the basking zone, typically on the far end of the cage. Utilizing this arrangement of one thermometer at both the hottest and coolest parts of the cage makes monitoring the gradient simple, and adjustment easy.

When designing your reptiles enclosure, keep the concept of the thermal gradient in mind. Placing the basking spot in the center of your cage will likely result in the entire cage remaining too warm. Instead, aim to have one side of the cage warm, and the other cooler. If you set up your enclosure this way, and have a properly temped basking spot, you will automatically have a gradient. The further away from the heat source that the animal travels, the cooler it will become. In very large or elaborate set-ups it may become necessary to have multiple basking spots. This is perfectly acceptable so long as cooler zones within the enclosure are still provided.

Using heat lights can encourage perching reptiles, like this Green Tree Python, to bask where you can see them.

There is a huge variety of heating bulbs, elements, pads, panels, and rocks available for keeping your pets warm. Heat bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, and heating pads are by far the most popular, so they will each be discussed briefly in turn, as a working knowledge of these items will help you choose the appropriate equipment for your specific situation.

Bulbs are the most popular method, and different types exist to serve specific purposes. Somereptile bulbs emit heat in a wide wash of light, similar to a standard household bulb. Other so-called “spot” bulbs are designed to focus the heat and light onto a smaller more concentrated area. Additionally, both spot and flood-type bulbs are available in red, effectively creating an infra-red heating device. The light emitted by these bulbs looks red to us, while it is likely that your reptiles do not see any light at all. The main advantage to red bulbs is that they can remain on at night without disrupting the animals natural day/night cycle (assuming supplemental lighting is used during normal daylight hours).

Ceramic heat emitters are yet another option for heating reptiles from above. Similar in form and function to a light bulb, these devices are essentially a solid ceramic heat element available in a variety of wattages to fit any need, They screw into any standard porcelain light fixture and produce an intense amount of heat compared to bulbs of similar wattage. Among the advantages of ceramic heat emitters is the total absence of light that they produce and their longevity. Properly used elements should easily last 5 to 7 years without problems.

A happily basking Texas Map Turtle

Heat pads are a common tool for snake owners due to the terrestrial habits of many snake species. Heat pads are usually, but not always, self adhesive and attach to the outside bottom of any glass terrarium. Individual models will vary, but on average you can expect the substrate temperature above the pad to be about 10 degrees above room temperature. In some situations a heat pad alone provides adequate heat, however do not be discouraged if you end up using both a pad and a light or ceramic element to properly warm your enclosure.

There is one more vital piece of advice that I would like to share with you. Having kept a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates myself over the years, I have adopted a unique and reliable philosophy regarding reptile behavior. As I said earlier, having an accurate thermometer in your cage is very, very important as it is very difficult for us as humans to detect slight temperature variations. Yet in my opinion, the most accurate thermometer that you have at your disposal is the animal itself.

Just as no two humans are exactly alike, nor are any two reptiles. Due to the uniqueness of each animal, carefully observing your pets is the best way to see if they are happy. Yes, within a given species of animal the needs will be quite similar, and as such are generalized accurately in care books. Nonetheless, individual variances do occur, and you should be open to making changes accordingly.

If your reptile is always in its basking spot, day and night, and never budges, chances are that it is too cold in the enclosure, and your pet is trying desperately to warm up. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the hypothetical situation where your reptile spends all day trying to claw through the glass on the cooler end of the tank, almost as if it were being chased. This would be indicative of temperatures that are too hot.

Some reptiles, like this Pygmy Leaf Chameleon, don’t actually like high temperatures in their cage.

Keep in mind that these behaviors may be part of your pets normal activity if it happens only occasionally. You needn?t worry until the above mentioned scenarios become chronic, or are accompanied by anorexia or other signs of illness.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to share with you my thoughts and opinions in regards to keeping your reptiles warm and happy this winter. Please keep in mind that animals are unpredictable, and when dealing with them nothing is written in stone. We are all still in a learning stage when it comes to perfecting reptile-keeping and we all need to work together to allow our hobby to progress. All of the above is based on my personal experience and opinions, and is in no way intended to be the last word on the subject. If you ever find yourself in doubt about your animals health or well being, feel free to contact us or your local expert.

Husbandry of Montane Species of Chameleons – November 2012

The Reptile Times

Montane Chameleons

By Jennifer Greene

Within the last few decades, significant advances in the captive husbandry of chameleons has made it possible for a handful of species to be kept with moderate to significant success, with breeding taking place regularly for the most popular species.  Veiled Chameleons and Panther Chameleons are two of the most popular species, being the most commonly kept and bred of the numerous chameleon species out there.  As two of the larger species available, and the hardiest, their popularity is well deserved as excellent beginner species of chameleons.  However, for the keeper looking for a more unusual jewel to add to their collection, there are a few species of montane chameleons that are not too much more difficult to keep.  My focus in this article is the easier to keep montane species hailing from East Africa, namely those around Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, as these species are often seasonally available in the reptile hobby.

My personal favorites are the Rudis Chameleons, which are small little jewels from the mountains around western Tanzania, southern Uganda, and the eastern edge of the Deomcratic Republic of the Congo.  The chameleon usually available under the common name “Rudis Chameleon” is in most cases actually Trioceros sternfeldi, rather than Trioceros rudis, but fortunately care is essentially identical for both species.  There is some variation among populations resulting in differences in appearance of both species, with some T. sternfeldi having brilliant and exotic blue and yellow coloration while others are a more emerald green depending on which locale they are from.  T. rudis range in color from a yellowish green to pea green to a brilliant grass green, with most having a yellowish stripe down their sides.  They mature at 3” to 4” snout-to-vent length, making them small but not so tiny they are exceptionally delicate, like the pygmy leaf chameleons of Madagascar.

adult female rudis chameleon

Another montane species worth considering is the Jackson’s Chameleon, of which there are 3 subspecies.  The most readily available is Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, which will be the subspecies referred to within this article (being the hardiest in my experience, and the most suited for the beginning to intermediate chameleon keeper).   Naturally occurring in Tanzania and Kenya, there are also populations in Hawaii as well as Florida, and rumors of a small population located in a coastal region of San Diego County.  Males have 3 horns, one on their orbital (eye) crests, as well as a rostral (nose) horn.  Females are typically lacking the distinctly large horns of the males, but some may have poorly developed rostral horns.  Coloration of males is usually a light green, with some having yellowish tinted heads and backs and bluish flanks.  Females are typically a jewel green, with some individuals having a reddish pattern while at rest.  Adults range in size from 5” to 7” snout-to-vent length, with females often being slightly smaller than males.

Two other species can be kept using the methods I will be describing, and they are the Kenyan High Casqued Chameleon, or Trioceros hoehnelii, and the Werner’s Three Horned Chameleon, or Trioceros werneri.  Both of these species are similar in size to the Rudis, but they do look distinctly different.  T. hoehnelii can be exceptionally brightly colored, with lime green highlights, teals, and silvery blue colors throughout their body for males, with females being a more subdued silvery grey or rusty brown.  Werner’s look like smaller, stouter Jackson’s, with the brilliant green coloration of the Rudis, with some individuals having reddish or teal tones to them.

Helmeted Chameleon


For all species, while smaller individuals (4” or smaller SVL) can be housed in cages as small as 16” x 16” x 30”, I highly recommend at least a cage that is 18” x 18” x 36”, if not one of the largest cages commonly available at 24” x 24” x 48”.  While they can be housed in a smaller cage, this limits the range of temperatures you can offer them, as well as limits their available space.  I have had success with all of the species I described above being housed in the largest size of screen cage, as well as in the larger sizes of ExoTerra glass terrariums.  For neonate to mid-sized juvenile chameleons up to 4” SVL, a terrarium that is36” wide by 24” tall and 18” deep is suitable, but for adult chameleons I highly recommend the largest size, which is 36” x 18” x 36”.  For the montane species, glass terrariums (not glass cages, but front-opening terrariums) can work exceptionally well, as they can be kept at a more consistent level of humidity than fully screen cages.  The larger glass cages also allow for space for the chameleons to move around the cage, which they will do throughout the day, especially when provided with an appropriate temperature gradient.

Baby Rudis Chameleon

Babies can be housed in smaller cages than adults, but as they grow make sure to offer them more space!

Temperatures for these chameleons can be much cooler in range than for the more common panther and veiled chameleons.  The cooler ends of the cage should drop down to the mid to low 70’s, while the warmest areas within the cage can range upwards to 85, with the extreme high being 90.  In smaller cages, the high temperature should not rise above 85, but in larger cages a slightly higher high temperature is acceptable.  As all of these chameleons are from the mountain areas, they do not require exceptionally warm basking areas, but they can benefit from the option to seek it out if they are in a large enough cage.  Jackson’s Chameleons in particular can tolerate warmer temperatures, as evidenced from their thriving populations in Florida and Hawaii, both of which are much warmer areas than their natural habitat, but captive chameleons should always have a significantly cooler area of the cage to retreat to.  Night timetemperatures can and should drop down to the mid to low 70s, with drops down the 60s being perfectly acceptable as long as during the day a basking area is offered.

Jacksons Male Beautiful

When provided with suitable basking temperatures, your chameleons will color up and look their best like this Jackson’s!

Achieving these temperatures can be accomplished two ways.  Not only do chameleons require warmth to bask under, but they require UVB as well.  UVB is the wavelength of light required for your chameleon to properly metabolize vitamin D3, which is essential for absorbing calcium.  Captive chameleons need artificial sources of all three to thrive properly, and the first part of caring for your chameleon is providing them with suitable lighting.  A specialized reptile fluorescent tube is the most common method of offering your chameleon UVB, with different brands offering varying intensities of UVB.  A 5.0 fluorescent tube should be ideal for most applications with montane chameleons, and the tube itself should be long enough to stretch across the entire top of the cage.  Since relatively cool basking temperatures are all that is needed, a 50 watt basking bulb should be sufficient for providing a small, warm basking area without overly heating the rest of the cage.  Daylight style reptile bulbs can be used as well, but a slightly higher wattage may be needed for larger cages.

Baby Jacksons Chameleon

If you have the larger cages as I recommended earlier, and your home remains fairly cool (between 72 and 75 degrees), it is also possible to consider using a mercury vapor bulb.  These bulbs are quite warm, and provide significantly higher amounts of UVB, but in a larger cage offering your chameleons the options to escape the heat, they are worth considering.  If the basking areas below the light are too warm, the bulb may be lifted up and off the top of the cage several inches to ensure that the basking areas are not too hot.  It is vitally important to check that at least the bottom half of the cage returns to temperatures below 80 degrees when using a mercury vapor bulb, and if you cannot keep the cage cool then switch to a fluorescent light and traditional, lower wattage basking light.

In combination with the UVB light, it is essential to provide your chameleons with supplementation to meet their dietary needs for calcium and vitamin D3.  Chameleons housed outdoors do not need D3 added to their diet, as the intensity of UVB from natural sunlight enables them to metabolize D3 on their own – however, this is only valid if your chameleon is outdoors for more than 8 hours a day several days a week.  If your chameleon is indoors primarily, at least some vitamin D3 should be incorporated into their diet.  Due to their smaller size, these chameleons do not necessarily require supplementation with every meal.  For adults, a light coating of a balanced reptile calcium and multivitamin can be dusted on to their feeder insects every second or third feeding.  Neonates to juveniles, due to their extremely small size, typically only need a light coating of vitamins on their insects once every 7 to 10 days.  Rearing of neonate chameleons of the species discussed here (Hoehneli, Jackson’s, Rudis, and Werner’s) can be exceptionally difficult, and is typically best left to the more advanced keeper – if you have recently purchased a juvenile of these species, talk to the breeder regarding their current routine for the babies.

Baby Rudis Chameleon 2

When you see how tiny these little guys are, it is not hard to see how easy it could be to over-do their supplementation!

Now that you have the essentials, the fun part of acquiring a new chameleon is often the décor.  Manzanita branches work well, especially when combined with live plants such as ficus trees.  These smaller species of chameleons will be able to utilize the finer, thinner branches of the ficus trees, and within the trees themselves the humidity will be somewhat higher than just out in the sides of the cages.  Foliage is vital to the health and happiness of your chameleons, providing them with perches as well as visual barriers.  Having plentiful amounts of foliage in the cage ensures that your chameleon feels safe and secure, which in turn keeps their stress levels low.   Incorporating live plants into your cage is highly recommended, as live plants are not only aesthetically pleasing but they increase humidity for your chameleons.  I highly recommend the use ofmagnetic ledges and planters to add perches and levels to your cage, which your chameleons will use to bask and hunt from.  Using magnets to attach them means that they are fantastically flexible décor items, allowing you to adjust basking perches and locations as needed.  Get creative!

When it comes to feeding, don’t be afraid to seek out and offer as wide a variety of prey items as possible.  Keep in mind that in the wild, these chameleons would be eating at least several dozen different types of insects, if not more, and by comparison their diet in captivity seems paltry. Appropriate sized roaches of different species are often readily accepted, with Dubia roaches being a popular staple due to their rapid growth rate and ease of breeding.  In addition, offering appropriate sized cricketsmealworms,superworms, and waxworms is highly encouraged.  Most chameleons will also cheerfully consume hornworms and silkworms, which are soft bodied and easy for them to digest.  While you do not need to offer every single prey item at each feeding, try to make an effort to cycle through several different types throughout the month.

In conclusion, keeping a montane species of chameleon is not significantly more difficult, but they do have special considerations regarding temperatures.  Once set up and established, they can be rewarding little jewels within your home, without the need for excessively large cages or intense heat.  If you are looking for a new chameleon to add to your collection, and desire something a little off the beaten path, definitely check out the chameleons mentioned within this article!