The Basking Spot: Better than Basic – Betta Bowl Enrichment – June, 2013

by Jennifer Greene

Now, I know bettas aren’t really reptiles, but we carry them as well as tons of items for their care.  They’re a popular “desk pet”, and they are very low maintenance fish that many people find easy and rewarding to keep.  They come in a wide range of colors, and in recent years they also come with several color, pattern, and fin mutations for a kaleidoscope of beautiful iridescent colors you can keep in a little ½ gallon bowl on your desk.

Just because a betta fish can live in a small bowl does not mean they shouldn’t live a rewarding little fishy life, though.  I’ll be reviewing a few inexpensive items that you can add to your betta’s life to keep it entertained, exercised, and help extend its life for many years.  A well cared for betta can easily live over 10 years, and there’s no reason your betta shouldn’t live that long too!

Diet

Bettas very quickly learn the routine of begging for food, and can easily become overfed and even fat.  To maintain your betta on a diet to keep it slim and trim, try using a ZooMed BettaMatic  for the routine daily feedings.  This little automatic feeder distributes one pellet a day for your fish, which is enough food to maintain a creature that inhabits ½ gallon of water for its entire life.  You can add variety to the diet by offering treats in the form of Mysis, daphnia, or bloodworms, all of which are aquatic invertebrates that are small enough for your betta to eat.  ZooMed makes a serving size ideal for one betta with the Dial-A-Treat food container, and also comes with a neat little spoon feeding tool for you to offer your betta food with.  Keep that little tool, it comes in handy later!

Tank Décor

Give your little guy some privacy!  Add some betta-sized fake plants for them to hide behind, like bamboo leaves or papaya leaves.  Many keepers believe that bettas can live with live plants, and even eat bits of the roots or leaves, but this is not the case, and leaving your betta with just a live plant to eat will result in the fish going very, very hungry.  Use fake plants that you can easily clean, and keep live plants for your vivariums or larger aquariums – a betta bowl just isn’t enough tank space to adequately keep plants and bettas happy in one container.

In addition to decorating your bowl, there are also these cute little suction cup leaves  you can add to your tank.  Why give your betta one little leaf near the top of the bowl, you ask?

Because they like to sleep on them, of course!

In the wild, bettas will rest on foliage near the surface in order to easily take gulps of air, and when you give them a leaf to sleep on in their bowl, they’ll happily take advantage of it!

In addition, you can teach your betta to do amazing betta tricks using the leaf.  I personally have taught my bettas to jump onto their leaves to eat food (using that little red spoon that comes with the Dial-A-Treat mentioned earlier!), and so have other staff members.  With patience, you can teach your betta to be a miniature shamu too.  Start small by teaching your betta to go to the red spoon for food, and then you can easily teach the betta to follow the spoon to get a tasty treat reward.  Spend 5 minutes a day teaching your betta to tap its nose to the little red spoon to get fed, and you’d be amazed how quickly you can get your betta to follow that spoon anywhere in the bowl!

If you’re not that dedicated to training your betta, you can also provide exercise opportunities by placing a betta mirror in the bowl for no more than 5 minutes at a time.  When betta breeders were asked what products they’d like most for their bettas to live healthier, longer lives, they actually requested an item like the betta mirror to help provide them with exercise.  A fit betta is a happy betta!  Just be careful not to leave the mirror in the bowl for too long – your betta can get worn out and stressed from constantly attempting to fight the betta they see in the mirror.

Water Conditions

In order for your betta to maintain his best colors and thrive in your care, you’ll need to make sure he’s living in clean, warm water at all times.  I highly recommend changing out at least half the water in his bowl every few days if you do not have a filtration system, and you should always treat the water with a water conditioner to remove any chlorine or other chemicals.  In addition, as these are tropical fish, they thrive best in water temperatures between 78 and 82 degrees – much warmer than the average office, and most homes.  Heat up the water a few degrees with a tiny little betta-sized water heater to make sure your betta stays bright and active for you.

More Aesthetically Pleasing than a Plastic Bowl

Do you have a classy office or home, and a plastic betta bowl just isn’t your style?  Give your betta a miniature, betta sized aquarium – 2 gallon Fluval Spec aquariums filter the water, eliminating the need for constant water changes, and with the light, clean water, and extra swimming space, your betta will THRIVE!  Bettas in larger water areas, even up to 10 gallon aquariums, develop longer fins, brighter colors, and even grow larger.  Many keepers don’t realize bettas can live in slightly larger aquariums, and I successfully kept a betta and several neon tetra fish in the stylish Fluval Chi aquarium for several years.

As you can see, you can do so much more than just keep a betta in a sad, bare little plastic bowl on your desk.  Try enriching your fish’s life, and add just one or two of these neat and inexpensive items to your betta routine.  There is something extremely rewarding in seeing your betta go from a limp, listless fish in a cup to a robust, brightly colored little jewel in your aquarium.  Give it a shot!

Tips for the Naturalistic Look – March 2014

By Jennifer Greene

Often, we get requests on YouTube, Facebook, as well as in our stores and at shows for tips on how to make a nice looking vivarium, terrarium, or even just a simple cage.  When training new staff members, it is often one of the things most asked of more experienced staff – “Why do your cages always look so good?”

Vivarium designed by one of our most experienced cage builders, Jon Blakemore!

Designing a beautiful cage just isn’t something that comes easily to some people.  In fact, for most of us, it wasn’t something we were just born able to do.  Much like any other type of artistic ability, designing nice looking cages is something that you can get better at through lots of practice.

However, if you don’t have the opportunity like we do to build and take down cages every day, I’ll share with you a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years here at LLLReptile.

Tip 1: Put Tall Stuff in Back!

This might seem really, painfully obvious to you at first, but there’s more to this than simply “don’t block your own view”.  Not blocking your view is, of course, the biggest reason not to put tall stuff in the front of the cage, but hopefully you don’t need me to explain that in detail.

However, there is more to it than giving yourself an open view.  Notice it says “Put tall stuff in back!” not “IF you have tall stuff, put it in back”.  You actually WANT taller things in your cage, and especially in the back.  When building cages for climbing species, they’ll need the taller items to climb on and feel at ease, and even when building cages for terrestrial species – give them things to climb on!  That measly little 18″ of cage height is nothing compared to the bushes, rocks, and other terrain irregularities found in the natural habitat of pretty much everyreptile.

More to the point of simply making something look pretty, putting tall things in the back of the cage provides visual interest.  It gives your eyes a direction to follow, and makes the cage look deeper and fuller to have things of differing height.

Note the use of cork hollows and grapewood to use all of the vertical space in this cage.

Tip 2: Slope the bedding so that it is deeper in the back than the front.

This ties in with Tip 1, as it makes it much easier to add taller plants and items in the back snce there is already a bump in the substrate.

Tip 3: Use flat pieces of wood or corkbark to create “corner planters”

This is where you wedge a large, flat piece of wood in the back corner of a cage, fill up the space with your planting material (I prefer coconut fiber), and stick a nice plant back there.  In shorter cages (18″ or less), I’ll use a pothos or similar vine type of plant, as it’ll spill over the wood and grow out in a sort of plant waterfall.

Some types of vines will climb up a textured background, making a great natural curtain that many frog and small lizard species love to hide in.  The cage to the left uses both live plants and coconut hides to provide a pretty and functional environment for dart frogs at the LLLReptile breeding center.

The rocks and coconut hut hide the root base for both plants in the back of the cage.

Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to move things around!

Whenever staff here at LLL build a cage, we move things around pretty constantly.  Any YouTube video we’ve put up on our channel has on average, at least 10 minutes of “I hate this!  It looks awful!  Maybe if I put this here… No, how about here… No, wait, here… No, no, I’m going to put it… Nope, that looks bad too.”

It’s okay to rearrange everything you want to put in the cage at least 5 times.  You might want to rearrange it all a few more times, just in case.  For example, check out this video of me building a Crested Gecko vivarium.  It’s one of the first we ever put up on YouTube of building a vivarium, and I move everything I put in the cage at least twice before settling on where it’s going to go.  And that’s totally fine!  How else will you decide what looks good and what doesn’t?

Tip 5:  Use a nice water bowl

Nothing makes a cage look like junk quite as fast as seeing a flimsy tupperware as the water dish, or a dirty dog bowl.  Pick up a nice corner dish that you can easily clean, or for added coolness, try using a waterfall or bubbling fountain.

Tip 6: MOSS.  Moss EVERYWHERE. 

I am a firm believer in that there is no such thing as too much moss in a cage.  Not only does it help with humidity, but somehow a cage just doesn’t look finished until moss has been added.  Here at LLL, we’ll often keep a big orange bucket full of water and New Zealand Sphagnum Moss so that we can easily add moss to any cage we build.

You can also use green sphagnum moss to create a more natural feel to a cage.

Tip 7: Keep Practicing!

Pretty much the simplest, easiest way to get better at cage building is to keep practicing.  Try new items, move things around, add new plants if you decide you don’t like what you put in there anymore.  Your cage is not set in stone, and it doesn’t have to stay exactly the way you first set it up forever.

http://tyrannosaurusmarketing.com/

You’d be surprised at what items end up being preferred by your animals.  Try these neat false Mushrooms on Rocks – they’ve got perfect little depressions in them that get small puddles of water.  Dart frogs love sitting in them!

 

Reptiles As Gifts – Do’s and Don’ts : December, 2013

By Jennifer Greene

The holidays are a fantastic, amazing time for families and friends to get together and exchange gifts.  Some people may be easy to buy gifts for, and others more difficult.  For manyreptile keepers, they have a wishlist of pets longer than they are tall!  While it may be tempting to buy a pet reptile for this person in your life, I have a word of advice for you.

Don’t.

It seems like it’d be a straightforward, easy gift – just wrap up the box the night before and give them the animal you know they’ve been wanting all year… It’s not at all that simple.  It’s a common piece of advice from animal shelters and rescues not to give puppies or kittens as presents during the holiday season, as it’s hard to be certain the recipient is really prepared for them.  That’s a mammal that can live in your home with you – imagine giving someone a pet that needs an entire habitat set up for them, that day, or else it runs the very great risk of getting sick and possibly even dying.

Resisting that smiling face can be hard when considering reptiles as pets for kids, but it’s incredibly important for the reptile‘s health that you are fully prepared for their arrival.

So, DON’T give a reptile as a gift unexpectedly.  No matter how much you think a family or friend may love a new pet gecko, ball python, or bearded dragon, that’s an entire life you’re giving to them without any warning.  Reptiles can become quite expensive over time, and it’s unfair to your friends and family to expect them to suddenly embrace a new expense without preparing for it.

That being said… That doesn’t mean you can’t help them prepare for possibly owning a new pet.  Books aren’t usually considered very exciting gifts, but they can be invaluable when it comes to learning about a new reptile pet.

So DO give books as gifts, especially to children.  Reading about reptiles not only helps them learn about caring for their new pet, but helps them practice their reading skills and learn how to find information on their own from valid sources.

Does the family or friend already have books, and you know for a fact they’re going to want thisreptile?  Consider buying a gift certificate for the amount of the animal instead, rather than risk shipping it during the hectic holiday shipping season, and let them pick out the exact animal they want.

If you know what species of reptile they’re getting, you can help by buying and wrapping needed supplies under the tree!  The most expensive part of any new reptile or amphibian is almost always setting them up, and this is where you can make the biggest impact on the gift recipient.  So DO remember to help out with needed supplies, which can be the most difficult part for a new reptile owner.

However, if you’re a member of the family, you know the recipient will be happy with their pet, and you absolutely must give them a live animal under the tree, there are a few tips for ensuring the reptile does well.

DO have the setup ready to go that day – if the animal arrived a few days or even weeks before Christmas, ensure that the correct setup is ready the day it arrives.  DO always order the setup before the animal.

DO make sure the animal stays warm while the presents are being unwrapped.  Packing them in their shipping container, nestled inside a larger box with a heat pack inside is a great way to ensure that your new pet stays war and safe until it’s unwrapped.

DO make sure no one shakes the box to see what’s inside!

DON’T wait until the last minute to order – shipping gets increasingly more hectic closer to Christmas, and winter weather is always unpredictable.  To have a setup shipped to you an dready for a new inhabitant in time before Christmas, the time to start shopping for it is now.  Average shipping for supplies is 7 to 10 business days, meaning that the latest you can wait to get just supplies is Tuesday, December 17th…and even then, with so many packages being shipped, there is always the risk of a delay.  Plan ahead and order early to ensure your gift arrives on time!

And of course, always, always, always DO your research before getting a new pet!  If you’re local, visit our stores for hands on interaction with potential new pets, as well as personal help from our staff.  If you’re not local, you can always visit us on Facebook, ask us questions on Twitter , and view our HUNDREDS of videos on YouTube!

Please DON’T make an impulse buy of a reptile pet this holiday season.

Reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates are entirely dependent on you, the human caretaker, for all of their needs.  Please make sure that any reptile you give is not only wanted, but properly set up.

Inside the Reptile Industry: Farming – April 2014

By Jennifer Greene and Loren Leigh

A controversial topic today in reptile keeping is the term “farmed”.  What does that really mean to the hobbyist today?  What does farmed even mean, and does farming really deserve the reputation it has garnered among reptile keepers?  Hopefully with some insight from Loren Leigh, the owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co, Inc, you can have a better understanding of what farming really means for reputable dealers.

A young Argus monitor

If you google “reptile farming”, or similar terms, you get many results for animal farms in the US that allow tours, or produce animals as pets, or for actual farms with cows, sheep, or similar livestock.  Getting someone to give you a straight answer on what exactly farming is in relation to reptiles is difficult as well; answers vary widely from person to person.  The reason for this is that there is no set definition for reptile farming.  Is it farming to have large numbers of ball pythons in enclosures, producing dozens or hundreds of babies a year?  Is it farming to have outdoor enclosures for a couple of sulcatas that produce dozens of babies each year?  Does your answer for the ball pythons change depending on the country they are being bred in?  What about the sulcatas?  Does it change based on numbers?  At what point are you no longer a hobbyist breeding an animal you love, and you are a farmer?  Does the country you’re in change your answer as to whether or not your animals are “truly” captive bred?

When I asked Loren to help me define Farming for this article, he explained the difficulty in defining a word so loosely used in our industry.  Generally speaking, though, it is considered farming when it is a particular species being produced in its country of origin in a controlled situation.  Furthermore, it is farming when the species is produced outdoors, relying on naturally occurring conditions to stimulate natural behaviors resulting in breeding.  Loren has had the fortune to actually visit reptile farms both in the US and outside of our borders, including a friend’s farm in Tanzania.  One of the biggest upsides to farming is that it allows for us here in the US to get species that are difficult to find in the wild, as well as difficult or not yet bred here in the states.

A baby Green Tree Python – a species commonly “farm bred”

 

Monitors, for example, are a group of animals not frequently bred here in the US.  For some species, we would not have any access to them whatsoever without the offspring produced at reptile farms in places like Indonesia.  One such farm is the one featured in this video (click link to view) that was visited by DM Exotics – you can see the large adult monitors being housed and cared for so that they can produce offspring each year.  Species such as melinus, doreanus, prasinus, dumerilii, and more are all farmed in Indonesia under conditions similar to their wild habitat.  Without reptile farms, US keepers would not have these species.  If you watch the video linked above, you can also see the conditions the animals are kept in.  Many reptiles cannot and will not breed if conditions are not exactly as they need; reptile farmers realize this and their breeding stock is housed spaciously, fed well, and clearly efforts are made to keep them healthy and happy.

Another example of farming would be red eared sliders here in the US, in particular, at farms located in the South in states like Louisiana.  The US is the biggest exporter of Red Eared Sliders in the world, along with map turtles, and soon box turtles as well.  However, none of the adult breeding stock being used to produce these numbers is wild caught – the red eared sliders, for example, that are used to produce these incredibly high numbers for export (both in the pet trade as well as food) come from established lines that have been in captivity for multiple generations.  There is no need for wild harvesting of red eared sliders or map turtles, thanks in large part to these reptile farms in the parts of the US they occur naturally.

A baby Mississippi Map Turtle 

The reality of farming is that an enterprising reptile keeper can set up outdoor enclosures for any species that occurs in a similar environment to where they live, add animals, feed them, and voila – you have a reptile farm.  One of the largest producers of sulcatas in the world, for example, lives in Honduras!   Florida also has an excellent environment for setting up many species outdoors, which is why it is such a mecca for reptile enthusiasts.  In the southern half of the state, you can set up an outdoor pen for nearly any tropical species and it will thrive.

While in the past, farming may not have been the most ideal situation for a reptile to originate from, a reputable, modern farming operation should be seen as the boon for the reptile industry that it is.  The emphasis for most farms has switched from simply holding animals to reproducing them, resulting in animals that are, essentially, captive bred in their country of origin.  Various locales of Green Tree Pythons are one example, as are blue tongue skinks, frilled dragons, Madagascar ground boas, emerald tree lizards, Colombian boas, and even many species of chameleons.  The majority of reptiles kept on farms such as these originate from adults in captivity that are kept with no intention of release, and instead are maintained until the next breeding season.

Baby Savannah Monitor

So before condemning all reptile farming as scummy and to be disdained, consider the species it has allowed us to keep.  Remember that by simply setting up an enclosure or a few outdoors, and letting the natural weather conditions handle the heating and lighting for your pets, you could be considered to be a reptile farmer.  Farming is not entirely cut and dry, and is not necessarily the worst way to produce pets for keepers here in the states or internationally.  Where do you draw the line between a large scale breeder and a farmer?  Can you?  Does it really matter? 

Food for thought.

Understanding Reptile Vision, Part 1: Understanding Sight – October 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Hopefully, you have at least a basic understanding of how sight works.  In case you don’t, simply speaking the way humans perceive the world is through reflected light on objects around us.  For the majority of vertebrates, this is how sight works.  Light from the sun, a light bulb, moonlight, etc is reflected off of objects around us, and our eyes take in that light and send signals up to our brain indicating what it is we’ve seen. There’s different wavelengths of light – which most of you already know.  There’s visible light, which is the colors we see as humans, and then there’s wavelengths like UVA, UVB, UVC, and so on.  There’s also infrared light – which is, essentially, the same as heat.

Infrared, visible light, the UVB spectrum, these are a small portion of the BIG range of wavelengths that the sun and various light/energy sources can emit.  As far as we’re concerned, though, those are the relevant wavelengths for us to pay attention to.

The cells that send the signals up to our brain each fire when they encounter the type of light they’re designed to perceive, so your sight is only as good as the number of cells in your eyes.  And from there, your sight is only as good as the number of cells designed to pick up the various types of light out there.

The common way for vertebrates to see is through the use of two types of sight cells – rods and cones.  Rods simply pick up light, period, and fire when visible light hits them.  Cones pick up different colors of light, and there are various types of cones for the various colors or wavelengths of visible light out there.  In low light situations, rods work best, as they will just fire if there is light – so all of your rod cells are going to work to detect light when there isn’t much there.  Cone cells only fire when they are triggered by the specific type of light they’re designed to pick up – so they are not as effective as rod cells in low light, as there is often not enough reflected light of a specific color to make them fire.

This is extremely simplified; vision and lighting are complicated topics, and if you’d like to research it more, I highly recommend it.

As a result of the way the cells work, it is common and expected for most nocturnal species to have large numbers of rod cells in their eyes, allowing them to pick up even tiny amounts of reflected light at night and giving them excellent night vision.  Some owls, for example, have night vision up to 100 times better than what we can see – and this is due to the large number of rods in their eyes.

When it comes to daytime vision and cone cells, though, that’s where sight can get really interesting.  Different animal groups have different types of cones, and the way the cones work can vary immensely from animal type to animal type.

In mammals, it is common for them to only have 2 types of cones.  They are usually blind to the difference between the colors of red and green, a color range humans can detect because we have 3 types of cones.  Human color detection is better than most mammals, but it can only be called “better” in that range of comparison.  When you start to look at other vertebrates, the limits of our own sight become much more obvious.

Birds and many tropical fish can see into the Ultraviolet, or UV range, giving them the ability to perceive colors we can’t even comprehend.  Can you imagine a new color that has never existed before?  That’s a color that birds and many fish see all the time!

In that same group of exceptional sight, many reptiles have at least 4 types of cone cells, with some having 5.  This means they can perceive color even better than we can in most cases, and for species with the best color perception, they can see a range of colors that even birds and fish can’t.

This is definitely a generalization, and is not meant to imply that reptiles can all see with clarity and distance that we can – but they can perceive a wider range of colors than our senses can, and this should be considered when maintaining captive collections.

Obviously, not all reptiles require full spectrum lighting, or even much in the way of specialized lighting.  Commercialized breeding of several species has shown that specialized lighting is not necessary for the maintenance of some species, and this video and article series is not intended to dispute that.  Rather, this is a look at how reptiles perceive their world, and how we as keepers can better modify our lighting and cage setup to reflect the natural conditions our reptiles are likely to experience.  For the single pet reptile or for dedicated enthusiasts determined to closely replicate nature as best they’re able, information on reptile sight is just one aspect of husbandry to consider.

The Basking Spot: Powersun Lightbulbs – August 2013

Powersun Bulbs

by Jennifer Greene

I am often asked what bulb I recommend for various pet reptiles, especially for those that require both heat and full spectrum UVB lighting.  There are several options for providing the needed heat for your diurnal (daytime) pet reptile, as well as the UVB needed for proper vitamin D3 and calcium absorption.  My personal favorite method for providing heat, visible light, and UVB wavelengths of light is to use a mercury vapor bulb – in particular, the ZooMed Powersun Bulb.

The Powersun emits substantial amounts of both UVB and heat, making it ideal for desert dwelling reptiles or for species that prefer to bask at high temperatures.  It also allows yourreptiles to behave in a more natural fashion; the bright, white light that is making them warm is also what is emitting all the UV, similar to sunlight.  Artificial lighting is nowhere close to the range of light that the sun emits, but by providing intense heat and UVB in one place, you do allow your pet to seek out the conditions it would in the wild.  To metabolize D3 in the wild,reptiles need to be a certain temperature, while also receiving exposure to UVB.  This is true for most animals, including humans.  “Most vertebrates can either absorb vitamin D from the diet or synthesize it in the skin from 7-dehydrocholesterol using energy from ultraviolet (UV) light of certain wavelengths (290–315 nm) in a temperature-dependent reaction.” (merckmanuals.com)  The importance of properly heating your reptile, in addition to providing adequate UVB and supplementation, suddenly becomes much clearer!

For your pet reptile to properly utilize vitamin D3, then, it needs to be warm enough while it is digesting its meal and absorbing that all-important calcium (as well as other vital nutrients).  The reason the PowerSun is one of my favorite bulbs of all time becomes clear when you realize that in order to bask, your bearded dragon, blue tongue, lacerta, or other basking pet is not only getting the temperatures it needs under the light, but UVB as well, all at the time when it is actively seeking it out.

Blue Tongue Skink basking under a 100 watt Powersun Bulb

PowerSun bulbs come with a year-long warranty from ZooMed, and when used correctly, have a lifespan much longer than that.  I would suggest switching out your bulbs for optimal UVB output every 10 to 12 months.  I prefer to use a UVB meter to check UVB output on older bulbs, and often use older bulbs on cages where UVB is less important or where lower amounts of UVB are even preferred (my Frilled Dragons, for example, did much better under older bulbs that emitted lower amounts of UVB than new bulbs did).

To get the longest life from your bulb, make sure to read and follow the instructions that come with it.  These bulbs do best mounted vertically, straight up and down, and will last the longest if they are not jostled or moved frequently.  They are self-ballasted, and can be screwed into any regular light fixture.  However, it highly recommended to use a deep dome or 10” dome light fixture to allow for proper air flow around the bulb, both to prevent overheating and to keep the bulb from protruding out of the bottom of the fixture.  As a safety feature, these bulbs turn off automatically when they reach a certain temperature, or when heavily jostled or knocked over.  Once turned off, they require a cool down period before they can turn on again, so if your bulb does not immediately turn back on, give it 5 to 10 minutes and then try again.

We use PowerSun bulbs in our stores on our chameleon cages

Lastly, these bulbs are big, hot lightbulbs.  I only recommend them for larger enclosures; the smallest being an 18” x 18” x 24” front opening terrarium, or a 36” x 12” x 12” (or similar footprint) glass cage.  Keep in mind that in shorter enclosures, your pet cannot bask further away from the light if it wants, and in shorter cages the PowerSun may not always be the most suitable bulb.  Like all bulbs that produce heat, the PowerSun does naturally dry out enclosures it is used on, so for young animals or tropical species, extra attention should be paid to the humidity within the enclosure.  It is alright if it dry directly under the light if the rest of the enclosure is able to maintain humidity, or if a humid hide is provided.

Works Cited

Nutrition in Reptiles,  retrieved July 20th, 2013 from http://www.merckmanuals.com/vet/management_and_nutrition/nutrition_exotic_and_zoo_animals/nutrition_in_reptiles.html

Understanding Reptile Vision: Parietal Eyes – January 2014

By Jennifer Greene

In this third installment of understanding reptile vision, we’ll be discussing the parietal eye that is present in many species of lizards, and its impact on how your lizard perceives the world.  The parietal eye is often referred to as a “third eye”, and in some species of lizards you can even see the scale or spot on the top of the head where the “eye” is present.  The parietal eye in lizards is tied to their pineal gland; a gland that produces, among other hormones, melatonin – the hormone that helps you sleep at night.  The pineal gland is a fascinating organ, and one that we don’t know nearly as much about as we’d like to.  Even in humans, the functions of the pineal gland are still somewhat of a mystery, so it’s understandable that in reptiles, we struggle to understand fully what impact it has on their day to day lives.

If you have never seen a parietal eye, or are unsure of what exactly one is if you wanted to look for it, in our pet lizards it is usually a small, circular scale in the center of the top of the head.  It can be grey in color, or just a slightly different shade than the rest of the lizard.  The third eye is most pronounced in the prehistoric tuatara lizard – their third eyes have similar parts as their two main eyes, including a lens similar to a cornea.  The third eye is quite primitive, “ much more like the retina of an octopus rather than that of a vertebrate” (Schwab and O’Connor, 2005).  This eye cannot see in quite the same way as the main eyes, instead likely only detecting shapes and shadows rather than full pictures.  They are also highly sensitive to light – producing markedly different hormones based on time of day, with one study showing a system of neurons reversing their reactions based entirely on the daily photoperiod of the lizard. (Engbretson and Lent, 1976)

Older studies done on lizards to examine the purpose of their parietal eye experimented with removing the eye as well as simply covering it up.  In humans, the pineal gland is what helps control our circadian rhythm, and in lizards the combination of the third eye and pineal gland serve a similar function.  Experiments that removed the third eye from common North American fence lizards found that lizards missing their parietal eyes were more active for a longer period of time than their counterparts with intact eyes.  On the surface, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing – why wouldn’t a reptile want to be out and active for the most amount of time?  Turns out, that’s only a good thing if you’re a mammal.  We are active as much as possible to get as much food and energy as possible.  For us, just sitting costs energy, while for reptiles, the less they move, the less energy they expend.

So, when a lizard is active for a longer period of time, but is not necessarily consuming more food, being that active becomes a hindrance, not a help.  Parietal eyes helped limit the amount of time that fence lizards were spending out basking or moving around.  In addition to the differences in activity between lizards that had parietal eyes and those that didn’t, lizards with their third eyes removed were harder to startle and scare away, with speculation in one study that “the pronounced heliothermism perhaps works antagonistically to the normal retreat reaction.”  (Stebbins, pg 35)

Not only do the parietal eyes help set a lizard’s internal clock, control hormone production, and help them determine needed activity levels – they also use their parietal eyes to navigate.  A study done with Italian wall lizards found that they used the sun to navigate through a “Morris water-maze” (click link for the wikipedia article), and by tricking their biological clock to be 6 hours faster or slower, the lizards were no longer able to reach their goal at the end of the maze.  Painting over or removing the parietal eye entirely caused the lizards to no longer be able to navigate the maze at all.  (Carnacina, 2009)

All of this just scratches the surface of what the parietal eye and, through extension, the pineal gland, are responsible for and control in a lizard’s life.  This sensitivity to light is one reason for the common recommendation to provide basking lizards with bright, white lights to bask under – you are helping your lizard to keep its biological clock ticking at the right speed.  Any diurnal lizard is particularly sensitive to light, and understanding how heavily they rely on external sources to help guide their lives will help you as a keeper provide them with a rich captive life.   This is, of course, most relevant to true lizards, such as iguanas, skinks, lacertas, bearded dragons, and other similar reptiles.  There are few, if any, lizards that are nocturnal, and in fact searching online for “nocturnal lizard species” will instead bring up the gecko family.  Geckos do not appear to have the same parietal eye as diurnal lizard species, but as we saw in the last article, that does not at all mean that their sight is less attuned to light!

For your diurnal lizards at home, please be sure to provide them with a regular day/night cycle, including a nice bright, white basking light for them to heat up under.  As studies have shown, diurnal lizards rely heavily on lighting as well as heat to determine activity levels as well as hormone levels.  Good lighting not only encourages natural behaviors, but enables your pets to thrive all the way down to a cellular level.  Lighting is vital to proper husbandry, and an integral part of any set up for diurnal lizards.  Asking for help from any experienced lizard keeper in a sick, non-feeding, constantly sleeping lizard will immediately earn you questions about your lighting set up – and is it any wonder?

References:

Augusto Foa, Francesca Basaglia, Giulia Beltrami, Margherita Carnacina, Elisa Moretto, and Cristiano Bertolucci (June, 2009) “Orientation of lizards in a Morris water-maze: roles of the sun compass and the parietal eye”, Journal of Experimental Biology, 212 Retrived from:http://jeb.biologists.org/content/212/18/2918.short

Gustav A. Engbretson, Charles M. Lent (February 1976) “Parietal eye of the lizard: Neuronal photoresponses and feedback from the pineal gland”, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci USA Vol 73, No 2, pp 654-657 Retrieved From: http://www.pnas.org/content/73/2/654.full.pdf

I.R. Schwab and G.R.O’Connor (March 2005) “The lonely eye”, British Journal of Opthalmology, V. 89(3), 256 Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1772576/

Robert C. Stebbins and Richard M. Eakin (February 1958), “The Role of the “Third Eye” in Reptilian Behavior, American Museum Novitates, Number 1870 Retrieved fromhttp://digitallibrary.amnh.org/dspace/bitstream/handle/2246/4659//v2/dspace/ingest/pdfSource/nov/N1870.pdf?sequence=1

The Basking Spot: Excavator Clay – July 2013

Excavator Clay

by Jennifer Greene

If you’re like me, you enjoy setting up your animals in naturalistic, beautiful enclosures with plenty of options for them to run, climb, hide, and bask throughout their enclosure.  Creating a naturalistic display is fairly easy with tropical animals, and videos and set ups of tropical displays are common throughout online forums as well as groups on Facebook or google+.  However, it is much harder to find displays of desert vivariums, or cages that are more than just the basics for desert species.  There is a great deal of stigma with using sand and other small, dry, particle substrates, particularly with species considered desert dwellers, such as bearded dragons or leopard geckos. ‘

However, you can still set up a really neat, naturalistic vivarium with considerably reduced risk of substrate ingestion using a clay substrate made by ZooMed.  Excavator Clay is not an ideal substrate for every situation, but when used correctly, it can be used to create beautiful desert landscapes that allow your lizards the ability to burrow and dig without loose substrate everywhere.

Excavator Clay is a clay substrate that hardens once it’s been mixed with water.  You can put a simple base layer down throughout your cage and have a flat, plain, natural looking flooring, or create landscapes and burrows.  I highly recommend Excavator clay for burrow desert species that thrive in extremely low humidity, and/or come from extremely sandy areas. Steppe Runners, Frog Eyed Geckos, Dune Geckos, Berber Skinks, Uromastyx, Collared Lizards, and other similar desert species all work well in cages with Excavator as the base substrate.

You’ll want to prepare to set up the cage at least a week before putting the animal(s) inside – the clay needs a good amount of time to set and dry.  Have plenty of water on hand, and mix it little by little with the clay to create a sandy paste.  Build your landscape with it, having lots of fun as you make a huge mess putting it together. I suggest sloping the clay higher towards the back of the cage to add depth and make the cage look more visually appealing, but you can build whatever shapes you’d like.

Add the start of burrows by either using cardboard tubes or balloons to leave air pockets for your reptiles to find and dig out.

Enclosure for Tibetan Frog Eyed Geckos

Build up your cage and let the clay harden for at least 2 or 3 days.  If you used a lot of water, it may take over a week to fully dry, so plan accordingly if you are waiting to pick up the future inhabitant of the cage!  I like to add a layer of sand mixed with coconut bedding for digging purposes, as the two combined are a much lighter substrate that the animal can easily dig up and move around.  The loose substrate is also easy to clean, and leaves the excavator underneath fresh.  If you do find that your pet has defecated directly on the excavator, a little water will wash off any feces and make it easy for you to pick up the dirty part.

Just because your reptiles are desert dwellers, that doesn’t mean you should neglect to provide them with humid areas while using your clay substrate.  You can put damp moss in some of the burrows you’ve set up, and just keep a few areas moist.  When you provide at least one or two damp burrows/hiding areas, the species you can keep on excavator broadens.  I have successfully raised Leopard Geckos in an excavator/sand/coconut bedding mix, and if you want a nicer cage for your pets than just a glass box with carpet on the bottom – consider using clay!

Two leopard geckos lived in this exact cage as it is for over a year!

Mealworms were offered in a dish next to the water bowl, and there were multiple moist hides.

Again, it is not a substrate that is ideal for every pet and every situation, but when used correctly you can create beautiful, naturalistic desert set ups.  Your desert reptiles will benefit from the ability to burrow and hide in a more natural way, and the reduced amount of loose substrate (due to the clay being hardened) minimizes the risk of substrate ingestion to a negligable worry.

Want to see a video on setting up Excavator Clay?  We have one that you can see here:http://youtu.be/Nzu0P-aPPbw

Reptile Vision: Nocturnal Geckos – November 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Geckos make up an extremely large group of species, the majority of which are nocturnal or at least crepuscular – that is, active at dawn and dusk.  It is worth noting that geckos evolved from diurnal lizards, and initially had the full set of rods and cones that we discussed in last month’s issue of the Times.  However, as time went on and these diurnal lizards were active only during bright daylight hours, their rod cells began to disappear, and eventually the ancestors of geckos lost their rod cells completely.  When these lizards evolved into geckos, they began moving back into nocturnal niches in the environment, and needed to develop better nighttime vision once again.  “In response to the demands of nocturnal vision without rods, the cones of nocturnal geckos have become much larger and more light-sensitive than those of their diurnal relatives” (Roth 2009).

Refresh your memory on the color spectrum and what wavelengths match which colors.

What does that mean?  That means that geckos see at night, but they see in color.  When we see at night, we are seeing in shades of grey, as rod cells simply pick up whether or not light is present, regardless of the color of that light.  Geckos can see color at light levels that equate to dim moonlight – where we would hardly be able to see at all, much less determine color!  There are studies, for example, that show that helmeted geckos can differentiate between the color blue and the color grey at extremely low light levels.  Scientists were able to test this by dusting crickets in powder dyed either blue or grey.  Crickets dyed blue were “tasty”, or had nothing extra added, while crickets dusted in grey powder were “distasteful”, and extra salt was added to the dust.  Very, very quickly, the geckos learned the difference, and chose the blue crickets over grey crickets nearly every time.  (Roth and Kelber, 2004)

In the diagram above, you can see the test used in the study.The crickets were offered to the geckos on forceps, and the ones coated in grey were always salted.  The geckos almost always refused these crickets in favor of the tastier, non-salted blue crickets.

They made the choice of blue crickets independent of the intensity of the grey coloration on the crickets.  These tests were performed at extremely low light levels, comparable to that of a night with no moonlight, and demonstrate that the geckos were capable of color vision.

An interesting point made in the study was that the scientists varied the shades of blue and grey to match in a black and white view (so if the geckos were not using color vision, the crickets would look identical), as well as grey colors that were brighter and darker to cover UV reflection.  Why would they be concerned about UV reflection, you ask?  Another study looking at crepuscular and nocturnal illumination in regards to a particular moth found that there is enough UV reflection at night for nocturnal animals to have UV sensitive vision.  (Johnson, Kelber, et al 2005)   Geckos in particular have eyes sensitive to blue and green, which makes sense when you consider that in most habitats, the wavelengths of light being reflected most fall into that color range.  Most geckos have minimal red light sensing cones, which is what leads to the use of red light bulbs for heating nocturnal reptiles – they can, at best, see minimally when red light is used to illuminate their cage.

Instead of red, the cone cells in gecko eyes see into the UV range – UVA at least, if not into the UVB range.  When testing spectral irradiance, or the radiation of various wavelengths of light off of surfaces, UV was found to be a substantial portion of light being reflected at night.   This is due to the lower amount of visible light making it through our atmosphere, allowing for more UV radiation and non-visible light to make it through, relatively speaking.  While UV is still being reflected, it is in much lower quantities (relative to overall light being reflected) during the day.  I know, I know, it sounds confusing!  During the day, because there is so much light coming through our atmosphere, it filters out most wavelengths, and what ends up making it through is mostly the visible spectrum, with smaller quantities of other wavelengths.  At night, the light being reflected from the moon, as well as starlight, is less intense in visible light.  This allows for a wider range of other wavelengths which may reflect better to make it through our atmosphere, so while there is a smaller amount of light being reflected, a larger portion of that is not visible light, but instead ranging into the infrared and ultraviolet (UV) range.

Comparing Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), Hawkmoths (M. sctellatarum, D. elpenor, H. lineata, H. gallii) and nocturnal geckos (Tarentola chazaliae).

So, back to our friends, the nocturnal geckos.  Aside from the study on helmeted geckos and their ability to differentiate between grey and blue colored crickets, there really isn’t much in the way of studies on their sight.  They are capable of multifocality, or the ability to have multiple focal zones, while interestingly, the day gecko (top row) had only one focal zone.  The varying colors in the diagram below show how much light was passing through different parts of the pupil.  The study noted large variation between individual animals in sight, which raises an interesting question for keepers – do different geckos have varying ability to see?  Do some geckos need glasses?  That’s rhetorical, of course, but it’s an interesting thought that not all geckos see as well as others. See the study in works cited for more details on this particular study on gecko vision. (Roth, Lundstrom, et al 2009)

The limited other studies on nocturnal vision and non-mammalian animals active at night show that with a full moon, the available light spectrum is nearly identical to that of daytime colors.  Naturally, it is not as bright or as intense as midday light levels, but the range of light is similar.  However, on moonless nights, the color range shifts towards the red or infrared end of the spectrum, meaning that things visible during moonless nights would seem to be redder in tone than they would during daylight or a full moon.  But geckos can’t see red, right?  So are they blind on moonless nights?  Not quite – there are other sources of light, such as star light, as well as other reflective surfaces bouncing light off of each other, leaving enough light for the blue and green seeing geckos to still be active.

The diagram above illustrates the relative levels of different wavelengths of light at different times of day – showing that while there are lower amounts of light, the wavelengths available are still similar to that of daytime illumination.  Note the impact that light pollution has on the colors of available light – interesting to consider what our captive geckos may be experiencing with the ranges of light available to them indoors, entirely surrounded by artificial light sources.

In addition, geckos seek out light to thermoregulate, which seems counter-intuitive to what many keepers have observed with their own animals.  Yes, we can keep geckos without visible light – but one study performed on Tokay Geckos demonstrated that using visible light in addition to heat enabled them to more precisely control their body temperatures both during the day as well as night.  (Sievert and Hutchinson, 1988)  The conclusion the researchers came to was that “it appears that G. gecko is using the position of the light source as well as time of day in establishing diel  (24 hour period of time) cycles of temperature selection.”  So while geckos may not actively bask out in the open under bright, white lights, they do utilize the light source as a reference point for seeking out basking areas to reach their preferred body temperature.

Nothing here is intended to drastically change established husbandry practices of reptiles we have been keeping in captivity and breeding successfully for many years.  I do, however, hope that it encourages some thought for naturalistic enclosures, or helps those with difficult species try new things to help their geckos become established.  I feel it also highlights how little we still know about these incredible animals and their natural habitat, especially when compared to other species commonly kept in captivity. When setting up naturalistic displays, I hope you find the information here helpful in setting up basking areas, full spectrum lighting, or even whether you feel those things are needed.  There is still a lot to learn, and next month, we will be examining diurnal basking lizards.

Watch the video here! 

Works Cited/ References

Lina S.V. Roth, Linda Lunstrom, Almut Kelber, Ronald H.H. Kroger, Peter Unsbo (March 30th, 2009).  The pupils and optical systems of gecko eyes.  Journal of VisionVol. 9 no. 3, article 27 .
Retrieved from: http://www-mtl.journalofvision.org/content/9/3/27.full

Almut Kelber and Lina S.V. Roth (March 1st, 2006).  Nocturnal colour vision – not as rare as we might think, The Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 209 
Retrieved from: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/209/5/781.full

Beate Roll (July 2001), Gecko vision – retinal organization, foveae, and implications for binocular vision, Vision Research, Volume 41 Issue 16
Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0042698901000931

Lynnette M. Sievert, Victor H. Hutchinson (Sept. 1988.  Light versus Heat: Thermoregulatory Behavior in a Nocturnal Gecko Lizard (Gekko gecko), Herpetologica, Vol 44 No. 3
Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3892340

Lina S.V. Roth, Almut Kelber (December 2004). Nocturnal color vision in geckos, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, Volume 271
Retrieved from: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/271/Suppl_6/S485.full.pdf+html

Carrie C. Veilleux, Molly E. Cummings (July 30th, 2012).  Nocturnal light environments and species ecology: implications for nocturnal color vision in forests, The Journal of Experimental Biology, Volume 215 
Retrieved from: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/215/23/4085.full

Sonke Johnsen, Almut Kelber, Eric Warrant, Alison M. Sweeney, Edith A. Widder, Raymond L. Lee Jr., Javier Hernandez-Andres (December 20th, 2005).  Crepuscular and nocturnal illumination and its effects on color perception by the nocturnal hawkmoth Deilephila elpenorThe Journal of Experimental Biology, Volume 209
Retrieved from: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/209/5/789.full

The Basking Spot: Snake Hooks – May 2013

by Jennifer Greene

Snake Hooks

When it comes to hunting for reptiles out in the wild, or maintaining a captive snake with an attitude, any herper knows what the best tool is for keeping them away from the bitey end of the snake.   Snake hooks are an essential tool for any serious snake keeper, with different sizes suitable for different sized snakes and different needs.

Small hooks are ideal for baby snakes or for easily maneuvering in tubs and small spaces.  Pocket hooks are best for tiny hatchlings, while the thicker, 15” standard hooks are my preferred size for working with strange snakes under 5 or 6’.  The short hook enables me to maneuver the snake’s head as needed, but isn’t so long that it’s unmanageable.

For larger or more aggressive snakes, a longer hook is a good idea.  I prefer 24” for larger or more aggressive species, as it’s just long enough to keep them out of striking range but not so long that I can’t easily manage it.  For taller people or those more concerned about the snake being at all close to them, you can utilize the 38” hook.

There’s an even larger and broader type of hook called a boa/python hook, which is best suited for moving extremely large and potentially aggressive snakes.  Due to the sheer size of the hook, it can be unwieldy for smaller species, so unless you have a truly large snake you are unlikely to need a hook quite this big.

I personally have one of each size hook; I use the two smaller sizes for working with captive animals, and use the longest hook for outdoor herping.

With the long reach of the 38” hook, it’s ideal for flipping boards and looking around under bushes, as here in Southern California, we have a substantial population of rattlesnakes.

To prevent bites, I often use my hook to check under boards and other flat items before putting my hands in places I can’t see.

Check back next month for an article discussing Southern California’s native rattlesnake species!