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Providing Clean Water to Reptiles and Amphibians – The Nitrogen Cycle


Mexican Axolotl

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by ZeWrestler

Successful aquarists know the importance of monitoring the nitrogen cycle, and the lessons I learned while working for fish importers and sellers have served me well when caring for all manner of creatures.  When I began my career in zoos, I was surprised to find that reptile and amphibian keepers, while aware of the necessity for clean water, did not generally pay attention to understanding water chemistry and its effects on animal health.  That situation is much changed today, but professional and private herp keepers can still take some lessons from our aquarist friends. Awhile back, I helped establish an amphibian exhibit at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Ct.  I was not surprised when the aquarists there, despite lacking prior amphibian experience, excelled at their care and breeding.  Today we’ll look at how the nitrogen cycle functions and review some useful care techniques and products.


How Critical is Reptile and Amphibian Water Quality?

It’s important to understand that most amphibians, especially largely-aquatic species such as African Clawed Frogs and Mexican Axolotls, absorb water and dissolved chemicals over a much greater surface area than do fishes (scale-less fishes, such as eels, loaches and most catfishes, are similar to amphibians in this regard).  In fact, when we administer fish medications to aquatic amphibians, we always begin with a 50% or so dose…the amount recommended for fishes might kill or injure amphibians.


It follows that amphibians are often more sensitive to ammonia and other water-borne toxins than are fishes. My experience bears out the fact that ammonia poisoning is responsible for a great many sudden, unexplained amphibian pet deaths.  Reptiles are less susceptible to water quality problems than are amphibians, but certain species, such Tentacled Snakes and Soft-shelled and Fly River Turtles, seem sensitive to ammonia and pH levels.


Fly River Turtle

Uploadedto Wikipedia Commons by Faendalimas

What is the Nitrogen Cycle?

The nitrogen cycle can be summarized as the process by which nitrogen is converted to other organic compounds that are then utilized by plants and animals as food.  Nitrogen enters the water via dead animals and plants, decaying food, and animal feces and urates.  In herp enclosures, animal wastes are usually the primary sources of nitrogen.


Ammonia, the most toxic of the nitrogen-based compounds, may be ionized or un-ionized; it is most dangerous to aquatic animals in its un-ionized form. More of the water’s total ammonia becomes un-ionized as the temperature and pH increases.

Two types of aerobic (air-breathing) bacteria, which live on gravel, filter pads and other substrates exposed to oxygenated water, control the nitrogen cycle. Collectively, they are termed nitrogenous bacteria.


Nitrosomas bacteria convert ammonia to less-toxic compounds known as nitrites.  Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrites to nitrates.  Nitrates, the end product of the nitrogen cycle, are the least toxic of the nitrogenous compounds.


Managing the Nitrogen Cycle in Your Pet’s Home

Aquarists use the term “conditioning period” to describe the time that it takes for healthy populations of both types of nitrogenous bacteria to become established in a new tank.  This period varies in length, but usually falls in the range of 2-6 weeks.


Your aquarium’s conditioning period may be shortened by the addition of commercially-available live aerobic bacteria.  I’ve had good experience with Biozyme Freshwater Bacteria and Nutrafin Cycle.  Micro Lift Bacterial Water Balancer, specifically formulated for turtles, should also be considered.


You can also help the process along by introducing filter material from a well-conditioned tank and, where conditions permit, by using “live rock” and “live sand” (please post below for further info).  The frequent use of water quality test kits is essential. The pH level should be checked often as well, since the water may become acidic during the conditioning period.



Undergravel Filters

Although some of my younger readers will no doubt consider me a dinosaur for saying so, I still use and recommend undergravel filters in many situations.   They are simple to maintain, largely invisible to the eye, and essentially turn the entire substrate into a giant biological filter.  Where useful, power heads can be added to increase water follow though the gravel bed or to create a reverse-flow system (please see the article linked below).


Many public aquariums still maintain huge exhibits with undergravel filters alone.  At various zoos and in my own collection, I have used undergravel filters on large exhibits housing Tentacled Snakes, Northern Water Snakes, adult Snake-Necked Turtles, Largemouth Bass, and other creatures that are very hard on water quality and clarity.


I also favor fluidized bed filters, which are mounted outside the aquarium. They rely upon the same principles as do undergravel filters, and are especially useful where substrate is not used in the enclosure.




Further Reading

Using Undergravel Filters in Reptile and Amphibian Terrariums 


Using Bottled Aerobic Bacteria

Milksnake Care – Keeping the Sinaloan Milksnake and Related Species

The various Milksnakes are among the world’s most beautifully-colored reptiles.  Most are quite hardy, easy to handle and breed, and can be kept in modestly-sized terrariums.  Milksnakes are grouped with Kingsnakes in the genus Lampropeltis, which contains 16 species.  Sometimes referred to as “Tri-Colored Kingsnakes”, the most popular types are considered to be subspecies of L. triangulum.  Among the 26 subspecies of L. triangulum  we find the gorgeous and highly-desirable Sinaloan, Pueblan, Nelson’s, Black, and Honduran Milksnakes, along with others that are a bit more difficult to keep but well-worth the consideration of experienced keepers.

Honduran Milksnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by :Haplochromis

The following general information can be applied to Milksnake care of both popular species and subspecies.  However, details vary, especially as regards those native to higher elevations or with specific food preferences.  Please post below for detailed information on the care of individual species. Read More »

Mantella Care – Keeping Madagascar Poison Frogs in the Terrarium

Often compared to the Dart Poison Frogs in size, appearance and behavior, Mantellas are among the most highly desirable of all amphibian pets.  Most are spectacularly colored – so much so that I’ve often had visitors to my exhibits at the Bronx Zoo ask if they are real!  Indeed, many frog enthusiasts consider the ruby morph of the Golden Mantella (M. aurantiaca) to be the world’s most beautiful frog.  Several of their colors, including some of the greens and oranges, are not seen in the more popularly-kept Dart Poison Frogs.

Mantella bernhardi

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Devin Edmonds

You can expect to see many interesting behaviors from Mantella Frogs, as they are active by day, quite bold, and are always foraging, exploring, interacting and otherwise “on the go”.  Once considered delicate captives, several species are now regularly bred in captivity, and we are learning more about Mantella care and fascinating natural histories (including how they acquire their famous skin toxins…please see below) each year.The following information can be applied to most available species, including Painted, Golden, Green, Brown and Saffron Mantellas.  However, details vary; please post below for information concerning individual species. Read More »

Reptile Lighting – Understanding and Using Compact UVB Bulbs

The technology behind amphibian and reptile lighting has come a long way since I began working at the Bronx Zoo, when “black lights” and the sun were our only UVB (Ultra Violet B radiation) options.  Today I’ll review an important herp husbandry innovation, the compact UVB fluorescent bulb (note: bulbs are referred to as “lamps” in technical papers).  My experiences have been positive, but some reptile-keepers have raised concerns, so I’ll address them as well. Please be sure to post your experiences and ideas below, as we still have much to learn about this important topic.

Pancake Tortoises

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dave Pape

Reptiles, UVB and UVA: a Quick Primer

Most heliothermic (basking) lizards, turtles, and crocodilians need exposure to UVB light rays with a wavelength of 290-315 nanometers in order to synthesize Vitamin D3 in their skin.  Vitamin D3 allows these animals to utilize dietary calcium.  Without D3, dietary calcium is not metabolized and metabolic bone disease sets in.  Snakes, highly-aquatic turtles, nocturnal lizards, most amphibians, and certain others can make use of dietary Vitamin D, but most basking species rely on the skin-synthesized form. Read More »

Chameleon Care Tips from a Herpetologist – Panther Chameleons as Pets

Chameleons are spectacular creatures to care for, but they are almost “too interesting” for their own good.  Drawn by their beauty and unique-to-bizarre characteristics, many rush into chameleon care without proper preparation.  None are suitable for beginners, but if asked to recommend a large, colorful species to an experienced keeper, I would choose the majestic Panther Chameleon, Furcifer pardalis.  While not as hardy as the Veiled Chameleon, Chamaeleo calyptratus, the Panther is adapted to environmental conditions that fluctuate wildly, and this seems assist its adjustment to captivity.  It is also an excellent study subject…recent studies have revealed new insights into the relationship between chameleon basking behavior and diet (please see below).

Male Panther Chameleon

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Marc Staub

I’ve worked with many chameleon species in zoos, and can attest to the difficulties involved even when one has sufficient space and supplies.  Please read this article and those linked under “Further Reading” carefully, and post any questions below. Read More »

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