The 5 Best Holiday Gifts for Reptiles, Amphibians and Their Owners

Today I’d like to offer some gift suggestions for the herps and herp owners on your holiday shopping list. Several are items that we just never seem to think of, despite the fact that they can lighten our workload and improve our pets’ quality of life. Others can be classified as critical life support equipment for certain creatures. Included are some that I have tended to do without – until I saw how much easier life became with them! Please see the linked articles and post questions below if you’d like further information on any of the products covered here.


t255193ReptiTemp Digital Infrared Thermometer

I’ve highlighted the Zoo Med ReptiTemp Digital Infrared Thermometer in other gift-oriented articles, but it deserves a re-mention here. This wonderful product allows us to remotely sense temperatures and can also be set to continuously record. Most importantly, the critical task of establishing a temperature gradient is greatly simplified. Amazing technology for a very reasonable price…I was hooked on the idea from the moment I first used the original, bulky prototypes in zoos years ago.


Red Foot Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by H. Zell

Forest Tortoise/Box Turtle and Grassland Tortoise Kits

American Box Turtles and many tortoises can make wonderful, long-lived pets, but their specific needs are not always fully understood by new owners. Our Forest Tortoise/Box Turtle and Grassland Tortoise Set-Ups contain much of what you’ll need when getting started with a variety of species, including Russian, Greek, Sulcata and Red-Foot Tortoises and American and Asian Box Turtles. I especially like the fact that Zoo Med products are included among the heating, UVB, diet and other supplies found in each kit.


mediaCork Bark

This suggestion may sound odd at first, but throughout my zoo-keeping and pet-keeping careers, cork bark has proven indispensable in so many ways – yet an ideal-sized piece is rarely at hand when needed! We ordered it by the skid-load at the Bronx Zoo, but always needed more.


Large rolled sections look great in terrariums and can serve as “hollow logs” for both arboreal and terrestrial snakes, lizards, frogs, tarantulas and others, while flat pieces make great sheltering spots for most anything that needs a place to hide. I wedge pieces between aquarium glass to create convenient, smooth resting sites for turtles, newts and frogs. By positioning the bark just below the water’s surface you can also provide the submerged sites favored by musk and other aquatic turtles and many amphibians. I could go on, and I’m sure most readers have found other uses as well. Trust me, the herpers on your gift list will appreciate all the cork bark you might send their way!


t243860Humidifiers and Rain Systems

Zoo Med’s Repti Fogger, with a 1-liter reservoir, will be very useful to those keeping Emerald Tree Boas, Red-Eyed treefrogs and other rainforest-adapted species. It may also help to stimulate breeding, and is nearly indispensable to rainforest herp fans living in dry climates.


The Exo-Terra Monsoon Rainfall System parallels models I’ve relied upon for years in zoos. Frogs and other herps that come into breeding condition in response to rain often respond to artificial showers as well. Able to deliver multiple “storms” ranging from 1 second to 2 hours in duration over a 24 hour period, the Monsoon System can be programmed to meet the needs of the species you keep.


Panther Chameleon

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Marc Staub

Portable Screen Cages

No bulb, no matter how well-designed, comes close to mimicking the UVA and UVB levels provided by the sun – even when it is shielded by clouds! Zoo Med Repti Breeze Screen Cages, available in 3 sizes, offer herp keepers a means of providing chameleons and other lizards with natural sunlight while assuring ample ventilation. An aluminum frame renders the cages very light in weight, so that carrying them outdoors is a snap (be sure take predators and possibility over-heating into account). Repti Breeze cages also make fine permanent homes for mantids and other insects, anoles and many other arboreal lizards.






Further Reading

More Herp-Oriented Gift Ideas

Constructing a Rain Chamber


CITES Listing Sought for Snapping Turtles, 3 Softshells: Do You Agree?

Common Snapping Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by D. Gordon E. Robertson

The US Fish & Wildlife Service is currently (December, 2014) seeking Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) protection for the Common Snapping Turtle and the Florida, Spiny, and Smooth Softshell Turtles. Each is being collected from the wild in ever increasing numbers and exported to Asian food and medicinal markets. With so many Asian species having been decimated by over-collection (please see article below), pressure on US species will surely increase. While several of the turtles involved are perceived to be common, recent export figures are grim. For example, approximately 2,178,000 live, wild-caught Snapping Turtles were exported from the USA between 2009 and 2011 (this excludes processed meat and eggs).


Unfortunately, government regulation sometimes raises hackles among pet keepers. Throughout my career as a herpetologist, I’ve worked on numerous cooperative ventures between government agencies and private keepers – all showed promise, but were also fraught with red tape and other problems. In my experience, many pet owners are pro-conservation, but remain frustrated by laws that prevent the ownership and breeding of at-risk species. Today I’ll outline the proposed CITES listing; your thoughts on the subject would be most appreciated – please post below.


Florida Softshell

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Johnskate17

The Scope of the Problem

When I began looking into the mercury content of food trade turtles some years ago (very high, by the way!), Florida Softshell Turtles (Apalone ferox) dominated the NYC markets. Today, one more commonly sees the Chinese Softshell (Pelodiscus sinensis). Although rare within its natural range, this hardy turtle is being bred in huge numbers on farms in China. This development may have eased some of the pressure on US natives, but certainly has not yet eliminated over-harvesting.


Florida Softshells have benefitted from canal construction in Florida, and have expanded their range as a result. However, they are quite easy to trap or catch via line. From 2009 to 2011 (the most recent years for which figures are available), approximately 792,000 live Florida Softshells and 260,000 eggs were exported from the USA.


Chinese softshell in food market

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Vmenkov

Spiny and Smooth Softshell Turtles (Apalone spinifera & A. mutica) are not as common as their larger cousin, and harder to collect. Several subspecies are rare, and almost all populations are in decline due to factors unrelated to hunting – habitat loss, stream channelization, etc. Still, approximately 158,000 live Spiny Softshells were captured and shipped to Asia from 2009 to 2011. As mentioned above, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) leads the pack, with over 2,000,000 wild-caught individuals exported during the same period. Huge quantities of processed turtle meat are also sold to overseas (and some local) markets.


What is the Effect of a CITES Listing?

If the US F&W Service’s proposal is approved, the 4 species would be listed on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This primarily affects international trade, and opens up a monitoring, rather than a regulatory, process.


Food market,  s. China

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Vmenkov

Pet-keeping per se is not affected. However, if monitoring reveals that a species is in need of further protection, federal and state laws that prohibit private ownership may be implemented. This is what worries some pet owners.


In addition to enhanced monitoring, an Appendix III listing has the following effects:


  1. Exporters must prove that the turtles were collected and shipped in accordance with all relevant state laws.


  1. Live turtles must be packed and shipped humanely, in accordance with the regulations established by the International Air Transport Agency.


  1. Foreign governments will theoretically give greater priority to the inspection of imported CITES-listed species. As a practical matter, most tend to cooperate more readily with the USA when protected species are involved.


If past experience is any guide, there will be many conflicting opinions concerning this topic. This is very useful, so please be sure to post your thoughts below. You can also register opinions with the US F&WS until 12-31-14; please let me know if you need more info.




Further Reading

The Asian Turtle Crisis


Text of the CITES Proposal

The Best Substrate for Crested Gecko Terrariums: Avoiding Impactions

Crested Gecko

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by annakilljoy,

It wasn’t so long ago that one had to search through many books to find a photo of a Crested Gecko (Correlophus ciliatus), and seeing a live individual in a zoo was impossible. In fact, the species was presumed extinct in the early 1990’s! Today, these bizarre New Caledonian natives are captive bred in huge numbers, and are popular with reptile keepers worldwide. However, while their husbandry needs are well-understood, and rather easy to meet, substrate choice can be problematic. Judging by questions I’ve received lately and feedback from my zookeeper colleagues, intestinal blockages (“impactions”) caused by substrate ingestion are an important concern.


Coconut Husk: Good and Bad Points

Coconut husk, the most commonly recommended Crested Gecko substrate, has a down side. I’ve had great success using this product at home and in zoo exhibits housing tarantulas, centipedes, millipedes, land crabs, beetles and other invertebrates. However, it is commonly swallowed by reptiles and amphibians during the course of feeding – more often, it seems, than occurs with other substrates. Coconut husk has been implicated in most of the Crested Gecko impactions I’ve recently been informed of.


Leaping gecko

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Alfeus Liman

As is the case for other sometimes troublesome substrates, many keepers use coconut husk for Crested Geckos without incident. How do we explain this? Through discussions with veterinarian colleagues at the Bronx Zoo, I’ve learned that there are many variables which affect the passage of foreign materials through the body. The nature of the diet (and, of course, the swallowed material), hydration levels, calcium intake (calcium assists in muscle contractions, which may be needed to expel ingested substrate), general health and vigor and many other factors are involved. It seems best to err on the side of caution.


My Top Pick for Naturalistic Terrariums

I favor a mix of topsoil and sphagnum moss as a substrate for Crested Geckos and for many other species as well. Perhaps because of the size or consistency of the moss strands, sphagnum seems rarely to be ingested. I’ve successfully kept a great many amphibians and some reptiles on sphagnum moss alone. Moss that is taken into the mouth is, in the incidents I’ve observed, easily expelled.


Soil seems like it “should be” troublesome, but that has not been my experience…I hope to look into the reasons for this in the future. I use soil collected from wooded, pesticide free areas, but you can also purchase bagged “organic” or “chemical-free” soil. Be sure to avoid products that contain white Styrofoam-like spacing material.


By using roughly 2 parts soil to 1 part sphagnum moss, you can achieve a mix that holds moisture well and does not easily become compacted. This also serves as an ideal planting medium for many live plants…and Crested Geckos truly come into their own in complex, well-planted terrariums.


Sow Bugs

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Pudding4brains

I often establish colonies of sowbugs, millipedes, springtails and other leaf-litter invertebrates in terrariums with moist substrates; earthworms can also be used if temperatures are not too high. In addition to aerating the soil and consuming feces, dead leaves, and shed skin, sowbugs and others make healthful additions to the diets of many herps.


The Base Layer

Zoo Med Hydroballs, preferably but not necessarily covered by a layer of plastic screening, should be used as the base layer of your Crested Gecko terrarium. They are a bit more effective than the broken clay flower pots favored by us dinosaurs in assisting with drainage, preventing soil impaction, and maintaining high humidity levels.


Washable Terrarium Liners

Those seeking an extra measure of safety may wish to consider terrarium liners. Potted plants camouflaged with rocks or sphagnum moss can be used to create a naturalistic effect.


I’ll address the specifics of Crested Gecko care and breeding in the future; until then, please post any questions or observations below.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.


Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.


Further Reading

New Caledonian Giant Gecko Care

Choosing the Best Substrates for Reptiles and Amphibians

East African Black Mud Turtle Care: a Herpetologist’s Thoughts

West African Mud Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Loran

I was first introduced to the East African Black Mud Turtle, or African Mud Turtle, (Pelusios subniger) when working for a NYC animal importer many years ago, and they have remained great favorites of mine to this day. In common with many species that have evolved in harsh environments, African Mud Turtles are among the hardiest of reptile pets; longevities in excess of 30 years have been recorded. Perhaps due to their somewhat drab coloration, these interesting, responsive turtles are often overlooked, but that is a mistake – all the private and professional keepers to whom I’ve recommended them have been most pleased.



The dark brown to black carapace is broad and oval-shaped, and averages 6-8 inches in length; some individuals may approach 10 inches. The neck is retracted into the shell by being “folded” to the side, as is seen in the South American side-necked turtles.


West African Mud Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by J-Moss


The African Mud Turtle is placed in the family Pelomedusidae, along with 26 relatives; 2 subspecies have been described. It is sometimes confused with the superficially similar (and equally hardy) West African Mud Turtle (Pelosius castaneus) and the African Helmeted Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa); please see photos.  All may be kept as described here.



The African Mud Turtle’s huge range extends across much of eastern Africa, from Burundi and Tanzania, south and west to Congo, Zambia and Botswana. It also occurs on Madagascar, the Seychelles, and several nearby islands, and has been introduced to Mauritius and, of all places, the Caribbean island of Guadalupe (I’m guessing there are some roaming about south Florida as well!). The Seychelles population is considered to be a distinct subspecies.



Largely aquatic, the African Mud Turtle lives in well-vegetated rivers, marshes and swamps, as well as in seasonally flooded pans (low areas that hold water for a time) within savannas. Individuals occupying temporary water bodies burrow into the mud and aestivate (become dormant) or travel across land when their habitats dry out.


Like the Helmeted Turtle, the African Mud Turtle is often seen in water holes frequented by zebra, elephants and other large mammals.


Water hole habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Babakathy

Behavior in Captivity

African Mud Turtles quickly learn to “beg” for food as soon as their owner appears, and make excellent, responsive pets. They become quite bold once acclimated to captivity, and do well in busy locations.   If provided proper accommodations, captive breeding is possible (please post below for details).


Quite powerful, they are capable of administering severe bites and scratches when frightened, and must be handled carefully.


The Aquarium

African Mud Turtles spend most of their lives in water, but are more “bottom crawlers” than swimmers. Their habitat needs parallel those of the American mud and musk turtles. The aquarium’s water should be of a depth that allows the turtle to breath while it is standing on the bottom of the tank (i.e. without having to swim to the surface). If provided with easy access to land, adults can also be kept in deeper water. The water area should be stocked with driftwood and other structures that can be used as sub-surface resting sites.


Hatchlings should be kept in low water…just enough so that they can breathe without swimming. Floating live or plastic plants will provide youngsters with security…they are on the menus of many African predators, and remain shy for a time!


A single small adult might get by in a 40 gallon aquarium, but a 55 gallon or larger tank is preferable.


Zoo Med’s Turtle Tub, wading pools, and koi ponds can be fashioned into excellent African Mud Turtle habitats. Outdoor housing is ideal, assuming that raccoons and other predators can be excluded.


A dry basking surface is necessary. Commercial turtle docks and ramps work for smaller specimens, but large adults may sink anything that is not affixed to the glass with silicone adhesive. Cork bark wedged between the aquarium’s sides is another option.



Turtles are messy feeders and very hard on water quality. Unless the enclosure can be emptied and cleaned several times weekly, a powerful submersible turtle filter or canister filter will be necessary. Even with filtration, partial water changes are essential. Removing your turtles to an easily-cleaned container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload and help to keep the water clean.


Please see the articles under “Further Reading” for more on water quality and filtration.


African Helmeted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Thomas Brown


African Mud Turtles are best kept in bare-bottomed aquariums; gravel traps waste material, greatly complicating cleaning, and may also be swallowed.



A source of UVB radiation is essential. Natural sunlight is best, but it must be direct, as glass and plastic filter-out UVB rays.


If a standard florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that the turtle can bask within 6-12 inches of it. High-output florescent UVB bulbs and mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances.



Water temperatures of 78-82 F should be maintained. Large individuals may break typical aquarium heaters, so choose a model designed for use with turtles. An incandescent bulb should be employed to heat the basking site to 90-95 F.



Wild African Mud Turtles take a huge variety of foods, including fish, tadpoles, snails, carrion, insects, frogs and small snakes. Aquatic and terrestrial plants have been reported in the diets of some populations as well.


tp53041Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of whole animals such as fish, earthworms, snails, pre-killed pink mice, crayfish and prawn. Whole freshwater fishes such as minnows and shiners are the best source of calcium for turtles, and provide other important nutrients not present in prepared foods. Offer fish at least once weekly. A steady goldfish diet has been implicated in liver problems in other species, so use these sparingly if at all. Cuttlebones or turtle calcium blocks will also be accepted by many individuals.


Other important food items include various turtle treat foods and freeze-dried krill or shrimp. Crickets, butterworms, calci-worms, roaches and other invertebrates will also be consumed with gusto.


A high quality commercial turtle chow (the various Zoo Med pellets are my favorites) can comprise up to 50% of the diet. Reptomin Food Sticks and trout chow also provide excellent nutrition, and may be offered regularly.



Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention always leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis); oxytocin injections usually resolve the problem quickly.


The 6 -18 eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 82-85 F for 55-80 days.



Further Reading

Turtle Water Quality

Prepared Diets for Turtles


The 5 Worst Reptiles and Amphibians to Choose as Holiday Gifts

Choosing a live amphibian or a reptile as a holiday gift may be a nice gesture, but it is also fraught with potential problems. Please see The 5 Best Reptiles and Amphibians to Choose as Holiday Gifts for further cautions. General considerations aside, certain species are almost always a bad idea…even when the recipient has some experience. Unfortunately, many of these “bad choices” are promoted as being easy-to-care-for, and indeed all have some very desirable qualities. In the right hands, some can make great, long-lived pets – but, unfortunately, the “right hands” are often few and far between.


Please see the articles linked under Further Reading for detailed information about the animals mentioned in this article, and be sure to post any questions you may have below.


resturtleRed-Eared Slider, Trachemys scripta elegans

Bred in the millions on farms in the American Southeast, Sliders are among the most readily available of all reptilian pets. Responsive and hardy, they invariably surprise first-time owners with their rapid growth rate. An adult female, which will measure 8-12 inches when fully grown (the one pictured here is moderately-sized), requires a 75-100 gallon aquarium.  Powerful filtration, frequent water changes, UVB exposure, heat lamps, water heaters, and a proper diet are essential in meeting their needs.


With proper care, these active turtles can easily live into their 30’s. However, few people are prepared to commit the time and expense necessary to achieve this. As a consequence, millions of released pets and their progeny now inhabit dozens of countries worldwide – I’ve seen them in places as far flung as Kyoto, Japan temple ponds and sewage catchment basins in Caracas, Venezuela.


Burmese python

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Glogger

Young Burmese Pythons or other Giant Constrictors

I’ve had the immense good fortune of working with all of the giant constrictors in zoos, and with some in the field as well. I realize that the ability to live out this childhood dream is not available to most people, and so I’m somewhat torn when asked to comment on Burmese Pythons, Anacondas and related species as pets. Unfortunately, all are capable of killing an adult human, and they are far too large to be accommodated in most homes.


Novices usually find it hard to imagine that the slender, 18-36 inch-long youngster they buy will need a 6-foot long cage within 2-3 years and a professionally-built room-sized enclosure shortly thereafter. A 10-foot-long Burmese Python or similar snake can be expected to consume 100-150 pounds of food yearly. The nonsense about “dog tame” giant snakes prevalent on the internet should be ignored – snakes, no matter how long in captivity, will not distinguish between food and owner, and will bite anything moving within range!


Dart poison frogs

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by H. Krisp

Dart Poison Frogs, Dendrobates spp., and relatives

I recall a time when these living gems were rarely seen even in zoos. Today, captive bred specimens from a startling array of species are readily available in the pet trade. So colorful as to appear unreal, Poison Frogs are bold and active by day, and care for their tadpoles in “mammal-like” fashion – hard to resist!


Their tiny size might tempt the unwary into a quick purchase. But, in contrast to the other animals mentioned here, it is small size that renders Poison Frogs as difficult captives. They take live food only, and suitably-sized insects may be difficult to supply. Pinhead crickets and fruit flies, the most easily obtainable foods, are not an adequate long term diet. Springtails, flour beetle grubs, termites, leaf litter invertebrates, aphids, and other wild-caught insects are an integral part of their diets. Poison Frogs are also sensitive to ammonia in the water and substrate and to both cool and overly-warm temperatures, and thrive best in terrariums stocked with live plants.


African spurred tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Baseballchck02

The African Spurred Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata

These engaging tortoises exhibit a degree of responsiveness more commonly associated with dogs than reptiles, and captive-bred hatchlings are available for modest prices. Evolution in a harsh environment has primed them for rapid growth – two individuals that I’m familiar with topped 60 pounds by age 5, and an older animal tipped the scales at 190 pounds!


Few hobbyists are equipped to properly care for these behemoths, the largest of all mainland tortoises. In fact, a ½ acre outdoor exhibit proved too small for a pair of 80-pounders under my care at the Prospect Park Zoo. In most areas of the USA, winter care requires indoor accommodations, which translates into a room-sized enclosure for an adult.


Green iguana

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Paul Kehrer

Green Iguana, Iguana iguana

Cute, brilliantly-colored, and a mere 7 inches in length, hatchling Green Iguanas are often promoted as suitable pets for children and novice reptile keepers. But these arboreal lizards have very specific husbandry needs, and their adult size (4-6 feet in length) and potentially aggressive behaviors are serious considerations. Males affected by hormonal surges can be quite dangerous, as attested to by the numerous stitches on the neck of a zoo colleague of mine, and a scar on my arm; when disturbed, either sex may bite, lash out with the tail, or scratch (please see the article linked below for more on male aggression). At minimum, an adult Green Iguana will need a custom-made cage measuring 6 x 3 x 6 feet in size. Ample UVB and strict attention to their nutritional needs, which change with age, are necessary if they are to thrive.



Further Reading

Red Eared Slider Care

Green Iguana Aggression

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