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Cold Weather Tips for Reptile, Amphibian & Invertebrate Owners

Sungazer

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Eric Johnston

Whether you keep a single, cold-hearty Common Snapping Turtle or a large collection of tropical lizards, frogs and tarantulas, cold winter weather brings certain challenges.  This is especially true for those of us who, in the interests of environmental and financial responsibility, do not wish to super-heat our homes in order to satisfy our pets’ needs.  While working at the Bronx Zoo, I always sought the advice of our staff electricians when faced with heating issues.  Today I’ll review what I’ve learned there concerning various types of heating devices, cage material and location, insulation and other topics that take on special importance when temperatures drop.

 

Seek Professional Advice

I always advise herp keepers facing extreme winters to speak with an experienced electrician.  Most of us know a great deal about our pets’ needs and the available heating products, but as “electricians” we are usually “self-taught” (not a term that should be used in connection with electricity!).  Incorporating an electrician’s expertise will save time, money and, most importantly, assure our safety.

 

Concerning safety, please be aware that free-roaming dogs, cats, ferrets, tortoises, iguanas and other pets cause a number of fires each year (pushing papers and other flammable items close to heaters and bulbs, knocking over heaters, etc.).  I have first-hand knowledge of several such incidents, as well as others caused by improperly-located heat bulbs…please exercise caution.

 

Be sure to show your electrician the bulbs and other equipment that you use, and request guidance concerning safe distances from plants and other flammable objects, extension cord use, etc.  Don’t forget thermostats and rheostats – I was surprised to learn that these can sometimes drain enough power to interfere with the functioning of heaters and bulbs.

 

t246145Room Temperature and Cage Location

Room temperature will greatly affect you choice of heating equipment.  As most folks lower their heat at night, be sure to monitor temperatures at this time.  Oil-filled radiators may be a useful option, especially if you house your collection in a single room.

 

It’s important to have a detailed temperature profile of the rooms in which your terrariums and cages are located.  The Zoo Med Digital Infrared Thermometer  provides a simple, effective means of accomplishing this.  Pointing the thermometer at an area or surface will give an instant temperature readout, allowing you to identify the warmest and coolest places in the room. While exterior walls, floors and window areas are obvious cool spots, each home is different, so be sure to check carefully.  A simple terrarium re-location may save time, effort and money.

 

Terrarium ambient and basking temperatures should be carefully monitored, day and night; a huge array of herp-specific thermometers greatly simplifies this task.  Zoo Med’s Hygrotherm Humidity and Temperature Controller and other light and heater timers can help create healthful environments while cutting heating costs.

 

Iguana basking

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Paul Kehrer

Insulating Terrariums and Cages

Insulation is not often used by herp and invertebrate keepers, but I urge you to look into the many possibilities.  I first discovered insulation during a power outage, and was surprised by the results I achieved.  I’ve since met several people who significantly cut their heating costs by lining terrarium and cages walls with various insulating materials.  Styrofoam, cork panels, polyethylene, polystyrene, foil fiberglass, bubble wrap and other home insulating materials  may all be put to good use.  Towels and blankets can be pressed into service during emergencies.

 

Wood and Masonite-sided cages will retain heat more effectively than glass, but all can be improved by the addition of insulation.  If such does not compromise your pet’s health, relocation to a smaller, more easily-heated enclosure might be worthwhile.

 

Bulbs and Heaters

Ceramic heat emitters, heat bulbs, under-tank heaters, red/black night bulbs and heat tapes are the most commonly-used heating devices.  Each provides heat in a different manner, although in certain respects there are overlaps as well.  The species you keep, your home’s temperature profile, and the characteristics of your pet’s enclosure will determine which method (or methods) should be used.  Please post below for specific information pertaining to your collection.

 

Slimy Salamander

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Patrick Coin

Species Choice

If you live in an area that experiences extremely cold winters (or hot summers), you may wish to tailor your collection accordingly.  For example, axolotls, spotted and slimy salamanders, wood frogs and many other temperate zone amphibians are quite content at 55 F (fire salamanders that I attempted to chill down remained active at 40 F), but many do poorly when temperatures rise above 70 F.  Common musk turtles, northern five-lined skinks, Eastern garter snakes and other reptiles that range into cooler regions are also relatively easy to maintain during cold winters.  There’s certainly no shortage of interesting, cold-hearty species, and many are in need of study and captive breeding efforts.

 

Hibernation/Brumation

A cooling off period during the winter can be beneficial for those species that experience dormancy in the wild, and is often essential to breeding success.  However, this step must not be undertaken lightly, and details vary by species.  Please post below for specific information on the animals in your collection.

 

Emergencies and Power Outages

Hand warmers and battery-operated aerators (for aquatic amphibians and fishes) should be available for use during power outages. I’ve not used a generator at home, but relied upon them several times during my years working at the Bronx Zoo…well-worth investigating.

 

Chilled reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates should be gradually warmed, not immediately placed at their optimal temperatures.  Heating pads are very handy in these situations.  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

The Best Infrared Temperature Gun for herp Terrariums

 

Hibernation/Brumation: Bearded Dragons and other Reptiles

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.

 

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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.

 

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 Indiviglio.

 

Further Reading

Using Undergravel Filters in Reptile and Amphibian Terrariums 

 

Using Bottled Aerobic Bacteria

Milksnake Care – Keeping the Sinaloan Milksnake and Related Species

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  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

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  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

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  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 »

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