Reptile Habitats

Reptile habitats often have to be made from materials that can withstand abuse, are easy to clean and provide the thermal gradients needed for many species. Hobbyists are quite creative at converting things like armoires, prefabricated shower stalls, jewelry or deli display cases and discarded television sets into reptile habitats.



Most reptiles require a warm ambient temperature in their habitats, and also need to bask to thermo-regulate their body temperatures. This is a key reason why terrariums should be equipped with a heat lamp that provides both ambient and basking light. The lamp should be positioned on one side of the habitat so that a cooler area is left on the other, and the heating system should be regulated to ensure that the terrarium does not get too hot or too cold.

The cool side of a terrarium can be provided with various substrates, including shredded newspaper, sand, garden soil, peat moss, aspen shavings (avoid cedar which is toxic), coconut fiber, and synthetic carpet. The warmer end of the habitat can be provided with a heat mat, ceramic heat emitter or night-specific heat bulb to provide warm surface temperatures. Ideally, a temperature gradient should be provided with a warm area and a cooler area, and the habitat should be supplied with a thermometer and hygrometer.

In the wild, reptiles can move around to find suitable conditions across a landscape, but in our increasingly human-altered world, roads and urban-rural development are additional hurdles that limit their movement and dispersal. For this reason, hedgerows and areas of gardens, allotments and school grounds are valuable corridors for reptile movement. These areas should be managed for reptiles, and connections between them with ‘countryside’ habitat should be encouraged.


Whether your reptile is diurnal or nocturnal, it requires adequate lighting. Its behavior is driven by the natural 24-hour light-and-dark cycles observed in its native habitat, and a good lamp that produces the appropriate UV spectrum is important to keep it on schedule.

Reptiles use UV light to synthesize vitamin D3 so they can absorb calcium and other minerals from their food, so a full-spectrum bulb is essential. Bulbs that emit only the UVB rays that are most beneficial to reptiles are available from pet stores and online retailers, such as Exo Terra. The bulbs are available in different sizes to accommodate most enclosures and have a specialized screen to prevent glare that can cause eye damage. They should be replaced every six months.

Some terrariums may require more than one UVB light to provide ample illumination over the entire enclosure. If this is the case, a programmable power center can be used to manage the timing of the lights for maximum effect.

In addition to UVB light, a basking lamp can be placed on a rock in your reptile’s habitat to create a warm place for it to rest during the day. It is also recommended to add a secondary source of heat, such as a ceramic heater or a radiant heat panel, to your reptile’s habitat. Be sure to keep your scaly friend away from the heat sources, however, as direct contact can burn the skin.


Reptiles need water to maintain body temperatures and to avoid extreme heat and cold. They often bathe in shallow pools or ponds and soak in puddles or muddy soil. Some species require frequent soaking, while others conserve water and absorb it through their skin. Some reptiles need to be able to escape predators and other dangers by retreating to damp or moist microhabitats. These may include rock or talus piles, animal burrows, brush piles and woody debris. Depending on the species, these may be complex refugia that offer shelter and basking areas, or just shallow pools for soaking.

Many reptiles breed between April and October, with most activity taking place during warm weather. During this time, habitat conditions are most important to population viability and reproduction. Habitats need to be free of disturbance and able to support the necessary biological processes.

In the wild, large stretches of uncultivated grasslands and woodlands are often good for reptiles, as are disused industrial sites and other land that is not being intensively managed (‘brownfield’). Hedges with broad, open, non-grazed margins and disused railway sidings also provide important corridors that aid movement by reptiles. Managing natural fire regimes and controlling invasive plants can help create habitat conditions that are good for reptiles, although the ‘time window’ for these activities needs to be understood to ensure they do not disrupt optimum conditions for breeding or hibernating.


Reptiles require food that is high in protein, low in fat and rich in vitamins and minerals. They also need a habitat that mimics their natural environment and provides them with space to move around, bask and hide.

Reptile habitats often include a variety of microhabitats that can be used to avoid heat or cold, or for shelter and security. Examples of these microhabitats are rocky outcroppings, brush piles, mud at the bottom of ponds or wetlands, mammal burrows and boulders and cracks in rocks. Some amphibians and reptiles hibernate in these microhabitats in the winter.

In the wild, most reptiles capture their prey by running and biting it. Carnivorous and insectivorous reptiles typically hunt along water bodies, rivers and canals for unwary fish, birds and small mammals. Some herbivores hunt for insects on land, while others eat leafy plants or berries.

Many reptiles live on the edge of their habitat and are vulnerable to habitat loss or destruction. To help them survive and thrive, they need healthy ‘hot-spots’ – areas that provide optimal habitat conditions, such as south-facing banks of streams or rivers, uncultivated margins along hedgerows, gardens, allotments and school grounds. These hot-spots must be connected to other suitable habitat and provide access to food, water, shelter from wind and extreme weather, a temperature gradient, hiding spots and breeding sites for egg-laying species.