The reptile-keeping hobby has changed and adapted beyond all recognition over the past five years or so, to the benefit of reptile welfare. As hobbyists, we are now more advanced in providing welfare than ever before. You can now find more groups on social media dedicated to bettering our animals’ environment. There has also been a vast improvement in availability of technology in recent years.
Every species has undergone a vast period of change, adaptation and development to thrive within its wild environment. This is called evolution by natural selection. It refers to a species’ ability to develop within its native land, taking everything it needs from that environment to ‘thrive’. By thrive we mean to live a natural life with a low risk of predation and the greatest level of health. The aim of all life is to project ones genes into as many generations as possible. An animal can merely survive when exposed to the most unnatural conditions and it may even reproduce (just look at battery farming!). But it does not mean that the animal is necessarily thriving.
The theory of Wild Re-Creation® explores the natural interaction of a species within its wild environment and seeks to replicate this in a safe and measured way. Our care must be tailored to the species, enclosure type, size and design. Reptiles are ectothermic. This means that they obtain the energy that they need to move around, feed, take up nutrients and carry out life’s tasks from an external source. Adapting to use a certain level of external energy over a long period of time means that this is the level of external energy needed. It has become its evolutionary pathway and biological need. We then turn to dietary variety and nutritional supply. These can be either taken from food or from by-products of the environment, (i.e minerals from soil and water from standing water, rain, mist and foods).
As ethical keepers we should seek to fully energise a species so it can carry out its biological functions naturally. If we under-provide for a species, it may not have enough energy to carry out its biological functions. Symptoms of this may be that the animal seems disinterested, ‘lazy’ and under-coloured, among other unseen internal issues.
We must follow the rule ‘you are what you eat’. For reptiles this can be translated to ‘you are only ever as healthy as the provision of external energy allows for’. For reptiles this includes both internal and external ‘nutrition’. This must be copied accurately and safely in captivity in order for our animals, and herpetology as an entity to proliferate and succeed. Natural sunlight will always be better than man-made systems. It is natural and balanced and cannot be totally 100% replicated. Having said that we can now quite accurately reproduce ‘UV indexes’ with UV lamps. We now have the Deep Heat Projector which provides the natural and nourishing Infrared-A and Infrared-B wavelengths, similar to that of the sun.
One common misassumption quoted by keepers of tortoises in northern Europe is that the animal will be able to get all the solar energy that it needs from the natural sun when living in the garden in the summer. Again, let’s take some simple maths into mind here. If a species has evolved to thrive by receiving a certain index of sunlight for a certain number of months of the year, then that will be the level of energy required for it to truly ‘thrive’. Let’s say that the index that an animal is exposed to is 5-7 UVI for 4-5 hours a day for 5-6 months a year. What would then happen if kept outside? The level in the UK could be 3-5 for maybe 4 weeks a year if we are lucky. Would that animal be supplied for naturally or would it still need access to an artificial source that it can use to ‘top-up’ any natural shortfall? The answer is clear. That animal will be underpowered. By providing the natural level of energy into a system in a safe and measured way we allow the animal to self-regulate. We can then factor in seasonality and photo-periods into the provision.
We can see quite quickly how a lack of heat affects a reptile even if a heat source is removed for a short period of time. The same applies to an animal that does not have access to the required temperature for longer periods of time. Let’s suppose for a moment that we only provide 5 or 6 degrees less than the optimum. What would happen over time? Well they would live and feed, but does this long term, slight under-supply affect the general well-being of the species? I believe so, yes. An incorrect level of provision can only ever result in some way, great or small with a level of ‘incorrect’ or ‘unnatural’ function.
In reverse, if we over-supply heat and do not allow the animal to thermoregulate towards a cooler area, we increase its stress levels. Dehydration, and in the extreme, death can occur. In the short term, an increase in stress and thus increased cortisol levels could then hamper the body’s ability to cope. Our provision should be well researched and as well thought out as science allows for. Heat should also always be accurately controlled by thermostats, with regular checking using a digital laser thermometer.
As a generation of keepers we do not currently give enough credence to seasonal cycling. Breeders of certain species, including the Western Hog-nosed snake accept the importance of brumation before the introduction of breeding pairs to each other. However, this process actually applies to many more species. In fact, some of those species that have up until now been hard or impossible to breed may actually breed after a period of winter cooling before gently warming up again. This is because it mimics the seasons of winter followed by spring and summer.
Wavelenghts from Sunlight
Heat is of course produced by our sun. The sun is the life force behind all life and all life in some way relies upon it. Heat is light, whether it is taken from direct, dispersed or reflected sources. The sun emits a ‘full spectrum’ of light that is largely balanced and stable. The sun emits a wide range of wavelengths of light that are filtered by our atmosphere into what we now refer to as the ‘terrestrial wavelengths’. This contains every one of these wavelengths from UV-B to long wavelength infrared (heat). You cannot be exposed to unfiltered sunlight without being exposed to all of these wavelengths whether from direct exposure or from reflected light from water, soil, sand or from leaf and rock scatter patterns. So, it is reasonable to suggest that any species that has an interaction with light will have a ‘use’ and an ‘interaction’ with these wavelengths. In fact we can see that reptiles, amphibians, inverts, birds and some fish and primates do have a use for UV-A through the addition of a 4th ocular cone cell. This enables them to see a reported one hundred million colours inc UV and IR. This is called ‘Tetrachromacy’ which helps with food and mate selection.
Then we have UV-B which, as reptile keepers, we know is vitally important to reptilian health and well being. We should all be using UV lamps and we are getting very much better at the correct provision of UV-B accurately and safely. We now also include many more of the species that were once quite wrongly suggested as having no use for the wavelengths. We now know that most, if not all of the species previously thought to be ‘nocturnal’ are actually crepuscular. That means that they are more active at times with a lower risk of predation; being dawn and dusk. Most of these animals have evolved to have a very thin skin and large eyes. This is no accident. If you are quite literally powered by the sun it is important to obtain that sunlight in its reduced levels into your skin in order to interact with your biology as quickly as possible.
UV-B allows for chemical and hormonal changes within an animal (our own species included) which then allows that animal to both make and use vitamin D3. D3 is a sort of catalyst to calcium absorption. So, zero or a reduced amount of D3 will result in no or in a reduced ability to assimilate, store and to use calcium. (D3 also plays hundreds of other roles within an animal’s biological including wider vital organ function and brain health. it is vital that we continue to study D3 and its actions upon the whole of a biological system.) We also need to develop our own thinking with regard to vitamin and mineral supply. Vitamins and minerals are not just something that one takes every day because people say that you should. Vitamins and minerals are vital to the correct function of a body. They are, along with fats, proteins, carbs and sugars, the building blocks of life. If they are under-supplied or supplied out of balance, you walk into biological imbalance and potential negative health. Even with our own species we pay little heed to the vital importance of these naturally occurring compounds nor to the best ways to obtain them. As we as a species have developed away from the ‘wild’, so we too have become deficient. Time spent outside in western countries is at an all time low which is now starting to manifest with incidences of D3 deficiency.
‘You cannot be exposed to unfiltered sunlight without being exposed to all of these wavelengths whether from direct exposure or from reflected light from water, soil, sand or from leaf and rock scatter patterns.’
Calcium does not just have a use in skeletal health, it is also vital to maintaining good vital organ function and to allow for correct and continued muscle contraction. A lack of Calcium within an animal will indeed cause the bone disease’s commonly referred to as MBD. It will also cause many other physical and even neurological diseases. The final stage of MBD is heart failure as the chronic lack of Ca does not allow the heart muscle to contract any longer. MBD is wholly avoidable and is therefore now a visible symptom of a poor understanding of or an unwillingness to provide an accurate level of care.
D3 is also made available to animals via the ingestion of the internal organs of other vertebrate species. As such, it is quite possible to suggest that D3 can be provided for naturally in the diet, but this is almost never the sole method of supply and as we have seen, every species that uses light, directly or indirectly will be able to make use of the solar driven D3 cycle. This may in reality be as the main source, used to supply for its needs during the year or simply to ‘top up’ protecting one from any dietary shortfall from said diet. UVB exposure does not just have a use in the production of D3, it effects many other processes.
D3 that is given through the diet is not processed in the same way as that produced through the skin and it is possible to overdose with potentially catastrophic results to biological function. In fact many of the symptoms of an over supply of dietary D3 mimic those of an under supply. This is why when MBD is suspected that the advice of a vet is sought first and foremost, x-ray and bloods should be taken so that we can be sure whether it is indeed and under supply or over supply issue and treatment can be advised accordingly. Animals that present with bumps and skeletal twists, shakes and tremors, star gazing and fitting should not be simply treated with more D3 rich powders. It could well be that these are the actual cause of the problem in the first place. We must also take into mind that plant eating species would be totally reliant upon a solar source in the wild. Plants can provide D2 but not D3. D2 has no interaction with the calcium assimilation, storage and use as far as we know. In fact some scientists have surmised that certain truly herbivorous species do not even have the ability to assimilate dietary D3 at all. In a similar way it is currently thought that insects do not contain D3 either, so, with those animals where insects make up a large portion of the diet they would also be reliant upon solar provision. We know that a species with a thin skin like many of the geckos require UV-B but they are able to go through the D3 cycle quite well, even with only a small part of the body exposed to very low indexes for short periods of time.
UV lighting systems are so exact now that we can use good tech to Re-Create the average levels of UV energy that a species is exposed to in the home range. Also we need to provide it in the way that it obtains it best. Reflected light is still a powerful source of UVB so even those species that live in the rainforests will be able to climb and adjust their position to obtain energy when and how they need it. If we copy this they will indeed self regulate in captivity as they do in the wild. I was once told by a keeper that as it was so dim under the canopy in the Amazon rainforest that the ground dwelling species would have no evolved use for natural sunlight. This is simply not true. If you can see your hand in front of your face at a couple of inches then there is enough light for UV-B to be present. As such, a species will have evolved their own biology function and behavioural patterns assimilate it. We must also factor in that these animals can climb or walk thus increasing or decreasing their elevation within the forest, subsequently increasing or decreasing the quantity of energy utilised. This enables them to move around the habitat to find columns or shafts of light according to their own need at that particular time. Just because one report suggests that a species was first seen in the dark does not guarantee that it must stay there for life and would never need to energise itself in some way. The ability to move and ‘see’ energy allows for very effective self-regulation in the way that is safest per species. It could be that a tiny shaft of natural sunlight hitting the side of a secretive, crepuscular lizard would allow it, through its developed thinner skin to have the same percent of biological change within its body in a very short period of time as a diurnal, full exposure species would have in full sunlight after a whole days’ worth of basking.
We therefore crudely classify reptiles as those having a thicker skin equating to species that willingly expose themselves to long levels of sunlight and at higher levels. Those with a thinner skin are able to be exposed for shorter bursts, in either high or lower indexes. Another keeper once told me that his ‘nocturnal’ species of tree snake would have no interaction with the sun as it was only awake at night. He failed to realise that the snake would indeed spend much of the day asleep in the forest over water and would have be exposed to the sun while doing so. You do not have to be awake to benefit from the sun or you would not burn yourself when you fall asleep by the pool on holiday! Yes, all of these things simply take a small measure of open minded thinking, wild research and a huge helping of common sense.
We can use good tech to accurately provide for our pets in terms of enclosure size, design, enrichment, diet and hydration. They will go on to behave in the same ways as they do in the wild, living a long life that has a greatly lowered risk of nutritional disease and being as reproductively positive as possible. We need to see an end to the poorly thought out small or ‘nano’ type enclosures where the ability to provide adequate enrichment and self-regulation of energy is chronically reduced. A lot of keepers have moved to using 4x2x2′ vivs for beardies which is a positive move. This may allow an adult to survive but would it allow it to thrive? This size certainly would not provide it with good climbing space. This is a climbing species that runs and jumps in the wild, is fit and muscular and can easily self-select its energy. We will see a time of further improvement where the 5x3x3 becomes the norm for a single beardy. The ensuing debates will open and keepers will decide which way they are to travel. At the root of this, ‘welfare’ must be kept at the very forefront of each and every choice and theory.
Welfare first, always first. That is, in my mind, ‘Ethical and effective Reptile Keeping.