It was long thought by many people that snakes can be kept perfectly well in captivity without supplemental UV-B lighting. However, if every species has developed throughout millennia to be surrounded by natural energy (including light, heat, earth, water, wind… etc.) then it will be specifically adapted to do so. It will also have a use for, and a level of protection against the level of these wild forces. This becomes that animals’ developed need. It will be intrinsically linked to these elements as it will respond to them accordingly. They are all elements of external nutrition, which work alongside internal nutrition (being food, water and minerals). Providing this energy through thoughtful enclosure design, to allow an animal to thrive rather than merely survive; is the Theory of Wild Re-Creation.
Of course, there are aspects of the wild that are not so favourable. Predators, disease, drought etc., are all clearly to be avoided when we take on the role of caretaker for an animal! However, it is these very forces that have shaped our reptiles and amphibians and other non-domesticated pets to be the way they are today. These forces and resources are the driving force of speciation. Without them, we would not have the endless variety of species and forms that exist. So, we carefully identify which elements are beneficial and then provide them in a safe and measured way.
There is an emerging body of work to show that snakes can and do benefit from UV-B lighting.
We know that for many animals, vitamin D3 is provided for by ultraviolet-B light. A reaction within the skin with UV produces vitamin D3. Providing full-spectrum light with UV-B is essential in their captive husbandry if we want to see lively, healthy animals. But we are now learning what we have thought for a long time- that snakes respond in the very same way. They too produce that amazing hormone vitamin D3 from sunlight. Now we are not disputing that snakes can be kept without any light source quite successfully! To deny that would be to ignore the many generations that have been bred and kept in the past. However, there is so much more to UV lighting. Natural sunlight has long been known to enhance skin healing and be essential for reptile vision. It is also a messaging system – it sends biological cues telling animals when to breed, when to hide and when to hunt.
Then we have the benefit which is more difficult to measure in animals – the fact that sunlight simply feels good. You might not have previously been able to put your finger on why, but we all know that sitting in the sun makes us feel happier. Warming the body in sunlight is a natural behaviour not just for ectothermic animals such as reptiles. They cannot raise their body temperature without it. But many other animals including ourselves can be seen to prefer a sunny spot over a shaded one.
It is now ten years since we started writing about the benefits of ultraviolet-B for crepuscular animals such as leopard geckos. Today, many people provide it as standard for crepuscular species and now for snakes too. We are striving to help people achieve this by developing products which make it easier to provide snakes with vivarium lighting.
A study released last year using Arcadia UV lamps found that Burmese pythons benefitted from the inclusion of UV-B light. They increased their blood levels of vitamin D3 by a massive six times. Another study with corn snakes a few years prior found that blood levels of vitamin D3 increased by over 100 units. In both studies, the animals were apparently healthy before receiving the lighting. However, lower blood concentrations of vitamin D could have made it harder for snakes to fight off infection. Or, they could have led to other problems which can ultimately shorten the animal’s life.
Vitamin D3 is important for regulating calcium levels in the blood and bones. However, it doesn’t stop there. It is also involved in the immune system. That is, the body’s sophisticated front line against pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and parasites. You see, ‘vitamin D3’ is not a single chemical, it is actually a term that describes a range of stages within the D3 cycle. Each of the products is made in a different part of the body and each has its own role. Of course it is most famous for the role within the bones. There are also receptors for D3 on the immune cells themselves, so they can be used when and where they are needed. Further, it downregulates the immune response after a stressful event, which helps to prevent an overactive immune system. As such, a lack of vitamin D and its isomers, calcediol and calcetriol, can make an animal more susceptible to infection and illnedd.
With every improvement in reptile care, we improve their health and quality of life which means long loved and healthy pets. It may also be the key to improved breeding success for endangered species. At home keepers commonly report increased appetite, activity and health with the thoughful inclusion of lighting.
Next, we have the importance of UV-A. This is the part of the natural light spectrum that is made up of wavelengths shorter than visible light. We cannot see UV-A. Humans do not have the correct eye structure to pick up the wavelengths to be able to convert them to signals for our brain to process. However, birds reptiles, amphibians and some fish that have been discovered to possess it, are ‘tetrachromats’. This means that they have the cone within the eye that detects ultraviolet-A. This part of the light spectrum is in the region of 315-400nm.br>
Keeping a reptile within in an environment devoid of ultraviolet light robs them of part of their natural sight. It means that one of the four colours of light that they see, which together make up millions of colours, is missing. It is akin to how a colour-blind person sees the world compared with a normal person. The most common form of colour blindness is where the red cones with the eye are not present. The eye and brain cannot distinguish red objects from green, and this is the best way for us to imagine it.
Some none UV-B light sources will emit UV-A. These include Solar Basking Flood and Spot lights as well as household fluorescent lamps, albeit in small amounts. That is because some UV-A is produced as a by-product of visible light production. However, we at Arcadia Reptile work tirelessly with our D3 and D3+® lamp manufacturers to ensure that our lamps are balanced. This is not only in the important UV-B wavelengths but UV-A too. This is because UV-A actually has a protective role alongside UV-B to prevent the over-production of vitamin D. It is a very clever relationship between animals and the wavelengths that are available to them when they bask or ‘sunbathe’ in the wild. This is why the provision of wild-like, full spectrum lighting is the safe way for animals to obtain the vitamin D3 they need. Of course, for snakes which get some vitamin D3 from their prey’s livers, deficiency is less likely, if they are fed an adequate diet. But to prevent D3 levels from being below normal, ultraviolet light actually boosts the amount of vitamin D3 available to optimal levels within the blood. You can read more about the pathway of vitamin D here.
Part of the reason why animals may get a sense of enjoyment from sitting in the sun is that it helps to keep the skin healthy. That is because UV-A kills bacteria and so can help cuts to heal. Additionally, the infrared wavelengths also present in the sun help to promote healing. Morning sun protects human from the burning effects of the sun later on in the day. This is quite possibly the case for reptiles including snakes as well. If you want to read more about infrared energy, check out our blog from August covering the types and benefits of infrared. This is important as all the nutritional elements work best when provided as the whole rather than in parts. Ie. we should aim to provide the whole spectrum of the sun’s energy, where possible, rather than an isolated part of it. If UV-A works with UV-B and IR-A works with the rest of the spectrum, then there could be a whole host of synergy going on that we may not even know about yet.
Some keepers may be worried that UV-B light could be unsafe for snakes and that they could become burnt or uncomfortable from it. Of course, as with all technology we use for our pets, it must be utilised in a safe and measured way. What does that mean exactly?
Well firstly, let’s think about how we provide the correct dose of UV-B light. We must always choose a pertinent percentage of UV-B for our animal, depending on distance the animal can access from the lamp and the species’ needs. These depend on the part of the world that the species is from, the altitude, the weather patterns, and their basking behaviour. To find out which lamp is the best for your species, you can use our definitive lighting guide.
Secondly, we consider the safety of our fittings. Snakes are keen explorers and escape artists as many keepers will have witnessed! They have a tendency to want to climb on anything we place in their homes and can fit their bodies into the smallest gaps! For that reason we need to ensure they cannot squeeze into the gaps between the fitting and the roof, or between the tube and reflector of our lamps. The Arcadia LampGuardPro solves this problem. With a range of sizes to fit most of our lighting products, this new Lamp Guard features four attachment points for a gap-free fit. Two of the four can also be unscrewed to allow the cage to hinge down for easy lamp changes. Learn more about our new protective cages here.
The Arcadia LampGuardPro will be available in stores from 15th March 2019.