Reptile Habitats

Reptile habitats need to be large enough to provide hiding and basking spots and for a variety of substrate materials. Some reptiles need a sand or sand-soil mix for burrowing while others prefer a damp substrate like coconut fiber, which holds water and increases humidity.


Many reptiles are solitary and require a habitat that allows them to escape predators. Some species also need corridors between important habitat features such as overwintering hibernacula, foraging sites, and breeding sites.


Reptiles are cold-blooded, so their habitats need to be warm and humid. The ambient temperature should be at least 70 to 85°F, with a heat source providing hot basking areas. A wide variety of substrates is suitable for enclosures, including shredded newspaper, sand, garden soil, peat moss, and various wood shavings (avoiding cedar, which is toxic). For aquatic reptiles, the habitat needs to include a place to dry off between swims.

The enclosure should be large enough to allow adequate thermoregulation, security, and food gathering. A terrarium or aquarium should be at least twice as wide and deep as the animal it contains. It also should have a hiding place and a water dish filled with clean, fresh water. In addition, a shallow pool should be available for bathing.

For some reptiles, shade is important; this can be provided by low levels of tree cover either on a site or adjacent to it. It can also be provided by boulders or other natural features. The habitat should be arranged to provide a thermal gradient, with the hot end of the enclosure being warmer than the cool end. A hide box or shelter should be placed in the cool end of the habitat as a place to retreat.

Other features of a reptile habitat may include rock outcrops and talus, which can be a complex refugia for lizards; pond edges that are sheltered from predation and provide thermal refuges for amphibians; and animal burrows or huts. Several climatic factors affect these features, including fire regimes and invasive plants.


Reptiles come from a variety of climates and need to be in environments that are moist enough for their skins to stay hydrated. Humidity levels are determined by the amount of water vapor in the air. Reptiles that are not properly humidified can experience issues with fungus, respiratory infections and improper shedding.

Keeping humidity high is a common problem for many reptile owners. Adding a humidifier or using a spray mist bottle can help with the humidity in an enclosure. Choosing a substrate that will hold moisture, like Repti Bark or Moss, can also help keep the habitat damp.

The type of enclosure you choose will make a big difference in how easily it keeps its humidity levels high. Some reptiles, such as corn snakes and tortoises, do well in aquariums, which have a lot of ventilation and allow the air to circulate quickly. However, other reptiles with low to moderate humidity needs, such as bearded dragons and ball pythons, don’t fare well in aquariums because they will not be able to breathe the air.

One of the easiest ways to increase humidity in an enclosure is by having a large water feature that can produce lots of evaporation. This could be a waterfall in the tall enclosures, a fountain or even just a large water dish with a pump running and causing breaks on the surface of the water.


Reptiles depend on light to help regulate their body temperature, metabolism and behavior. Specialized lights made for reptiles supply them with UVA and UVB rays that can’t be replicated by standard hardware store lamps. Reptiles that don’t get enough of these rays are at risk for a variety of problems including bone degeneration, thinning skin, reduced immune function and abnormal calcium absorption.

The best way to determine the proper lighting for your reptile habitat is to consult books, online guides and a pet store expert. This will allow you to accurately recreate your pet’s native environment and provide him with the conditions he needs.

For example, if you have a diurnal reptile such as a lizard, it’s important to provide him with both a bright white light (to mimic the sun) and a high-wattage UVB producing fluorescent lamp for his basking area. A programmable power center can help you set up a schedule to keep these lights on for 12 hours and off for 12. You’ll also need to provide your reptile with a nighttime heat source such as a black or red bulb, a heat mat or a ceramic heat emitter that doesn’t produce light.

When selecting a lamp for your reptile’s enclosure, make sure it’s rated to the wattage of your reptile light fixture. Using a lamp that’s too powerful can cause the temperature to rise to unsafe levels in your pet’s habitat.


Reptiles require a variety of ground-based habitats, including upland and wetland microhabitats. These provide shelter from predators, a variety of soil temperatures, and different levels of humidity. Many lizards and snakes depend on rocky outcrops and talus for refuges from the elements. Rock piles and outcroppings can also be used as basking sites. Some frogs and salamanders rely on shallow pools or pond edges for breeding and/or feeding sites. Many of these areas may need to be protected or restored.

Amphibians are especially vulnerable to water pollution, which can affect their skin microbiome and cause morphological deformities that reduce survival chances. This is because amphibians breathe through their skin to a significant degree.

Hobbyists and herpetoculturists are a creative group when it comes to building reptile habitats. Disused industrial sites (‘brownfields’) often contain a variety of habitat features, such as gravel-filled ditches and ponds, rocky banks and cliffs, and a wide range of ground temperatures. Some repurpose discarded armoires, jewelry or deli display cases and sturdy wooden bookcases into reptile enclosures. However, these structures cannot be heated to provide the thermal gradients required by most species and the wire cages can injure a reptile’s snouts or tails when they try to climb out.

Managers can facilitate reptile movement between the various habitat types they need. This can include creating riparian corridors along safe upland dispersal routes, establishing a network of wetlands and/or lakes, and managing the availability of surface rock or burrow habitats. Corridors linking overwintering hibernacula, foraging sites and aquatic breeding grounds are particularly important.