Full Spectrum UV Lighting
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The main goal for most people who keep reptiles as pets is to provide their animals with the absolute best possible care. At the same time we want to create an environment for our animals that is as much like their natural habitat as possible. This is vital to the animals physical and mental well-being. One of the most important yet overlooked aspects of reptile keeping is that of lighting. This is especially vital with certain basking species such as bearded dragons and tortoises. In this article, I will discuss the importance of full spectrum lighting.
In the wild, many reptile species would, during the course of a given day, spend a considerable amount of time in direct sunlight. For the sake of explanation, lets use a bearded dragon as an example. In the morning, the lizard would come out of its nighttime lair and search for a nice place to perch himself where he can observe his domain and warm up. However, raising his body temperature is only part of what's going on. In fact, an entire network of complex bio-chemical reactions are occurring every second that our saurian friend sits in the sun. Lets take a look at what's actually going on, in a simple, step-by-step analysis.
We begin with the sun. The sun puts off tremendous amounts of heat as well as both visible and invisible light. The visible light is what makes us able to drive during the day without headlights. We are all familiar with this type, or spectrum, of lighting. The spectrum of lighting that concerns our discussion, is the UVA and UVB rays. This may sound technical and confusing, but UV (ultra violet) rays are nothing more than the invisible radiation that gives us a sunburn. In the keeping of reptiles, UVB rays are of the most importance, and are also most commonly overlooked. When these rays of light hit the skin of a reptile, something amazing begins.
In the skin, a biochemical reaction occurs, that put simply, results in the animals body producing vitamin D3. So, we have the sun up in space, shooting invisible rays of light through the sky that hit our bearded dragon, causing his body to make vitamin D3. So what? Why is vitamin D3 so important? Well, now that you understand how reptiles synthesize the vitamin, we can look at what makes it so vital you the health of your pet.
Most reptile owners have had or know someone who has raised a herp from baby to adult hood. All of these people realize the same thing very quickly: herps grow fast. Extremely fast when compared to mammals. Look again at our bearded dragon example. In the course of a year, they grow from a 4 inch hatchling to an 18" mature adult. In that 12 or so months, a tremendous amount of body mass is developed from the food matter the animal eats. A large percentage of the body mass is the growing skeleton. Bone is made of calcium, so a bearded dragon needs lots of calcium to build a strong skeletal structure.
Many people figure this out on their own, and just add calcium powder to their pets food. But that's not enough. This is where the vitamin D3 ties in. In order for a reptile to effectively utilize dietary calcium, there must be adequate D3 levels in the blood. In other words, you can feed a reptile tons of calcium, but without vitamin D, they simply can't use it effectively. There are a number of excellent calcium, vitamin, and mineral supplements available for your reptiles. At our stores, we use and recommend Miner-All* by Sticky Tongue farm. The make both an indoor formula (with D3) and an outdoor formula (for animals raised exclusively outdoors). Although the indoor formula does contain D3, UV light is still highly recommended, just in case your pet does not receive enough D3 from it's diet. Additionally, there is some belief that vitamin D3 actually synthesized in the body is much more potent and effective than artificially produced sources.
We have just summed up in a few very topical paragraphs what usually takes chapters of text books to explain. Honestly, for the average hobbyist, the details are unimportant, and that is why I chose to only highlight the most vital points here. To summerize the process: Sunlight contacts your herp, your pet makes vitamin D3, you feed him a high calcium diet, and finally the calcium is absorbed in the body and used to create and replace skeletal mass.
This may be all fine and dandy, if you are a green iguana hanging in the jungle canopy of a tropical rainforest, but what about the thousands of reptile pets kept in living rooms and bedrooms all over the world? Luckily, reptiles have become mainstream enough that special UVB producing light bulbs are being manufactured just for reptile keepers. These bulbs, which traditionally have been in the form of a fluorescent tube, produce enough light in just the right wavelength to allow captive herps to grow strong and healthy without having to be outdoors. Zoo Med has revolutionized the market with their wildy successful Repti-Sun bulbs. These bulbs are available in two strengths. Repti-Sun 2.0* for amphibians, snakes, and other animals that generally receive little or filtered sunlight in nature, and the more popular Repti-Sun 5.0* for your higher UV requirements. These bulbs are well established in the market, and many experts, myself included, swear by their efficacy.
In the past few years, a new product has begun to dominate the market. These mercury vapor UV bulbs screw into a standard dome light fixture, and produce ample amounts of both heat and UV. In the past, one would have had to use two separate lighting rigs, one for heat, and one fluorescent hood for UV. These new combo bulbs change all that. For larger terrarium use, I highly recommend Zoo Med's Power Sun* unit. This bulb will heat your enclosure during daylight hours as well as provide the vital UV rays necessary for your pets health.
But wait, there's more! Brand new from Zoo Med is a new compact Repti-Sun 10.0 UV bulb that produces plenty of UVB, no heat, yet has a standard screw base. This product will no doubt change how many animals with high UV requirements (i.e. basking species) will be maintained.
All of these bulbs are great sun replacements, but in the end they are just that, replacements. If you live in a pleasant part of the world, why not let your critter have a day out in the sun? An inexpensive sun cage such as Apogees Reptariums* work great. Just keep security in mind (don't lose your pet) and make sure that your herp has access to shade and water while their out catching some rays.
As you can see, lighting is a vital part of proper reptile husbandry. More herps perish from deficiencies associated with inadequate lighting and calcium levels than from any other cause. Please, if your pet needs UV, provide it. It's easier than ever to set-up, and besides, we all want the best for our pets, so why not give them what they deserve.
All the products mentioned are always available at LLLReptile.com.
Editor's note: UVB does not penetrate glass. Setting a terrarium in a window will not only have no positive effect on your pet, but puts it in great risk of overheating. Likewise, do not set glass or plexi-glass enclosure out in the sun, they will quickly overheat.