Reptile Habitats

Reptiles are ectotherms, meaning they regulate their body temperature by observing and responding to the ambient temperatures of their environment.


Whether you’re housing a gecko, chameleon or dragon, your pet requires an appropriate habitat.

Hobbyists and herpetoculturists often modify existing structures into suitable habitats. Prefabricated shower stalls, jewelry or deli display cases and sturdy armoires have been converted into reptile habitats.


The substrate used in a reptile habitat is what gives the enclosure its appearance. It can be made of many things including common soil, sand, pebbles, wood mulch, vegetable fibers (of coconut, for example) or bark. Each substrate has its own pros and cons. Often, the choice is based on the specific needs of a particular reptile.

For example, sand replicates a reptile’s natural environment, and it helps to regulate the enclosure temperature by absorbing heat. It also promotes burrowing and nesting behavior in reptiles. Other popular substrates are cypress mulch, which holds moisture and resists mold, and mixes of sand and peat moss that can create humid environments in small areas within an enclosure.

Another option is paper products. These are available in several forms, from shredded paper to unprinted newspaper sheets and rolls, and are inexpensive, easy to clean, and don’t have the potential for ingestion that may be a problem with some types of sand. However, these options don’t look very natural and aren’t ideal for a reptile habitat’s aesthetic.

Some zoos use artificial carpeting as a reptile bedding because it’s inexpensive, looks nice, and doesn’t present any health risks. However, it must be washed on a regular basis to remove any regurgitated food and feces and to reduce bacteria levels. Most experts recommend spot cleaning and a full enclosure and decor wash every 3 to 6 months to minimize bacteria growth.

Hiding Places

Reptiles are a diverse group of ectotherms that live all over the world. They are found in deserts, jungles, forests and even your backyard! Most reptiles are aquatic, but some are also terrestrial. Many are scavengers, and some dig for food. Some are very social, and others are very solitary.

Because of their sensitivity to light, most reptiles require hiding places where they can relax or rest. In the wild, these microhabitats include rock piles or outcroppings, woody material, brush piles and animal burrows. In addition to providing shelter, these habitat features help control daily changes in body temperature.

For reptiles that are unable to move, such as some semiaquatic snakes and most lizards, hiding places can also prevent cage mates from injuring each other. Aggressive behavior can be caused by overcrowding or territorial disputes, so a good habitat should provide enough room for each animal to find a place to perch and hide.

In captivity, hobbyists and herpetoculturists have been very creative in modifying structures such as old armoires, prefabricated shower stalls, jewelry or deli display cases and discarded television sets into suitable habitats. These enclosures are usually easier to heat and maintain humidity than the wire cages made specifically for reptiles.

In addition to providing a good substrate and a variety of hiding places, the habitat should have an adequate area for water and sun exposure. Most reptiles need a 12-hour cycle that mimics the day and night to stay comfortable and healthy.


Many reptiles are diurnal, active during the day. They require a light/heat source that replicates a natural 12-hour cycle of daylight and darkness. A programmable power center can manage the cycle.

Some reptiles, like bearded dragons and turtles, need a special UVB bulb for their health. This is the same type of light found in sunlight and is important for vitamin D3 production.

There are a variety of lighting bulbs, tubes and fixtures available that can be used to provide the proper amount of light/heat to a reptile enclosure. Consult books, online guides and the vendor to determine what is needed for your particular pet reptile or amphibian.

A general rule of thumb is that fluorescent lights (which produce less heat) are better for a reptile habitat than incandescents which can burn the animals. A rheostat or thermostat should be added to control the temperature and amount of light/heat provided.

There are also specialized “basking” lights that are used for hot or desert-type reptiles. These lamps are designed to provide a specific amount of UVB and a special kind of reflector to direct the light where it’s needed. Nighttime lights are also available that can be used to observe a nocturnal reptile’s behavior after the “sun” goes down. These bulbs are black or red in color and provide a gentle, low level of heat.


Because reptiles do not have the ability to control their internal body temperatures, they require a variety of temperature conditions in their habitats. This helps them to regulate their metabolisms and maintain proper metabolic functions, as well as boosts the immune system to help them fight off diseases and infections.

Most pet stores or reptile care sheets will recommend the temperature required for your particular species. Often, these recommendations will refer to an ambient temperature (which will be the cooler part of the cage) and also to a basking area. However, it is important to look at the entire habitat in order to create a thermal gradient that mimics your species’ natural environment.

To achieve this, it’s best to look at photographs of your reptile’s native habitat or go out and experience it for yourself. You will notice the different temperatures, humidity levels and elevations, along with other environmental factors.

Reptiles need to have access to water, and the availability of it will depend on their natural environment. Species that live in wet environments will typically require more water than those that live in drier environments. Some reptiles will lick water off the surface of their skin, while others will drink from pools or bowls. In any case, it is important to provide fresh water on a daily basis and to make sure the water is in an easily accessible area.