Monday, February 28, 2011

Green Iguana

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)


Green Iguanas are native to Southern Mexico, Central America, and many northern countries of South America. Wild populations can also be found in California, Florida and Hawaii. These populations were started by iguanas that escaped from their enclosures or were released by their owners, and which have survived and even bred in their new habitats.

Green iguanas are generally arboreal, meaning that they like to live in trees. Their long claws help them in climbing. They spend the majority of the day high in the forest canopy, and move to the ground only to move from tree to tree, mate, or lay eggs. They are also good swimmers and jumpers.

Green iguanas are very diurnal. This means that they are active during the day and sleep at night. Unlike cats and dogs, which tend to nap on and off during the day and are likely to be up and active when their owners are awake, iguanas wake up in the morning, stay awake the whole day, go to bed in the evening and sleep the whole night through. This is why it is important to provide your iguana with a routine day/night schedule and a quiet, dark place away from household activity to sleep at night.

Iguanas in the wild have a whole host of predators that prey on them. Baby iguanas are prey for jungle cats, birds, turtles and even large fish. Large iguanas are pray for boa constrictors, caimans, hawks and eagles. Adult iguanas in captivity are not at risk from many predators, as they can defend themselves with sharp teeth and strong tails, but eagles and hawks may still try to get to them if you allow them to roam free. If they make it to adulthood, they can be expected to live for 10-15+ years. Males grow to be about 6-7 ft. long while females max. out at 5 ft.. Contrary to popular belief, keeping an iguana in a small enclosure will not hinder an iguanas growth. They will continue to grow throughout their lifetimes – quickly at first, and then slowly as they age.


One of the most difficult things for Iguana owners to provide for their pets is adequately sized housing. A young iguana will outgrow a 50 gal. aquarium in its first year or so. An Iguana enclosure should be at least twice as long as the Iguana. That means that the enclosure for an adult Iguana may need to be up to 14 ft. long! The enclosure also needs to be very tall, because Iguanas enjoy climbing. An enclosure should be at least 6 ft. tall.

Since they are from the tropics and are cold-blooded, iguanas need an enclosure that is kept very warm. You must provide a basking spot that is 90-95ºF, and the ambient temperature should be about 80ºF. Low temperatures prevent iguanas from properly digesting their food and absorbing nutrients. Within the habitat, a range of temperatures should be provided so that your iguana can regulate its body temperature by moving back and forth between hot and cool areas. Humidity levels in your iguana's environment should be 65-75%.

Iguanas must have a source of UV light. UVB, in particular, is important to iguanas because without it their bodies cannot produce vitamin D3, which helps them absorb calcium. Iguanas that are deprived of proper UV lighting suffer from a disease called Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) which is unfortunately very common in captive iguanas. MBD causes weak bones, jaw and bone deformities and early death.

Also, iguanas are solitary creatures who do not need to be kept with other iguanas. In the wild, the only see each other during mating time. Some keepers have been able to keep females together, or females with one male, others find it difficult.


Iguanas do not commonly drink water, even when they are thirsty and it is offered in a dish. A shallow tub should be provided so that the iguana may soak, but hydration should be maintained through high humidity and moisture acquired from daily feedings of veggies. However, when they do drink water, which is usually only on occasion, they will dip a large portion of their head into the water, lapping up the water under the surface or sometimes they may even lick water droplets off of plants and other misted surfaces.

Many care books say that iguanas can be fed meat, dog or cat food, and insects, but this is not wise. All of these items contain animal protein and can cause severe organ damage and possibly even premature death. While it may be true that wild iguanas occasionally eat animal protein (and this has not been conclusively shown), it is known that iguanas raised on a strictly vegetarian diet not only are large and healthy, but longer-lived than those fed animal protein. So, regardless of what wild iguanas are or aren't doing, there is no good reason to feed meat, and in fact, there are serious reasons not to. In addition to meats and other pet foods, iguanas should never be given dairy, eggs, or rhubarb (which is toxic). Wild flowers and plants should not be given because of the chance that they cold be contaminated by pesticides and acidic fruits, like citrus, are also bad.

Providing a wide variety of good quality foods is also important for a good diet. Iguanas in the wild are known to eat a wide variety of plants and fruits, and iguanas in captivity should have the same opportunity. About half the diet should be dark, leafy greens like collard greens, arugula, kale, mustard greens, dandelion greens (with flower), etc. Some owners tend to feed iguanas iceberg lettuce, which provides iguanas with water but has no other nutritional value. Half should be other veggies, such as green beans, orange-fleshed squashes (butternut, Kabocha), snap or snow peas, parsnip, asparagus, okra, alfalfa (mature, not sprouts), onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, sweet potato, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots. Some fruits can be mixed in, like figs (raw or dried), blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, mango, melon (cantelope, honeydew, watermelon), papaya, banana, apple.

Green Iguanas also require a calcium and vitamin supplement. This supplement works with the UVB light allowing the lizard to receive the proper amounts of calcium and vitamins. This should be used every day as babies and reduced to 1-2 times a week as adults. Calcium is sold in a powder form and is sprinkled on the vegetables that you feed your Iguana.


These wild Green Iguanas in Ecuador are accustomed to people.

The concern with Green Iguanas is not that their populations are shrinking, but that they are growing too large. This is great for green iguanas, but terrible for local wildlife. Often times, captive-raised iguanas will be ill-prepared for life in the wild and do not survive long. When they do manage to adapt, they disrupt the ecosystem, compete with native species for resources, and prey on species that are not adapted to deal with such predators. In fact, it is illegal to own pet iguanas in the state of Hawaii, because the isolated island ecosystems are so easily disrupted by the introduction on exotic, or non-native species. Despite this, feral populations of iguanas do exist there.

If you purchase an iguana, it is very important that you provide secure housing to prevent escapes, and if it ever becomes the case that you are unable to properly care for your iguana, please do not release it into the wild. It would be better to surrender the animal to a rescue center or another keeper.



1. Give your Iguana a LOT of space, including height.
2. Keep a rigid Day/Night schedule.
3. Feed fresh, leafy greens, with a little non-citrus fruit and calcium.
4. Provide UV, preferably direct sunlight, if weather permits.


1. EVER, EVER, EVER release your Iguana into the wild.
2. Keep your Iguana in an aquarium.
3. Feed meat, or anything with animal protein.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sulcata Tortoise

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone Sulcata)

a.k.a. Sulcata Tortoise, African Spur-Thigh Tortoise


Sulcata Tortoises are the third largest tortoise in the world, behind the Galapagos Tortoise and the Aldabran Tortoise. However, they are the largest mainland tortoise in the world, meaning they are the largest species of tortoise not found on an island. At birth, these tortoises are only 2-3 in. in length, but grow extremely quickly in their first few years. Some sources say that an adult tortoise can grow up to 18 in. (45 cm) in shell length, and 70 to 100 lbs. (30 to 45 kg) in weight. These are actually very conservative numbers. Sulcatas will typically be much larger than this, possibly up to 36 in. and 230 lbs. The largest on record was a male resident of the Giza Zoological Gardens (Egypt) who weighed in at 232 lb (105.5 kg) and measured 41.6 inches (104 cm) over the carapace (Flower, 1925, in Stearns).

Baby vs. Adult Sulcata

Their natural habitat is found in Africa along the Sahara Desert and the Sahel, a transitional ecoregion of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, and thorn shrublands in countries such as Chad, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. In these regions, they are very avid burrowers. Their burrows rarely reach more than 36” in depth, but can extend for several yards under the surface. This is an important consideration, and one of the greatest obstacles, for potential owners. Adult sulcatas have been known to dig under fences and damage the foundations of houses. Sulcatas graze and forage for hours during the day. In the wild, much of their intake is from extremely hard to digest, tough plant fibers from grasses. Sulcatas are not nocturnal, but younger tortoises may seem like it, sleeping up to 12-16 hours a day.

Sulcatas are a relatively high-maintenance tortoise, especially as they grow older, but with planning and preparation, they can be a very rewarding companion. They are a sturdy and adaptable species, very forgiving of novice mistakes, making them a popular pet, but some guidelines need to be followed to keep them happy and healthy.


No terrestrial tortoise should be kept in an aquarium- or vivarium-style glass tank, regardless of how big the tank is. They just don't make them large enough, even for hatchlings or juveniles, and adults will absolutely need to be kept outside. For housing, a general rule is the length of the enclosure must be ten times as long as the tortoise, five times as wide and three times as high. Others say one inch of tortoise shell length per 10 sq. feet. YouTube and Google both have many examples of indoor enclosures for you to get ideas from.

Indoor enclosures (Tortoise tables) for younger (under five years or fifteen lbs., according to some) Sulcatas should be a minimum of 20 sq. ft, depending on the size of the tortoise. You will most likely need to construct your own, but it doesn't require a very sophisticated design, so it should not be too expensive. I used a hollowed out and modified arcade game cabinet as an indoor enclosure.

An adult will need to be kept outside. One option is to build a large outdoor enclosure (min. 30 ft.x30 ft.), but as this would be a major landscaping project, many people let the tortoise roam free through the yard and provide a large, modified doghouse or shed to provide heat and shelter at night and during the winter. Again, Google and YouTube can let you see many different designs.

One important thing to keep in mind for outdoor enclosures is the Sulcata's extreme strength and curiosity. If they can see through a fence, they will want to explore what's on the other side. They can push down or dig under fences which are not sturdy enough.

Also, racoons, opossums, cats, and dogs can harass and injury an outdoor sulcata, and unscrupulous humans have been known to carry them out. So the fence around your yard not only needs to be strong enough to keep the tortoise in, but design to keep predators out.

Temperatures in an indoor enclosure should be kept around 70-75ºF with a basking area that reaches up to about 100ºF. Outdoor enclosures obviously rely more on ambient temperature. It is absolutely essential to provide heated shelter outside so the tortoise can stay warm during the winter and on cold nights.

Although African Sulcata Tortoises live in the desert, their actual environment may be more humid since they spend much of their time in caves or burrows. Research has shown that tortoises raised in dry conditions are more likely to develop a shell abnormality called "pyramiding," which is an abnormal hump-shape of the scutes. Tortoises raised in environments with 45-99% humidity had less abnormal shell growth than those raised in drier conditions.

As usual with reptile substrates, stay away from pine or cedar because the oils they contain are toxic. Also, sand, Calci-Sand, and crushed oyster shells have been known to cause eye irritation, impaction in the tortoises digestive system, and abrasions in the tortoises shell. Corncob and crushed walnut shell have also been known to cause digestive blockages. Alfalfa pellets should not be used because the soak up moisture and get moldy. Sand, however, is a great substrate if mixed with another material. It just shouldn't be used by itself.

In Europe hemp is a popular substrate. Those that use it highly recommend it, but its unavailable in the US. Some people are using aspen instead and it seems to work well. The main concern is they are too dry. As mentioned above, sand works well if mixed with another material. If mixed with loam or coconut coir (Bed-A-Beast), it is by far one of the best substrates. The amount of moisture can be easily regulated. Also, it is easy to create a higher moisture/humidity (substrate moisture is more important than humidity) area as well as a dry area in the same pen. This way the tortoise has a choice of micro-climates. Loam is the best choice and is readily available in northern states and the UK. However here in the south its scarce. So I use coconut coir instead. This has work well over the past 15 years for a number of species I keep. Hatchlings also do well on it.

A Sulcata Tortoise will need two types of lighting. One for heat and one for UV. Depending on the size of your tank and the temp in the room, anywhere from a 15 watt to a 75 watt bulb can be used. Place a thermometer under the bulb on the ground where your tortoise will bask and make sure the temperature reaches 95-105 degrees. The other (cool) end of tank should be at least 10-20 degrees cooler than the basking side so the tortoise can regulate its body temperature. This light should be turned off for the night unless your house gets cooler than 72 degrees at night, in which case a black or blue light should be used to bring the temperature up to 75-80 degrees.

Sulcata Tortoises require a florescent UVA/UVB light. This light replicates the sun's rays, which is important because Sulcatass cannot synthesize Vitamin D3 in their own body without the UVB from the Sun. If they cannot make Vitamin D3, their bodies won't be able to process calcium properly and that can lead to a host of health problems. The light needs to be placed within 8-12 inches of the basking spot in order to be effective. The light should be replaced every 6-12 months and should be also turned off for at night.

Sulcata tortoises typically should not be housed with others of it's kind unless you truly have huge tracts of land. These tortoises are extremely voracious and will compete with each other for food. Even females have been known to try to flip each other over. However, if sufficient food can be provided for each tortoise, it should be alright to keep them together.


Sulcatas are strictly vegetarian. About 70-90% of their diet should be various kinds of grasses. Everyone says to give Timothy or Alfalfa Hay, but whenever I have tried to feed my Sulcata Timothy Hay, he expresses his displeasure by stomping and crapping all over it. Try using Timothy Hay. If it works, more power to you, but if it doesn't, grasses and dandelion greens are a decent substitute.

The other 10-30% of the diet should be dark, leafy greens like kale, collard greens, bok choy, mustard greens, etc. Various kinds of lettuce are good, but never offer Iceberg Lettuce. Some people say cabbage is acceptable, others say it is not. I say it's best to err on the side of caution, so I do not use it. Carrots are good on occasion, as well as pumpkin.

Fruits should never be offered to a Sulcata. They are way too high in sugar for their system to handle and, over time, can cause renal failure. In addition to fruits, there are several plants of which only part are edible. On roses, only the flower is edible, for example, and only the leaves of grapes are edible.

Calcium is very important for Sulcata tortoises. To ensure that their bones and shells grow properly, a Calcium to Phosphorus ratio of 2:1 should be maintained. There are many powders and sprays that add calcium to a Sulcatas diet. A light dusting (or spray) and each feeding is usually sufficient, unless the product specifically instructs otherwise.

It's actually unnecessary to give a Sulcata tortoise a water dish or any kind of water. They should get all the moisture they need from the grasses and veggies they eat. However, they do need to be soaked in luke-warm water for about 10-20 min.. Any container will do, filled high enough that the tortoise can still easily stick his head out above the surface.

This soaking is very important for keeping them hydrated. Hatchlings need to be soaked EVERY DAY. Juveniles need to be soaked a few times a week. Adults can be soaked once every 1-2 weeks. Your tortoise should not actually drink the water it is soaked in. If it drinks, it means it is dehydrated and you need to soak more often, increase humidity in the enclosure, and/or reassess its diet. It should just sit and soak in the water. Defecation is also normal during soaking.

A Sulcata's diet is extremely important for proper growth and development. Improper diet and dehydration (among other things) are both causes of pyramiding. Pyramiding is an indication that something has gone wrong with the tortoise's nutrition, and is therefore a sign of more serious health issues such as kidney or liver stress, systemic infection, or respiratory/cardiac problems which will severely shorten the sulcata's lifespan.

This is what pyramiding looks like. Your
Sulcata shouldn't look this bad right off
the bat, but this is the sort of thing to
watch out for. You should see a vet well
before this point.

Due in part to an improper diet, this poor guy's deformations
have grown so severe that he will need to be hand-fed for the rest
of his life because his plastron (bottom shell) prevents him
from being able to graze normally.



1. Give your Sulcata a LOT of space.
2. Provide UVB lighting.
3. Use a sand/Bed-A-Beast substrate.
4. Feed mostly grasses, mixed with some dark, leafy greens.
5. Supplement calcium.
6. Soak tortoise regularly in water. Frequency depends on age.


1. Keep Sulcatas in glass, aquarium-style tanks.
2. Keep multiple Sulcatas together.
3. Feed fruits, Iceberg Lettuce, or pretty much anything that's not grass or a dark, leafy green.
4. Use gritty, sand-like substrates, or absorbant substrates like alfalfa pellets.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ball Python

Ball Python (Python Regius) (A.K.A Royal Python)

Ball Pythons come from Central and West Africa where they live in rodent burrows, old termite mounds, etc. They normally have blotches of tan or dark green down the lengths of their bodies against black or dark brown, but, thanks to breeders, there are now over one hundred “morphs,” or alternate coloration variants. Some of these morphs are relatively common and will not cost you much extra, while others can run up to $1800.

Black-Eyed Leucistic Ball Python: One of the more
beautiful (and expensive) morphs.

The name “Royal Python” is partially based on a story that Cleopatra wore one around her wrist. Other versions say she wore it around her waist. However, the more commonly used “Ball Python” comes from their habit of folding themselves up into a ball, with their head in the center, as a way of hiding from predators.

Thanks to this passive defense mechanism, their relatively small size (6 ft. max.), and easy availability in a wide range of colors and patterns, they are extremely common in the pet trade.



No matter how high up it is, no matter how flat against the surface, no matter what size your snake is, never, ever, ever use tape in a snake enclosure. There is always an extremely high risk that the snake will get tangled in it. I have known people to have snakes that were severely, permanently scarred and blinded while having tape removed from their bodies, but it is very common for the experience to be fatal. Remember, tape is the devil.

That said, juvenile Ball Pythons (up to 2') can be kept in a secure enclosure the size of a 10 gal. tank, while larger snakes will need a space more like a 30 gal. tank or something around 36x18x12”. This may seem small, but these snakes naturally live in burrows in the ground. In addition, they are usually very shy and like small, tight places. Taking them out for a stretch is fine once in a while, but, in general, they appreciate their privacy. You may keep a Ball Python in a larger enclosure, but be sure to provide several good hiding places so they can still feel safe and secure. Ball Python's that feel insecure may develop behavioral problems or stop feeding.

Snake housing is commonly made of glass, plastic, or wood. Glass may be tempting because of its availability and because it makes it easy to view your snake, but glass enclosures make it very difficult to maintain proper, consistent temperature and humidity levels, which can lead to many health issues for a Ball Python, including potentially deadly respiratory infections. Also, the clear sides may make the snake feel exposed and insecure, which also means trouble.

Plastic storage tubs (like those made by Sterlite or Rubbermaid) have become more popular because they are cheap, lightweight, and very easy to clean. They can also be stacked to store several animals in a more compact space and holes for ventilation can (and should) be drilled to allow proper ventilation. Unfortunately, however, many people are turned off to plastic because, honestly, it's ugly. The semi-opaque sides also do not allow for easy viewing of the snake.

Wood enclosures are also very common and are easily customizable, but are also, typically, the most expensive. They sometimes come with heat and lighting features, but not always.

UV and other supplemental lighting is not needed for Ball Pythons. Ambient room light is fine, as long as the light is not constant and some sort of day/night schedule is in place. Too much lighting can be very stressful for these nocturnal creatures.

Substrate should never be pine or cedar chips because of oils they contain which are dangerous to many reptiles. Sand, gravel, and other gritty materials should also be avoided because of abrasions that can be caused and get infected. Cypress mulch, coconut husk-based substrates, or even newspaper are preferable.

Temperatures should be kept and about 80ºF overall with a 90ºF basking area. Temperature should never drop below 75ºF because of health risks. Hiding areas should be placed in different temperature ranges so a snake can regulate its body temp and still feel secure. A Ball Python will stay in a hiding area even if the temperature is too hot or too cool, so it is important to give several options.

Heating should never, ever be maintained with a heat rock because of the risk of burning or otherwise injuring the snake. Heat is best maintained from below, such as by a heat pad, or from above by a heat bulb or Ceramic Heat Emitter (CHE). The only problem with bulbs and CHEs is that Ball Pythons are nocturnal, so a bright white light can be stressful. Red or blue colored bulbs are therefore preferable. Whatever method is used, the heat source must be well out of reach of the snake, to prevent burning.

One last note on heating: Be very careful about your choice of thermometer. I once had a pet shop manager test the accuracy of an dial style thermometer (of a very common brand), still in its original packaging, and we found it to be inaccurate by over 10ºF! That is a huge difference to your snake and can lead you to believe its enclosure is adequate while it is actually quite unhealthy. In general, go for digital thermometers over analog. Sticker-tape aquarium style thermometers are also terrible.

Humidity should be kept at about 50%-60%, and about 60%-70% while shedding. Too much or too little humidity are both unhealthy, so digital measuring is best here, too. There are many good ways to increase humidity, such as misting or placing the water bowl in the hotter area of the enclosure, but never sacrifice ventilation for humidity.

A water bowl should be placed in the enclosure. It should be relatively heavy, to keep it from flipping over as the snake comes and goes, and the water should be dumped out and replaced every few days minimum, or as needed. There should always be fresh, clean water in the enclosure. If you are having trouble maintaining humidity, the water bowl may be placed in the warmer area of the enclosure.

A Ball Python's diet is relatively simple. Rodents. In the wild, they are primarily rodent eaters and it's the same in captivity. Most common are rats and mice, but some other rodents may be offered. A Ball Python, though, is likely to pick a favorite food and refuse anything else. Many say that the size of the rat should be no bigger at it's largest point (its hips) than the snake is and it's thickest point. However, a Ball Python can live on prey just smaller than that, and it's probably safer to do so. An adult Ball Python can live on one small rat per week.

There is endless debate over whether you should feed live or pre-killed/frozen prey. Pre-killed/Frozen food is safer for the snake. It eliminates the chance that the prey will fight back, which can (and does) lead to injury, but care must be taken to make sure the food is fully, properly thawed. Do not ever use boiling water or a microwave to thaw food.

Feeding live prey carries some serious risks.


Partially because of their popularity in the pet trade, Ball Pythons are now considered “Threatened” in the wild. While many Ball Pythons are now bred in captivity, there is still a significant amount of snakes caught and exported from the wild.

To protect this species from endangerment, you should do all you can to make sure the Ball Python you are buying was captive bred, and not wild caught. Also, decreased Ball Python populations have allowed rodent populations to flourish, increasing human disease and parasites in the regions in which they live.

Even if you do not care at all about conservation, it would simply be a wise choice to not buy a snake caught from the wild, because they have a drastically higher chance of carrying mites or other parasites, developing behavioral issues such as increased chance of biting, and will likely have problems feeding. Wild caught Ball Pythons do such a poor job at adapting to captive life that many do not live more than a few years anyways.



1. Buy a Ball Python bred in captivity.
2. Use plastic or wood enclosures.
3. Use heat pads or bulbs for heat.
4. Always provide fresh, clean water.
5. Be careful with analog temp. and humidity measurements.


1. Use adhesive tape anywhere in the enclosure.
2. Use heat rocks.
3. Use pine or cedar chip bedding, or bedding that is hard or abrasive.
4. Decrease ventilation to increase humidity.
5. Leave live prey unattended in the enclosure.
6. Use boiling water or a microwave to thaw frozen food.