Vivarium Lighting: The Needs of Plants, Reptiles & Amphibians

vivarium lighting

There are A LOT of things to think about when setting up a vivarium.

You have to decide what animals you’d like to keep, determine which plants are compatible with your selected animals. And figure out what type of supplies and equipment you’ll need to complete the project.

One of the most important types of equipment you’ll need to think about is the lighting you intend to use for the vivarium.

Unfortunately, vivarium lighting is a complex and confusing subject, which often bewilders novice keepers. But you needn’t be intimidated by the topic! You must simply dedicate a little bit of time to learning the basic aspects of vivarium lighting.

Below, we’ll talk about the most important aspects of vivarium lighting, including the types of light that reptiles, amphibians and plants require. As well as the difference between the various light bulbs available on the market. This will hopefully clear up any confusion about the issue and help you devise a vivarium lighting plan that will work for you.

Different Types of Lighting for the Vivarium

Incandescent

Incandescent bulbs are those that feature an internal filament which generates light (incandesces) when a current is passed through it. Historically, these were the types of light bulbs most people used for household lighting. But they’ve largely been supplanted by compact fluorescent and LED bulbs in recent years.

No incandescent bulb is capable of producing UVB wavelengths. Although some are capable of producing UVA wavelengths and a high color rendering index. Incandescent bulbs generate a significant amount of heat. That makes them useful for animals that require elevated vivarium temperatures. But inappropriate for animals that prefer cool temperatures.

Conventional Fluorescent

Conventional (linear) fluorescent light bulbs can be very helpful for lighting your vivarium. They produce relatively little heat. They are ideal for animals that do not require high cage temperatures, and many of them produce UVA and/or UVB wavelengths.

Most high-quality conventional fluorescent bulbs have a high color rendering index, and they make both the plants and animals in the habitat look their best. Additionally, fluorescent bulbs last much longer than incandescent bulbs, although their UVB output diminishes over time. Typically, they must be replaced every 6 to 12 months to ensure your animals’ health.

Compact Fluorescent

Compact fluorescent light bulbs have become very popular over the last decade. They’re a great choice for most vivaria. Compact fluorescent bulbs work in standard heat lamp shrouds, and some models produce UVA and UVB wavelengths. They also produce light with a color rendering index similar to that of linear fluorescent bulbs.

Compact fluorescent bulbs do not produce very much heat. You’ll need to use them in conjunction with an incandescent or mercury vapor bulb if you are maintaining animals with high heat requirements.

LED

Light emitting diodes – commonly known as LEDs – are another great lighting option for some herpetoculturists. LEDs typically produce very high-quality light that is head-and-shoulders above the light produced by fluorescent bulbs. They also last longer than most other types of bulbs and require very little energy during operation.

However, LEDs do not produce significant amounts of UVB radiation, and they do not produce much heat either. This means that they’re only useful as part of a comprehensive lighting system that also includes other types of bulbs. Or for habitats containing animals that do not require heat or UVB lighting.

Mercury Vapor

When they first became available to herpetoculturists, mercury vapor bulbs were incredibly popular. For the first time, keepers had access to bulbs that produce both heat and UVB wavelengths. Accordingly, they quickly became the go-to choice for keepers of bearded dragons and other heliothermic (sun-loving) lizards.

However, mercury vapor bulbs do exhibit a few problems. The biggest problem these lights present is the extraordinary amount of heat they produce. While helpful for those trying to heat or illuminate very large habitats, it makes them unsuitable for use in small and medium-sized vivaria. They are also quite expensive when compared to other types of lights.

chameleon lights

A Word About Timers

In addition to providing your plants and animals with the proper types of lights and fixtures, you’ll also want to incorporate an automated timer into your vivarium lighting system.

Animals and plants require a consistent photoperiod (although it is sometimes helpful to vary the photoperiod slightly over the course of the year). This is often difficult to accomplish if you must turn the lights on and off manually every day. But a timer automates the process and eliminates this responsibility.

Economy-priced timers typically only control one light or device, but you can find timers that will control several lights simultaneously. Some power strips and surge protectors even come with a built-in timer. It makes it even easier to set up your lighting system and maintain a consistent photoperiod.

What Kind of Lighting Do Reptiles and Amphibians Need?

Even though you will likely install a diverse array of plants in your vivarium, you must prioritize the needs of the animals living in the habitat first. You certainly want your plants to thrive, but your pet’s needs must take precedence.

Reptiles and amphibians exhibit a wide range of lighting needs. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that you can use in all circumstances. Instead, you’ll need to provide the specific type of lighting that your pet needs. Unfortunately, the precise lighting needs of some species and groups of animals are not fully understood. In such cases, it is generally best to err on the side of caution and provide the best lighting possible.

Snakes

Most snakes do not appear to require anything more than indirect light to remain healthy. In fact, most breeders maintain snakes in plastic storage boxes, which are only illuminated by the light from the surrounding room. However, lights are often used to provide snakes with appropriate temperatures, as well as for aesthetic reasons.

Frogs

The lighting needs of frogs are not well-understood. Most species – including those who live under forest canopies or exhibit nocturnal behavioral patterns – will probably survive with little more than indirect room light. However, they will generally look much prettier when provided with a cool light source that provides UVA wavelengths and has a high color rendering index.

Historically, incandescent and mercury vapor bulbs have been avoided by frog keepers. The heat produced by these bulbs will make it difficult to keep the habitat cool and damp. However, new research has demonstrated that basking behaviors in frogs may be more widespread and important than previously thought.

Additionally, while most frogs appear to remain healthy without UVB, a few species – such as the waxy monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) and its close relatives – do appear to require basking opportunities and exposure to UVB lighting.

Accordingly, it is imperative that you research the specific lighting needs of the species you keep.

Diurnal Lizards

Most diurnal lizards require an incandescent or mercury vapor bulb to provide them with suitable temperatures. They also need exposure to both UVA and UVB wavelengths. This is true for chameleons, anoles, bearded dragons and dozens of other common pet species. However, there are a few exceptions. Day geckos, for example, do not appear to require UVB radiation. And many keepers have successfully maintained small monitor lizards without providing UVB wavelengths.

Nocturnal Lizards

Nocturnal lizards can thrive in vivaria with minimal amounts of light. They still require access to appropriate temperatures and they must experience a realistic photoperiod. But this can be accomplished with a run-of-the-mill incandescent bulb.

Fluorescent lights provide a balanced spectrum and have a high color rendering index. This will make your pet and the habitat look much better.

What Kind of Lighting Do Plants Need?

Different types of plants have evolved to thrive in varying levels of sunlight. Plants that typically inhabit wide-open habitats usually require copious amounts of direct sunlight. Those that live under forest canopies are usually capable of surviving in relatively dim light.

Even the best available vivarium lights only produce a tiny fraction of the light that the sun does. Because of that, reptile and amphibian keepers must typically concentrate on plants with low light requirements. However, you’ll still need to satisfy their needs if the plants are to survive.

The two most important characteristics of light to consider for your vivarium plants are the light intensity and the color spectrum produced.

Light Intensity

Light intensity – typically measured in units called lux – is a very important consideration for the maintenance of vivarium plants. In the wild, tropical plants may be blasted with 1,000,000 lux on a daily basis. Although those under the canopy will receive considerably less. While you can’t come close to recreating this in a vivarium setting, you’ll want to provide as many lux as you reasonably can.

Note that the lux produced by a light decreases with increasing distance from the bulb. For example, some high-powered mercury vapor bulbs produce 300 to 500 lux at a distance of 4 inches. However, the lux levels dip below 100 by the time you get 12 inches away.

A few compact fluorescent bulbs are capable of producing more than 3,000 lux at 4 inches. But as with the mercury vapor bulbs, these levels drop to about 300 to 400 lux at a distance of 12 inches.

No matter what type of lights you decide to incorporate into your vivarium, you’ll want to strive to provide the most intense lighting possible.

You are unlikely to provide enough light intensity to cause problems for the plants (or the animals in the habitat). So generally speaking, you want to provide the most lux possible.

rainforest terrarium plants

Color Spectrum

Plants look green because they absorb the red and blue wavelengths of light while reflecting the green wavelengths. This helps to illustrate that the red and blue rays are more important for the plant’s health and growth.

Accordingly, the best lights to use for plant growth provide plenty of red and blue wavelengths. Many lights are made specifically for plant maintenance, and these can be incorporated into your vivarium lighting system. This may mean that you’ll have to include two different lights: one for your animals and another for your plants. But that’s a small price to pay for a great-looking vivarium, full of healthy plants and animals.

Typically, fluorescent bulbs (either compact or conventional) are the best-suited option for plant maintenance. They can provide a very high color rendering index and they do not produce a lot of heat, which can cause some plants to be scorched.

The Importance of Shade

Reptile and amphibian lighting needs are complex, and we are still learning about their needs. Nevertheless, we do know that some reptiles deliberately hide from UVB-producing lights at times. Others will attempt to hide from especially bright lights.

Accordingly, it is important to provide your animals with places that offer protection from intense light. This will allow them to determine their own exposure levels. Just like thermal gradients allow reptiles and amphibians to adjust their own body temperature.

If the pets you keep are small, and the vivarium is loaded with broad-leafed plants, the inhabitants can use them for shade. However, you’ll have to include other things to provide larger animals with a place to escape the light. These could be pieces of cork bark or large, flat pieces of driftwood.

snake lights

The subject of vivarium lighting can be a bit overwhelming for reptile and amphibian keeping novices. But if you take the time to learn the basic concepts and techniques modern keepers and breeders employ, you’ll find that you can create your own lighting system. This will not only help your animals thrive, but will keep your plants looking great too.

Vivarium lighting is still an evolving pursuit, so it is important to continue to learn all you can about the subject. Be prepared to alter your approach in response to new evidence or your own personal findings.

Let us know if you have any questions about vivarium lighting in the comments below and be sure to tell us how you light your vivarium too.

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Ben Team

Ben Team

Ben is a life-long environmental educator who writes about the natural world. He’s kept and bred a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians over the last three decades, but he’s always been particularly fond of snakes in the genus Morelia and monitor lizards. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler.

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