The Importance of UV Lighting

Many reptiles are diurnal animals; creatures that are active during the daytime and sleep in the night, just like humans. Anyone who has observed reptiles in the wild can attest to the fact that many species are dependent on the sun for energy and as such they can often be seen basking in its warming rays. Most reptiles are ectothermic animals, meaning that they depend on an external source of heat to stay warm and power their metabolic processes. In the wild, their power source is the sun, which is replaced by heat bulbs or heating pads in captivity. In addition to depending on the sun for thermal energy, wild reptiles also depend on the sun to help drive the production of vitamin D3 and the absorption of calcium. Captive reptiles have the same basic needs as their wild counterparts, and as such reptile keepers must ensure that their pets are receiving the amount of UV required by their species.

UVB (katia 3)

What is UV?

Most of the light on our planet comes to us from the star nearest our planet – the Sun. This light occurs in a wide spectrum of wavelengths, with the shortest being gamma waves and the longest being radio waves. The human eye can only perceive light with wavelengths between four hundred and seven hundred nanometers, which is a very small slice of the spectrum. This is due to our eyes only having receptors (called cones) for the colors red, blue, and green, combinations of which make up every color we can see. Reptiles have a fourth cone, and as such can see wavelengths of light between three hundred twenty and seven hundred nanometers.

UV is the part of the light spectrum that ranges from one hundred to four hundred nanometers in wavelength, this being just out of the human range of perception. Most reptiles, in addition to being able to see a small part of the UV spectrum, are highly dependent on it to synthesize vitamin D3 and absorb calcium. UV light is further broken down into three subcategories – UVA, UVB, and UVC. Of the UV light that reaches our planet from the sun, ninety five percent is UVA (wavelength 315 to 400 nanometers) and five percent is UVB (280 to 315 nanometers). The amount of UVC that reaches the planet is so negligible that it is unimportant to reptiles and most life in general. UVA and UVB on the other hand, are essential to your pet’s health.

Chuckwalla (katia 3)

Why do reptiles need UV lighting?

Any experienced reptile keeper will tell you that simulating the environment your pet’s species would inhabit in the wild is essential to its health. This is particularly relevant to providing your pet access to UV light, as reptiles use UVA and UVB for essential metabolic processes. UVB performs the absolutely essential task of converting a cholesterol molecule known as provitamin-D (which is found in your reptile’s skin) into vitamin D3. The animal’s body then uses the vitamin D3 to convert calcium ingested from the bones of its prey (or powder calcium supplement) into usable forms, as well as using it to regulate the levels of calcium in its bloodstream. Calcium is essential not only to bone health in reptiles, but to muscular and nervous health as well.

In addition to using UV to perform these biological imperatives, reptiles’ ability to see light in the UV spectrum means that they use the extra colors they can see to determine what is and isn’t food, encourages them to bask and therefore improves digestion, and promotes the natural behaviors of their species. Reptiles are happiest and healthiest when they are able interact with their world with all of the capacities of their senses engaged.

Exo Terra basking Spot (katia 3)

How do I give my reptile access to UV light?

Manufacturers such as Zoo Med, Zilla, Fluker’s, and Exo Terra produce a variety of UV bulbs and lamps to provide both UVA and UVB to cater to your specific reptile’s needs. Diurnal reptiles that live in areas close to the equator, such as Bearded Dragons and Uromastyx, will need high wattage bulbs with high UV output to simulate their native habitat. Reptiles that live in more temperate areas, like Box Turtles, require lower wattage bulbs with UV output that simulates the moderate amount of UV they would be exposed to in the wild.

How much UV exposure does my reptile need?

The answer to this question is largely dependent on the species being kept. Nocturnal animals which do their best to stay out of the sun’s rays, or those that live under dense forest canopies get less UV exposure than diurnal animals which spend a large part of their time basking on rocks with direct exposure to sunlight.

Crepuscular and shade-loving animals like Water Dragons and Box Turtles do well when provided UVB by fluorescent lights with a UV Index up to 5.0 (this number should be indicated on the packaging of whatever product you buy), depending on the species.

Many popular pet species, such as Bearded Dragons, Frilled Dragons, and Uromastyx spend a sizeable amount of time basking in sunlight and have higher UV requirements than nocturnal or shade-loving animals like Ball Pythons, Leopard Geckos, and Crested Geckos.

Species that bask in the full sun in the wild such as Bearded Dragons, Uromastyx, and Anoles, do well when provided with UVB by intense UV bulbs such as mercury vapor, metal halide, or fluorescent lights with a UV Index up to 10.0, depending on the species.

MBD (katia 3)

What happens to reptiles without access to UV?

Left without access to UV lighting, the species of reptiles that require it will begin to develop Metabolic Bone Disease, a painful affliction that warps the limbs and tail of an affected animal as their bone density deteriorates. Animals with metabolic bone disease will often be incapable of moving quickly as their bones cannot support their own body weight, in addition to adverse aesthetic effects such as an overbite, dull colors, and swollen and misshapen extremities. In extreme cases, metabolic bone disorder can lead to death, as extreme calcium deficiency can make an animal’s heart incapable of pumping blood throughout its body. If it is caught in time, reptiles can and will recover from cases of MBD provided the proper access to UV light.

Need further help?

The staff at Painted Reptile is always happy to help you provide the best care for your animals. Come in if you have questions regarding which UV bulb(s) are best for your pet’s species and we will assist you in any way we can.

Call 818-654-9441 with any questions or stop by the shop at 18730 Oxnard St., Tarzana, Ca, 91356.



Written By:  Katia Shinkle

Sponsored By:  The Painted Reptile

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