Reptile Habitats

Reptile habitats need to provide a range of temperatures for their occupants. These include areas to bask and ambient heat for regulating body temperature, along with cooler areas to retreat to.


These cold-blooded animals are a diverse group, including lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodiles. They use a variety of methods to defend themselves against predators.


Hissing is a defensive behavior used by snakes to warn predators that they’re armed with potentially dangerous venom. Hissing may also be a mating signal between male and female snakes, or a warning to other snakes to stay away from the territory of a certain reptile.

Many reptile keepers strive to set up naturalistic habitats with interesting layered substrates, plants, branches, molded back and side walls, “ponds,” and more. However, in trying to create a reptile’s ideal environment, we sometimes forget that they need adequate room to move, thermoregulate, access microclimates, and feed.

Reptiles need sites that offer shelter from sun or wind, areas for basking in the sunlight, and plenty of places to hide and explore. Some reptiles also need microhabitats like rock piles or outcroppings, small mammal burrows, and woody material for hiding and nesting.

Turtles often emit a hissing noise, called a belch, when they’re preparing to eat. This is because the belch is a result of air being forced out of their lungs as they extend and retract their necks in anticipation of snapping at their prey.


Many reptiles will display behaviors that could be misinterpreted by an unfamiliar hobbyist or veterinarian as disease or pathology. For example, a bearded dragon that puffs up and darkens while basking can be interpreted as an animal stressed or in pain. This is actually the reptile’s attempt to absorb a greater amount of heat through its skin.

Other behaviors include the use of bluffs or threats to deter attack by increasing body size and emitting a long loud hiss. This is a common display behavior of snakes including pipe snakes, shield tailed and coral snakes, burrowing pythons and sand boas. Pine snakes exhibit a unique feature that allows the sound produced during this defensive behavior to be amplified by the action of a septum (glottal keel) in their glottis opening.

Many snakes will bury themselves under rock or bark to absorb warmth through thermal conduction from these surfaces. This is a common behavior in lizards as well. In some species of iguana males engage in aggressive displays with females to establish dominance hierarchies and these often escalate into biting attacks.


A reptile’s habitat must be properly set up to meet its needs. This includes a proper enclosure that allows a wide range of temperatures, as well as a variety of textures, heights and humidity levels to simulate the varying environments of its native habitat. It should also include a place for hiding, as many reptiles feel insecure in captivity.

Look at photographs of your reptile’s native habitat to see what kinds of materials, elevations and other environmental features it contains. When you’re ready to prepare your pet’s habitat, choose glass over plastic, as it doesn’t leach chemicals into the environment. A terrarium or aquarium should have two thermometers and a hygrometer, so that you can monitor the temperature and humidity in separate areas of the enclosure.

Some reptiles need to bask, or expose their heads to heat radiated from the sun. Others take advantage of natural cooling mechanisms to avoid overheating, such as raising a forelimb or hind leg or extending their body over rocks, logs and burrows. For these purposes, many habitats contain microhabitats for hideouts, such as rock piles and outcroppings, brush piles, small mammal burrows, or cracks in rocks and boulders.

Breakaway Tail

The lizards known as skinks and anoles have a special defense mechanism that can deter predators. When threatened, they release a foul-smelling scent and shed their tails. The detached tail continues to thrash, distracting the predator, while the animal escapes.

Shedding tails may be a learned behavior that evolved as a form of self-defense. It also allows reptiles to better maintain their water balance in dry desert environments.

All reptiles are ectotherms, meaning they rely on the external environment to regulate their body temperature and to acquire moisture. This makes it harder for them to remain active in the hot, dry conditions found in deserts.

Poor ventilation in a reptile habitat can lead to bacterial growth and scale rot. An optimum design will include vent holes along the front of the enclosure to allow a constant flow of air. This will help prevent humidity from building up in the enclosure and prevent bacterial infections. It’s important to use a quality habitat for your pet reptile. You’ll need a heat lamp, UVB, substrate, food and water dishes, hides and accessories like plants and branches.

Tail Whipping

Many lizards have special defense mechanisms that help them fight and escape from predators. These include detaching their tails, which can thrash around on the floor to distract the predator and give them an opportunity to run away. Some lizards can also use their breakaway tails to strike the predator, and some even have the ability to hiss at their prey.

Unlike amphibians, reptiles have dry, hard skins covered with scales that can be used to camouflage and hide. This feature helps them to survive in their natural habitats, whether on land or in water.

Plestiodon laticeps, or the broad-headed skink, lives in woodland areas where it can soak up the sun and hunt for insects and other small animals. This carnivorous reptile can also burrow into the ground to find shelter. The skink can also change its color to match the surrounding vegetation and flora, making it harder for predators to spot it. The species often changes its color to blend in with the bark of trees and leaves in the winter. This adaptation is similar to that of some amphibians.