Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Quick summary of LIGHTING for tortoises

I've seen a lot of questions pertaining to lighting lately. I wrote up a little summary in March for a FB group, so I'm copying it here, just to have a nice summary here that might be useful. :)

Russian tortoises (as well as others) need heat and UVB (and UVA, but that's easier). The heat helps their bodies reach the necessary core temperature to function, digest, etc. The UVB helps their bodies produce vitamin D3, which is necessary for absorbing calcium into strong bones and a strong shell. Most of the UVB is absorbed through the skin of their legs and head, but their shell does need UVB also.

Synchronized basking? Yes please!
Ideally, a tortoise gets to spend the warm months outside in a safe enclosure with hiding opportunities and good plants to eat. If you are not able to provide an outdoor enclosure, even 30 minutes a day (or a few times per week) are beneficial. Even the advanced artificial UVB technology cannot replace real sunlight.

Lady, basking outside on a rare warm March day.
Heat and UVB can be provided via an all-in-one Mercury Vapor bulb (MVB) that produces both heat and UVB. It is very important that the MVB is suspended at a straight-up-and-down angle, not at a slant or on its side. These bulbs are balanced, so they will have a shorter lifespan if they aren't installed correctly. Save your receipt, as most companies will replace the bulb if it burns out before a year is over. Depending on the brand, an MVB gives off UVB for 6-12 months. After that it gives off light, but no longer UVB. ZooMed Powersun and ExoTerra SolarGlo are good brands in the US. I would love to hear which brands are recommended in the UK and elsewhere.

Both the MVB and the regular heat lamp should be installed in a ceramic fixture (to prevent overheating) with a dome. Make sure the fixture is rated for the Wattage and Volts of your lamp. You can often find good fixtures at the Feed store (in the baby chicks section) for a lot cheaper than at the pet store. Hardware stores also often carry them. Make sure to use a chain or wire to install the lamp, rather than the clamp. The clamps notoriously fail, and I personally know several folks who had small or large fires as a result.

Alternatively, you can provide heat and UVB separately: 
-The heat can be provided with any regular (old fashioned) 100W household bulb, or the 125W brooder lamps used for baby chicks. Those cost about $3, which is a lot cheaper than buying a 'reptile' bulb, which often has a shorter lifespan before it burns out. 
-The UVB can be provided with a tube-style light. Do NOT use the curly/coil style UVB light. These are cheaper, but are known to harm tortoise's eyes and cause other problems. ZooMed Reptisun and ExoTerra Repti-Glo are good brands in the US. Both of the 18" versions of this will fit in a standard T8 under-cabinet fixture. No need to buy the over-priced and badly made pet fixture. GE makes one that is sold at the Home Depot or Amazon for $13 . Make sure you get the kind that is 'plug in' not for hard-wiring. I would love to hear more about reliable brands in the UK and elsewhere. 


The UVB tube lights will radiate UVB for 6-8 months. Since my tortoises spend the Summer outside, I replace the bulbs every September or October when I bring them inside. That way the torts start the indoor season with good fresh UVB sources. I put a small piece of masking tape with the date I switched the bulb onto the inside of the fixture.

Russian tortoises need a basking spot temperature (measured right under the lamp at shell height) of 95-100 degrees F (about 35 degrees C). Make sure that it is not hotter, or you can burn your tortoise's shell. Make sure it is warm enough, too, or your tortoise will have trouble digesting his food. 
An infrared thermometer works really well to measure the temperatures in a tortoise enclosure - I can just point the little red dot at the spot I want to measure, and get an instant reading. I read many reviews and then bought THIS one. I have been using it for 3 years, and am happy with it. It has not needed new batteries, in spite of frequent use. 

Russian tortoises do NOT require nighttime heat, unless the room they are in drops below 58 degrees F (15 degrees C) at night. In fact, your RT will be more active if he is not heated at night. The temperatures drop in their wild habitat when it gets dark, so they are wired to dig in for the night, and come back out when it warms up and gets brighter. No red nighttime light necessary. If the room is really cold, you can use a CHE (ceramic heat emitter), but keep it on a thermostat to prevent overheating (I like the Hydrofarm digital thermometer). A CHE does sap a lot of electricity, and the cheap brand ones can get hot spots of 600+ degrees, so don't skimp.

I highly recommend shopping around when you are getting a new bulb. Pet stores are usually the most expensive. Online stores are often a good source, but keep the shipping cost in mind. Big Apple Herp and Carolina Pet Supply are 2 I've bought from. Amazon also often has good deals - sometimes really incredible deals. Last year I bought 10 Exo Terra Repti Glo 10.0 UVB bulbs in a pack that ended up being $13 per tube, with free shipping. Sometimes eBay has good deals too.

Happy basking!

For the record, I am not being paid for any brand name recommendations. I am simply sharing what works for me and many other tortoise keepers. 

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