Creating a Temperature Gradient

If there’s one thing everyone knows about reptiles, it’s that they need an external heat source. But there’s so much more to providing your reptile with appropriate heat. One of the most commonly overlooked aspects is creating a temperature gradient throughout the terrarium (or habitat).

So what exactly is a temperature gradient? Simply put, it’s placing your reptile’s heat source (lamp) in such a way that you create a warmer side and a cooler side of the terrarium. These sides are static, meaning they don’t differ day-to-day. The benefit of a temperature gradient is that it allows your reptile to warm up and cool down as necessary, much as they would do in the wild as the sun shifts throughout the day. The ability to do this can affect your reptile’s health, behavior, and appetite. Your reptile has an ideal ambient daytime temperature range, an ideal basking spot temperature range, and an ideal ambient nighttime temperature.

Types of temperatures for keeping reptiles. Courtesy of The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

Speaking from experience when I first started out with reptiles, I think we (the reptile caretakers) have an instinct to want to place our reptile’s heat lamp above the middle of the terrarium*, which might come from the idea of the sun being directly overhead. But this doesn’t create an appropriate temperature gradient. The best way to provide heat for your reptile via a temperature gradient is to place the heat lamp to one side of the terrarium.

*If you’re new to reptile keeping, I want to point out that you can place heat lamps directly on top of the terrarium screen lid. These screen lids can be made of different materials, including stainless steel or anodized aluminum.

Choosing the right type of heat for your reptile is an entirely separate discussion, but once you’ve decided on the type of heat, creating the temperature gradient is simple. Choose which side of your reptile’s terrarium will be the warmer side and which will be the cooler side. Reptiles don’t care whether it’s the left or right – so long as the habitat as a whole is set up properly. I recommend choosing the side of the terrarium that’s closer to the electrical outlet so that you can more easily reach the plugs, should you need to.

Once you have chosen a side of the terrarium, place the heat lamp as far to that side as you can, keeping safety considerations in mind. Next, choose whether you prefer to have the heat lamp closer to the front or to the back of the terrarium, and slide it accordingly. I would recommend keeping it toward the back so that the cord is less exposed and that the chance of it accidentally catching on anything is minimized.

Choose which side of the terrarium to place your reptile’s heat lamp. On top of the terrarium screen lid, place the heat lamp all the way to that side. Next, slide the heat lamp all the way forward, or backward, depending on where you would like your reptile’s basking spot to be. Illustration courtesy of The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

In addition to a temperature gradient, it’s important to create a basking spot (see illustration below). Remember that this spot should be the warmest area of the terrarium that your reptile is able to reach. This is also very simple to create. Choose an inclined item, such as a branch, and place it with the inclined end directly under the heat lamp. With these simple design tips, you’re able to recreate temperature variation naturally done by the sun.

Be sure to choose reptile-specific heat bulbs and lamps – household incandescent bulbs and lamps neither create nor radiate heat appropriately or safely for your reptile or your home.

Illustration of proper heat lamp placement to create a gradient. Colors illustrate decreasing heat as you move away from the lamp. Illustration courtesy of The Repstylist. All rights reserved.

In addition to this post, check out our discussion of the differences between heat and UVB here.

As always, if you have any questions about this topic, contact us here or at!

©Copyright 2020 The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

6 Comments on “Creating a Temperature Gradient

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