There are many ways to heat your animal’s enclosure. Flexwatt heat tape, Reptile Basics heat tape, heating cable, and heat rope are most often used for racks. Radiant heat panels (RHPs) are the most popular for heating individual cages. Other less popular but adequate sources include heat pads, ceramic heat bulbs, and infrared basking bulbs. For the safety of your animal, most heat sources should be installed outside of the cage. If not, there is a significant risk for burns. The one exception is the RHP, which is in fact mounted on the interior ceiling of an enclosure. The type/location of heat source is a matter of preference, and each has its pros and cons.
As the name implies, the heat source is situated at the bottom of the enclosure. Again, it should never be placed within a cage or tub due to the risk of fire and burning the animal. Also, it should not cover the bottom of the entire enclosure. Rather, it should be offset towards one end, covering no more than half the bottom of the cage. Bottom heat is set up using heat tape or heat pads and is most commonly used with rack systems.
Pros – Simple and easy to set up. Can provide a vertical thermal gradient if done properly in taller cages.
Cons – Heat gradient can be difficult to set up. The substrate has the potential to grow bacteria and fungi at a faster rate if kept too moist. Can encourage grounding.
Back heat is typically set up using heat tape on the back interior wall of a rack assembly.
Pros – Great for rack systems. Can provide a good back to front thermal gradient in most cases.
Cons – None to speak of.
Radiant Heat Panels, or RHP’s, are most commonly used for this application. They are installed offset (off center) on the interior ceiling of an enclosure. Infrared basking lights and ceramic bulbs can also be used for top heat.
Pros – Provides a good top-to-bottom, and side-to-side thermal gradient. RHPs won’t burn the animal and are the heating source of choice for most GTP keepers.
Cons – RHP’s are considerably more expensive than all other sources, but their efficiency and safety outweigh their cost. If using infrared basking lights and ceramic heating elements they need to be mounted outside the cage or covered so that the snake cannot burn itself. In addition to getting very hot, RHP’s and ceramic bulbs tend to dry a cage slightly faster.
Whole Room Heating
Some keepers uniformly heat an entire room instead of heating individual enclosures. Most often an oil filled radiator, baseboard, or other type of electric heater is used. An appropriately rated thermostat should be used as a back up to the one on the heating unit for extra safety. With whole room heating it is helpful to use a ceiling or box fan to ensure uniformity of temperature throughout the room. This is especially important if you have tall stacks of cages, or tall racks.
Pros – Whole room heating has less expensive up-front costs, and can avoid overly dry conditions sometimes attributed to in-cage heating.
Cons – With whole room heating you have less control of individual cages. This is especially challenging during breeding season if animals are being thermally cycled at different times of the season. It can create hot and cold pockets within the room if proper circulation is not achieved. Additional equipment is needed, such as timers, to set a night time drop in temps.
Thermostat Probe Placement
The placement of a thermostat probe is crucial. Using top heat as an example, the probe would need to be situated somewhere underneath the heat source and close to the level of the highest perch. Ideally the probe would measure air temps at the centermost point of the hot spot (directly under the heat source at perch level). But this isn’t practical unless the probe was secured to the perch itself. This isn’t recommended since the snake is likely to perch on the probe and interfere with feedback to the thermostat.
Because the probe will be offset from the centermost point of the hot spot, you will need to evaluate your chondro’s surface temp while basking and make adjustments to the settings on the thermostat. For example, the probe might be situated to one side of the heat source, slightly above the perch, with the thermostat set at 86. Remember that the thermostat will regulate heat output as determined by the temperature measured at the location of the probe. In this example, maintaining a temp of 86 (off to one side of the heat source) might equate to a hot spot of 92 directly under the source. In this case it would be necessary to lower the set point on the thermostat until a hot spot of 86-88 was achieved.
Like all reptiles, chondros thermoregulate by locating a comfortable temperature within their environment. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a temperature gradient (from cool to warm) to enable thermoregulation. A typical gradient is in the range from 75˚ to 88˚ F. Actual measured temperatures can depend on factors like vent placement, the source and wattage of heat provided, and the ambient room temperature. If ambient room temp is too high (close to the temp of your cage) it will be more challenging to achieve a broad thermal gradient. Also, fluorescent lights emit heat and may interfere with the temps you are targeting. In this case you might need to use different lighting, or experiment with light location.
To achieve a thermal gradient, heat sources are always offset to one side of an enclosure. In the case of top heat, the RHP, ceramic bulb, etc. is situated to the left or right side. When belly heat is used in a rack, heat tape is commonly situated to the rear of the tub. Therefore with belly heat and back heat a natural gradient is created from front to back.
When establishing your thermal gradient it is important to read what your chondro is telling you. If it constantly perches in the hot spot, your maximum temp may be set too low. If it habitually perches as far from the heat source as possible, or routinely grounds itself, your maximum temps may be set too high. An infrared temperature gun is a valuable tool and is highly recommended for setting up your thermal gradient. It will provide quick feedback about the surface temps of your chondro, perches, the ground, etc. and will enable you to dial in your temps with greater confidence.
It should be noted that sometimes a GTP will perch in a suboptimal location at the expense of receiving adequate heat. An example is when a newly acquired chondro is grounded for several days. In this case the animal is likely selecting a location that provides more security at the expense of getting enough heat. If this is observed for multiple days it will be necessary to make adjustments to encourage perching. If not, sustained stress-related grounding may lead to health issues. This will be covered in more detail later.
Nighttime Temperature Drops
Many GTP keepers use a nighttime temperature drop (NTD) as part of their daily husbandry practices. On the other hand, some keepers chose to only use NTD’s as part of their breeding protocols. But as GTP husbandry evolves it may become more evident that a NTD is beneficial to your animal’s health. Chondros are actually found in a variety of climates, including steamy coastal marshes, mangrove forests, rain forests, as well as the cooler mountain ranges. Clearly they thrive in the wild with a far greater temperature variation than we provide in our cages, and all of the climates that they inhabit experience a NTD to some degree.
Like most other variables, there are no set rules regarding NTD’s. Also, it should be emphasized that while a more significant drop (cycling) is employed during the breeding season, the following recommendations are for non-breeding, or maintenance. While some keepers may use a drop of only 3 degrees, others might drop temps by as much as 5 to 10 degrees year round (again, with the exception being during breeding season). Some factors that should be considered when deciding on how significant of a drop to use include, the practices of the previous owner of a newly purchased animal, your geographic location and time of year, the response of your animals to your set NTD, and your particular husbandry philosophy.