Because ball pythons are crepuscular, additional light beyond what illuminates the reptile room is not widely considered “necessary.” However, it is best to keep a light on to mimic nature’s day/night cycle. If you choose to light the enclosure, use a low-wattage fluorescent bulb for 12 hours on, 12 hours off.
Another option is to use a low-power UVB fluorescent as your light source. It is commonly believed that nocturnal snakes do not “need” UVB, therefore it would be a waste of money to provide it. While this reasoning may seem sound, it oversimplifies the issue. UVB does more for a reptile than help them synthesize vitamin D3; did you know that ball pythons can see ultraviolet light?
Recent studies suggest that UVB can be beneficial for snakes’ long-term physical and mental health. If you would like to use a UVB as the primary source of light, use a low-intensity fluorescent tube (not coil) like the Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 or Arcadia 6%, mounted at least 12″ inches away from the substrate. This bulb will need to be changed every 12 months to remain effective, even if it seems to still be working.
- PRO TIP: If you use UVB, make sure that the fixture doesn’t have a piece of glass or plastic to “protect” the bulb. UVB rays are blocked by glass and plastic, rendering that bulb you just spent so much money on completely useless. Naked UVB bulbs are effective UVB bulbs!
Because ball pythons are reptiles, they are cold-blooded, and that means they rely on their environment for the heat needed to regulate their metabolism. If the temperatures or humidity is off, the snake may stop eating.
Python regius is native to Africa’s tropical savanna climate zone, where average temperatures average between 68-86°F (20-30°C) over the course of the year, with occasional spikes up to 96°F (35°C) or higher. However, keep in mind that ball pythons prefer to live in burrows, where temperatures are cooler and more stable than the open air above.
If you are using a temperature gradient:
- Basking surface — 92-95°F (33-35°C)
- Cool side — 72-78°F (22-26°C)
Note the difference between surface temperature and ambient (air) temperature. Surface temperature is measured on the basking surface (substrate, a flat rock, etc.), and can only be measured with an infrared temperature gun like the Etekcity 774. Ambient temperature can only be measured with a conventional digital thermometer like the Zoo Med Digital Thermometer. Just because a surface is hot doesn’t mean that the air is hot — have you ever touched a piece of metal on a sunny day? Even if the air temperature is mild, the surface temperature of the metal can get quite hot. Air temperatures in a ball python’s enclosure should never exceed 95°F (35°C)!
Temperatures can typically drop to room temperature at night without negative effects, and may actually be more beneficial for the snake’s long-term health. So go ahead and save a little bit on your electric bill by turning off heat sources at night if your home isn’t too cold.
There are a few ways to keep your ball python at the right temperature…
BEST: Heat lamp
Heat lamps are a controversial heat source for ball pythons, but in nature, heat comes from above (the sun), not below (ground). In fact, reptiles retreat underground to escape the heat, not to get warmer. So while heating mats and heat tape are the most commonly used heat sources for ball pythons, they are unnatural and promote unnatural behaviors. Heat lamps solve this problem by warming the air as well as the ground below.
If you are using a glass terrarium or other enclosure with a mesh top, I recommend using a dome-style heat lamp fixture with a ceramic socket and a built-in lamp dimmer, like the Zoo Med Dimmable Clamp Lamp. That way the mesh will create a barrier between the bulb and the snake, preventing burns. If the bulb must be installed inside the enclosure, you will need a bulb cage like this to prevent burns.
There are many different types of heat bulbs on the market, from reptile-specific brands to household bulbs at your local home improvement store. Many claim that ordinary halogen floodlight bulbs work the best, but they have one flaw: though inexpensive, they do not produce the UVA wavelengths that are visible to reptiles. It is speculated that reptiles use their UVA vision to find the best basking spots. Be sure to buy white or clear bulbs rather than red, blue, black, or whatever other color you’ve found. Reptile basking bulbs do have a bit of a reputation for sometimes dying early, so although I like Zoo Med’s Repti Basking Spot bulb best of the reptile-specific bulbs, if you have trouble with it, the Philips 100w PAR38 halogen flood heat bulb is just as good, if not better.
What wattage? This is a common question with no solid answer, sorry! What wattage bulb you will need depends on room temperature, enclosure height, and other factors. What works for one person won’t always work for another, which is why I like dimmable heat lamps so much. When in doubt, try the higher-wattage bulb first and dim as needed.
If your room temperature tends to fluctuate by season, consider purchasing a proportional thermostat like the Herpstat EZ1, which is the top performing proportional stat in the US at its price point. Unlike non-proportional thermostats, which switch a heat source on and off in order to maintain the target temperature (this can be very annoying when you’re using a light-based heat source), proportional thermostats simply dim the heat source instead.
- PRO TIP: Beware “environmentally-friendly” light bulbs. These bulbs advertise a high wattage, but actually use fewer watts while maintaining the same light output as the advertised wattage. This is great for household lighting, but in a reptile enclosure you need the warmth that extra energy expenditure provides. If you can’t find a good bulb, a reptile day bulb from a pet store works, too, although it will likely have a shorter lifespan.
If you are concerned about “belly heat,” placing a flat rock or slate tile under the heat lamp will absorb warmth that your snake can curl up on. This is the perfect way to create an ideal basking surface. You can also place a hide directly under the lamp (and monitor temperatures closely with a thermometer probe inside the hide) to create a natural warm hide.
BETTER: Radiant heat panel
Like a heat lamp, but better. These are generally preferred by experienced and/or large snake keepers. Heat panels are one of the most expensive heating options, but they’re also more reliable — as long as you have them on a thermostat, of course. And since heat panels are installed on the top rather than bottom, burn/fire risk is minimized. Heat panels can be purchased at Reptile Basics.
GOOD: Heat tape
Commonly sold by Flex Watt, this is an interesting technology that works under the enclosure floor (like a heat pad) as a steady source of warmth for your snake. Also like heat pads, it comes with the risk of shorting out or overheating. Using a proportional (dimming) thermostat with this product is a must! Learn how to install and use heat tape here.
OKAY: Heat pad
Many snake keepers use a heat pad as their heat source of choice, covering 1/3 to 1/2 of the terrarium’s floor space. Fluker’s and Ultratherm are the most popular, as well as mats designed for seed germination have also been used successfully.
Whichever you choose, keep in mind that heat pads have a nasty tendency to overheat, so make sure to buy one with an adjustable thermostat so you don’t accidentally burn your snake. Most people prefer the low cost of non-proportional thermostats for use with heat pads, such as Jump Start and Vivosun. For something higher quality and much less likely to fail (read: safer), consider the Herpstat EZ1.
Once you have your heat pad and thermostat set up, place the thermostat’s probe inside your ball python’s “warm” hide, resting on the substrate. If you are using an ambient heating system, either hide will work. By placing the probe on your snake’s level, you will know and be able to control exactly what temperature s/he is experiencing.
I made the mistake of using a heat pad sans thermostat once, and it not only warped the plastic tub, but also changed the color of the wood beneath. The snake was, luckily, safe, but I had unwittingly kept a major fire hazard in my reptile room during those months.
DO NOT USE HEAT ROCKS!
For some unfathomable reason, heat rocks are still on the market, recommended by pet stores as a “safe” source of heat for your snake. Though safety improvements have been made in recent years, they are still dangerous. Furthermore, they’re not a good choice for heating your enclosure, as it only warms the rock, not the surrounding air.
Ball pythons need some humidity to maintain proper respiratory health and to shed their skin correctly. In the wild, humidity ranges roughly between 45-75%, with dips down to 30% and spikes up to 90%.
A large water bowl in the enclosure and the right substrate should be able to keep it between 55-65%. Occasional fluctuation down to 40% or up to 90% is okay, but should be the exception, never the rule. Too much humidity can be just as bad as too little. Keep tabs on both temperature and humidity with a digital thermometer/hygrometer.
- PRO TIP: Maintain consistent humidity by mixing water into the substrate whenever it gets too dry. If you find that you have to do this more than 1x/week, you may need to either reduce ventilation or augment via misting, which simulates rainfall. Mist with distilled water to prevent hard water spots.
Also offer a humid hide full of damp sphagnum moss. If you are using a temperature gradient, this should be placed on the cool side of the enclosure for maximum effect. This gives the snake a means for regulating its own humidity needs and works very well during shedding.