A guest post by Thomas Griffiths:
Being an animal lighting consultant for zoos around the world, it seems obvious that I should use this article to talk about light and its biological effects on animals (especially reptiles). After all, I’ve worked with lighting tuataras to Komodo dragons. Parrots to ostriches. Chimps to elephants.
But lighting alone is such a deep-dive topic that anyone reading such an article would need a Harvard degree just to make sense of the terms. I want this to be a fairly easy read, with as few technical terms as possible.
Why should an article like this be simple, avoiding the use of technical terms? Is there any value in that? Come with me as I explore the topic of providing information to new keepers.
I am privy to a few reptile-themed Facebook groups. These include groups for all the usual suspects, from bearded dragon keepers to tortoise lovers. And I think we can all agree, some groups are better than others. One group that I often see on my feed is a bearded dragon page aimed at new keepers. And I frequently see advice being given by “experts” that makes me cringe. I’ll try to focus on that group here, without naming it.
Given my background, it probably comes as no surprise that the posts on these pages which catch my eye are the ones about lighting. I have a little beardie myself – he’s called Spud. And it probably also comes as no surprise that I’ve spent a lot of time lighting his enclosure as best I can. For clarity, I provide the following lights:
- UVB – T5HO from Reptile Systems
- LED – Jungle Dawn LED from Arcadia
- Heat lamp – Exo Terra Intense Basking Spot
- Metal halide – Mega Ray HID
“Wait, four lights?” I hear you say. Yes, four lights.
If you’re confused by this, then maybe you are a victim of not being educated enough as a new keeper – and that is probably the fault of those that educated you (or rather, didn’t educate you).
If you visited the aforementioned beardie group aimed at new keepers, you’d have been told by the “experts” and “admins” that you only need a UVB lamp and a heat lamp. In fact, I quote: “A heat lamp and UVB bulb provide more than enough light for your dragon”.
This statement is false. And of course, when I brought it up I was silenced quicker than a speeding bullet for questioning the will of the admins, as if they were some kind of medieval god or king ruling with an iron fist.
Established "minimums" are still not enough
Before we continue, let’s discuss why I consider that statement to be false. Beardies have been kept with just a UVB lamp and a heat lamp for years and they breed and eat and poop just fine, so how can it not be enough?
Firstly, we have to recognise that breeding, eating, and pooping are not, on their own, signs of health or happiness. Caged bile bears will breed, eat, and poop – do you think they are adequately cared for?
In the zoo world, the “Five Domains” are used as a way of determining welfare. In brief, this means providing a range of measurable factors to an environment for an animal. This is something I do a lot of work on – in fact just a few weeks ago I was reviewing this concept (with a focus on lighting) for giraffes in the UK, and I’ll be delivering a talk on the subject at a zoo symposium in the autumn.
If we measure it, the amount of visible light provided by a UVB bulb and a heat lamp is nowhere near the levels a bearded dragon would get in the wild. If you take a relatively inexpensive lux meter (a device used for approximating the “brightness” – the lux — in a given space), and place it in the brightest part of a bearded dragon enclosure illuminated by a high-quality T5HO UVB lamp and a heat lamp, then you will get a readout of around 4,000lx.
Sounds like a lot, right? Now compare it to the 120,000lx that a wild dragon experiences when basking. Even on a “dark” cloudy day, a wild dragon would be getting 40,000lx or more – over 10 times as much light as the brightest part of an enclosure. And this light has a whole host of biological benefits.
So, the statement, “A heat lamp and UVB bulb provide more than enough light for your dragon” is false. And any new keeper who is told this sort of thing will go on believing such falsities. This then leads them down the path of less-than-ideal husbandry. And it makes them less likely to accept changes in their care going forward. They may even say words to the effect of: “The experts told me that I’m providing enough, so why should I spend money on another lamp if I don’t need it? My dragon is eating, pooping, and sleeping, and is happy as he is!”
(Yes, that’s another direct quote.)
I’ve gone off on a rant… Essentially, the education that is being provided to new keepers isn’t being laced with wonder or intrigue. Basic information is being provided without the possibility of “more to be learned”. Education is about lying to people, but an important part of this is laying a foundation for nuance and discovery – not cementing the lies into the learner as fact.
A case study in bearded dragon lighting named Spud
On that note, I think it’s important to touch on why I provide so many lights for Spud.
The UVB lamp is (you guessed it!) my provision for UVB, something that you’ll probably recognise as a requirement for most reptiles. These T5 tubes do produce some “visible light” – but in short, it’s not great. Even the brightest tubes still don’t have a sun-like output where visible light is concerned.
The heat lamp is, as you can guess again, for heat. Well, it’s actually for infrared-A and infrared-B, which in turn are basking wavelengths that heat the animal up. (See what I did there? I gave you a taste of some nuance which you can explore further on your own to expand your knowledge!)
The LED is used as a supplement to the tiny levels of visible light provided by the UVB and heat lamps. LEDs are pretty efficient at producing visible light, which means that they can be very bright at relatively low wattages. As you’d expect, some are better than others. The Arcadia Jungle Dawn is a high-quality product that I use a lot. Reptile Systems has a range of dimmable LED lamps that can be controlled via your phone, which is cool, too!
The metal halide lamp is perhaps the one that people will question the most, particularly in the US. Halide lamps are very popular in Europe. I recently visited some European zoos which nearly exclusively use this kind of lamp for everything from crocodiles to primates. They emit a bright white light, and can even come with UVB capability. For me, one of the best things about these lamps is their generally fantastic UVA output. UVA is something that is a science in itself, for now just know that it is important for reptile vision. Halides are much better than anything a T5 lamp or heat lamp can provide when it comes to UVA.
Put those together and you get a nice wide spectrum – much like the sunlight that the wild dragons get to experience.
So that’s what I provide, and it’s what I consider to be a decent lighting setup. But, how can I convince others that even adding an LED will help? If what I’m up against is pet shops, manufacturers, and 50K-strong Facebook groups filled with misinformation, then can just my one voice make a difference?
Is this a losing battle?
The Facebook group in this case started with a positive idea: helping those who are new to animal keeping. But it’s quickly transformed into an epicentre of untruths. They claim that their aim is to remove all the technicalities, thus making things easy for new keepers to understand. But I argue that by removing every single technicality, the finer details and facts get lost, and new keepers are misinformed about how much more there is to learn.
Of course, it’s not just poorly-managed Facebook groups that are guilty of this. Pet shops could take the prize as the worst offenders. In the UK, we have a system in place for licencing pet shops – it’s called the Animal Activities Licence (or AAL for short).
As a part of AAL, animal sellers have to ensure certain standards are met. And they have to train their staff appropriately. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it would be, but it’s enforced by local councils. And the people in charge of the AAL are also in charge of licencing for tattoo shops, waste disposal centres, gambling, taxis, and more. The same person expected to “judge” how appropriate a pet shop also has to be able to judge how appropriate and safe a waste disposal centre is. There’s no way that one person can be a specialist in the vast range of subjects for licencing a whole bunch of industries.
This is where it falls apart. Licence officers, as they are known, go into a pet shop and are amazed by the fact that there is an iguana in a tank, they’re like a child in a candy store. It doesn’t take much to convince these officers that the store is fantastic, even if it’s not. The pet shops can very easily get a “5 star” rating just by impressing the officer with a large snake. It honestly doesn’t take much to get them to say “wow!”
What you end up with is a store with untrained staff and no formal procedure in place for getting them properly qualified. Staff who themselves don’t know the “truth” about the reasons we might provide extra light to a bearded dragon. They have the same mentality of “if it’s eating, pooping, sleeping, breeding, then it’s happy.”
(Side note: It’s one of my biggest peeves to see a pet shop or private seller say that an animal is “doing everything it should.” I cringe at it every time – what is “everything it should”?!)
I can’t go much further without mentioning the manufacturers and brands. Yep, even their hands aren’t clean. The most obvious example is when heat lamps are marketed as having “UVA” in their output. Although technically this is true, I can’t begin to describe how little UVA there is in a heat lamp. The amount of UVA is less than 0.5% of the output of the lamp – it’s certainly not a “UVA lamp,” despite what’s written on the box.
Another example is the hype around heat projectors in recent years. Proclaimed to be “rich in Infrared-A” and “Sun-replicating heat,” these bulbs emit only about 3% Infrared-A. Compare that to the approximately 42% that is present in daylight — this makes them totally inadequate as basking lamps.
See the pattern here? Sometimes the information on the box isn’t giving us the whole picture. Although manufacturers aren’t technically lying when they say that a heat lamp has UVA, and a heat projector has Infrared-A, it certainly doesn’t feel like the truth. It looks more like marketing hype than science to me.
Put these things together, and we start to see the disturbing pattern that shapes a majority of the reptile hobby:
- A new keeper buys a bearded dragon from the “specialist pet shop” with inadequate advice.
- They buy equipment that gives them half-truths on the box.
- They go onto a bearded dragon Facebook group and get given equally inadequate advice.
- After 3 years of keeping, they consider themselves an expert and become an admin on one of the same groups to spout the same inadequate advice to the next generation.
It’s this cycle that makes me wonder if we should get more technical when explaining things to new keepers. It’s not about making it hard or trying to confuse people. It’s about giving them a solid foundation to grow their understanding of the subject of animal care. It’s about making new keepers aware that there is much more to it than a few light bulbs and a food dish.
Let’s get back to my earlier question: Why shouldn’t an article like this have big words and technical language? As long as the information is provided in an easy-to-digest format (and yes, that means sometimes slightly simplifying things) I’m all for making new keepers step back a bit and think properly about their approach to reptile care.
Don’t get me wrong — new keepers should feel welcomed at all times. But the focus should always be on providing what is best for the animals. Perhaps it’s up to us as a community to make the technicalities easier to understand, rather than presuming people will never understand them.
Wait, so we need to make information more accessible to everyone? And we need to come together as a community to work on this? We’d better get to work…
Author’s note: There are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to “new bearded dragon owners”. This article does not name a specific group — please do not make presumptions about any Facebook groups based solely on this article.
 – Mellor, D.J. (2017). Operational Details of the Five Domains Model and Its Key Applications to the Assessment and Management of Animal Welfare. Animals 2017, 7, 60. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani7080060
 Sarika Paul and Timothy M Brown (2019) – Direct effects of the light environment on daily neuroendocrine control. Journal of Endocrinology, 243:1. doi:10.1530/JOE-19-0302
 Cohen, Jack (1994). The collapse of chaos: discovering simplicity in a complex world. New York: Viking Press. Edited by Ian Stewart. ISBN 0670849839
 UK Government (2018), Statutory guidance, Animal activities licensing: statutory guidance for local authorities.
About the Author:
Thomas Griffiths is an exotic animal husbandry educator and consultant with a specialty in enclosure lighting. He provides professional interactive training courses, personalized husbandry consultations, enclosure design, and independent product testing. His mantra is simple: do what’s best by the animal, and achievable by the keeper.
If you’re interested in learning more about Thomas’ work, listen to his recent two-part interview on the Reptiles and Research and Animals at Home podcasts! ↓