Reptile Enrichment guide – compiled by Zoological experts
Reptiles at zoos are housed in areas that display their natural habitats. There you will find enrichment that will stimulate them for good health. You need to investigate the natural history of each species to develop a safe and effective enrichment program. Consult knowledgeable people and vets to assist you to establish a safe and efficient program.
Their natural habitats differ from temperature extremes of deserts, moisture of tropical forests, the salinity of marine environments, etc. They may be aquatic, terrestrial, arboreal, subterranean, or a combination of these that depends on the stage of their development and the time of the year.
Reptiles can be herbivores, insectivores, carnivores, frugivores or omnivores. They are cold-blooded animals. Reptiles can regulate their body temperature by their behavior. Water and the amount of moisture in the air are very important for their health and reproductive cycles.
Perching is important to provide pathways and tree access for tree species. Place perches near heat sources for basking. It encourages movement between sites. Change the location of perching now and then to stimulate an increase in movement as they will explore its “new” environment.
Misting can be done by hand or by an automated system. It assists to increase their activity and the shedding of skin. Water features (shallow or deep pools, water cascades, etc.), can make the enclosure more interesting and raise the humidity level. To maintain humidity and moisture even further, plants, moss, and soil can be added.
Soil, wood chips, moss, etc. give reptiles the ability to manipulate their environments. They engage in natural behaviors like excavating a burrow or creating a nest site. It is also important to provide the proper substrate and conditions for potentially gravid females. It helps them to decrease the risk of not depositing their eggs and becoming eggbound. Natural substrate like bark often contains live insects that can be discovered.
Plants, caves, rocks, and logs are shelters that help them feel protected while still being visible. For some snakes, the addition of a “hide box” to the enclosure promotes eating.
The minimum recommended dimension of the enclosure depends on the reptile species according to its preferred temperature range and habitat needs. Larger enclosures are easier to design and can have more enriching features. Larger enclosures also are better able to provide temperature, moisture, and light gradients. It also reduces bacteria build-up which can decrease the need for frequent substrate changes. Larger enclosure spaces cause long-term increases in activity level and behavior.
- Naturally rotten logs with insects.
- Insect dispensers e.g., fake logs with timed release insects on a random schedule.
- Variety of insect prey.
- Novel live prey: goldfish, feeder fish, insects.
- Scattering of routine dietary insects in unpredictable quantities and intervals.
- A varied feeding schedule of prey items.
- Scent trails: blood trails, lactating mouse odors/trails.
- Nontoxic browse (e.g., escallonia, willow) for herbivorous reptiles. -Can also be used as temporary perching while they feed.
Reptile Enrichment guide Novel Enrichment/Social Enrichment:
- Snake sheds.
- Rotation of animals into conspecifics’ enclosure.
- Animals housed in natural social groupings.
- Mixed species exhibits with appropriate species.
- Visual barriers to reduce social stress and feeding competition.
- Behavioral training to introduce animals to shift boxes, tubes, and squeeze chutes.
Reptile Enrichment guide Safety Considerations:
- Form does not equal similarity; the natural history of each individual species should be considered.
- The super-stimulus effect should be avoided, e.g. water at all times to desert animals can cause problems.
- Over misting in some species can cause health problems.
- The potential of animals drowning in deep (relative to the species), smooth-sided pools should be minimized.
- Substrate, if used improperly, can cause impaction, suffocation, or be media for pathogens.
- Sand should be avoided as a substrate for most non-desert species; corn cob can cause problems if ingested.
- Dietary variety in snakes can create finicky eaters.
- Live prey items can bite and injure the animal being fed.
- The browse should be checked for pesticides and other chemicals.
- Mixed species exhibits should be designed to avoid species preying on exhibit mates, aggression, social stress, and dietary competition.
- Keeper safety: even non-venomous reptiles can have septic bites and anticoagulants in their saliva. Care should be taken when working around them and handling them.
- Transmissible pathogens such as salmonella pose a risk to humans and other reptiles.
A more comprehensive PDF document, Suggested Guidelines for Reptile Enrichment, is available to download at:
Compiled by Cheryl Frederick, Keeper, Woodland Park
Zoological Gardens, AAZK National Enrichment Committee
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