Skip to main content
Home  › ... Housing › Terrarium

Basil's Terrarium

When Basil was still quite small (weighing 260 grams as of August 2001, and measuring around four inches long), we had her in a glass terrarium tank that was 3 feet long by 18 inches wide by 14 inches high. The top of the terrarium was covered by a fine mesh screen. This was Basil's home until she was 15 months old.


To provide appropriate light, we installed two light sources above the terrarium: a 30 inch fluorescent UVB tube along the back edge of the tank and a 50 watt basking lamp at the front right corner. We set these lights up on an automatic timer to turn on at 7:00 a.m. and turn off at 9:00 p.m. for a 14 hour day. The UVB tube was essential for the synthesis of vitamin D3 (although during the winter months we also supplemented Basil's diet with a combination of calcium and D3 once a week). With this lighting set-up, the left side of the tank was left partly in shadow, simulating the shade found in Basil's native rain forest habitat.


To heat Basil's terrarium we suspended two ceramic heat emitters (150 watts each) above the tank. We initially installed an under-tank heater that covered about 1/6 of the bottom of the tank; however, our veterinarian suggested that such a heat source was not suitable since it unnaturally heated from below (something that wouldn't normally happen in nature), so we removed it. We had three digital thermometers monitoring the temperture (one of which had a remote readout, with maximum and minimum temperature alarms). During the day the surface temperature of the tank sat at roughly 28 degrees Celsius on the left side of the tank and roughly 30 degrees Celcius on the right. We also installed a thermostat that kept the heat constant. The gradient of temperatures across her terrarium allowed Basil the opportunity to choose the temperature that she feels best at (thermal self-regulation).


Not only do red foot tortoises need space, light and heat, but it is also essential that they remain moist. Rain forests are damp and humid places, and that is what red foots have adapted to. Dry conditions can lead to lung infections and cracked skin. As Toronto is quite dry (especially in the winter), we've had to be very vigilent in keeping the humidity level in Basil's terrarium high.

We found that the 6 inches of cypress mulch was critical to maintaining an appropriate humidity level. Initially, we used a simple plant mister on a daily basis to manually spray down the mulch and moss. Attempting to automate the process of keeping Basil's environment sufficiently humid, we first used an IV-like system that dripped another 250 ml. of distilled water into the tank every day (we used distilled water to avoid problems with Toronto's hard water). However, that system led to wide swings in humidity.

A friend of ours, Brian Hambleton, came to the rescue and built a humidifying system similar to the misting system in the fresh produces shelves of grocery stores. The humidifier system had a large (10 litre) reservoir that fed the pump system. The pump was a simple automobile windshield wiper fluid pump controlled by a Basic Stamp microprocessor. The Basic Stamp microprocessor was programmed to give full control over the misting cycle. We had it set up so that it sprayed out of two nozzles for about 2 seconds every 10 minutes. This maintained a humidity level of between 70 and 80 percent.