Exotic Complexities: Climate Edition!

Exotic complexities climate-300


Hello again, CHS Supporters! We hope you are enjoying exotics month here on the blog. For the entire month of August we will be tackling all things related to exotic pets, so if you have a question or topic that you would like to see covered, let us know on our Facebook page!

This month we are going to be wading in to some murky but important waters: the complexity of keeping exotic animals.

Now, to get the conversation off to a good start, it’s important to note there is no way one blog entry could cover all the complexities of exotic pets. Every exotic animal will have a different set of requirements and there is even debate within the veterinary field when it comes to the ‘best’ way to keep certain species.

One of the number one issues surrounding the keeping of exotic pets in captivity is housing, so we’re going to kick off this series with an in-depth look at an important element to any home: climate!

The very word ‘exotic’ means “not native”, “introduced from abroad”, or “of foreign character”. This definition is a good fit for a majority of exotic pets kept in North America. A majority of the exotic animals kept as pets in North America are not native species but have been introduced from foreign places over the past several centuries.  Unfortunately for exotic pets, this often means they are meant to live in a climate and environment very different from the one they are kept in as pets.

Calgary is a very dry climate with extreme variations in temperature. It gets really hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter… and sometimes it doesn’t even take an entire season to see this change, like last September showed us.

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But how does Calgary’s climate compare with the places where exotic pets live? Let’s have a look by comparing Calgary’s climate with the native home of two exotic pets that we talked about in our previous blog about geckos: crested and tokay geckos.

First, here’s Calgary: Home to snow and magpies, but not geckos.

graph 1

So you can see there is a large curve, meaning lots of variation. Over a 40*C difference between the lowest and highest average min/max temperatures.

Now, here’s New Caledonia: Home to the crested gecko.

graph 2

Right away you can see that it never dips below freezing, but you have also probably noticed that the curve is not nearly as dramatic. In fact, the difference between the highest and lowest average min/max temperatures is less than 15*C.

And finally, Cambodia: Home to the tokay gecko.

graph 3

Even less overall variation (though the difference between the highest and lowest min/max temperature is similar to New Caledonia).

Now let’s look at humidity…


graph 4

New Caledonia:

graph 5


graph 6

Having a look at these three graphs you’ll probably notice a few important things. First, Calgary has HUGE variations in humidity while the other two locations are pretty consistent. Second, even when humidity in Calgary is at the highest average it is still lower than the lowest average for either New Caledonia or Cambodia.

What does this tell us? Calgary has a different climate compared with New Caledonia and Cambodia – but you probably already knew that. However, this does raise one very important question: What does this mean for a gecko in Calgary?

At the most basic level, climate and habitat influence what adaptations animals develop over time. To understand adaptations you cannot look at only one animal, you have to look at the species as a whole. Adaptations often begin as a random mutation, or difference. If that difference makes the animal more “fit” or more competitive (in this case competitive means you are better at surviving or competing for resources) then that animal will be more likely to reproduce and pass that mutation on to their offspring. If the offspring with the mutation are more competitive than those without the mutation they too will be more likely to reproduce and pass the mutation on. Eventually over several generations you will see the mutation show up more and more until it becomes a species wide adaptation.

Adaptations are specific to an animal’s ecosystem. An ecosystem is a community of living things as well as the non-living environment (like climate) that interact as a system. If your ecosystem has a consistently warm climate, you probably don’t need to worry about staying warm whereas if your climate has a lot of temperature variation (like Calgary) you not only need a way to stay warm when the weather gets cold, but also a way to cool down when the weather is hot.

Geckos are a great example of having adaptations that are built for warm and humid places. First, geckos are ectotherms (cold-blooded) so they need to get all of their body heat from their environment, they can’t make any heat on their own. This means that the gecko does not need to get as much energy from their food (warm-blooded animals use a lot of the energy they get from food to produce body heat). This is a great adaptation if food is in limited supply or if it takes a lot of work to find food.

Unfortunately for our gecko friends, if the temperature of their environment gets too cold, they cannot create any heat to warm up. This means that in order to heat up or cool down the gecko will have to move to a location that is hotter or colder. Certain body processes (like digesting food) only happen within a specific range of temperatures, so if a gecko gets too cold these processes can shut down. Cold temperatures can even be fatal! For geckos kept as pets this means that a cold winter draft could cause the temperature of their tank to dip dangerously low if the tank heating system is not carefully monitored and adjusted to keep everything at ideal levels.

Humidity is another element that has to be carefully managed for pet geckos. Because geckos typically come from areas that are high in humidity (the leopard gecko being a notable exception) they have adapted to this humid environment. In captivity, high tank humidity is required to ensure that your gecko can shed properly. Geckos kept in tanks that are too dry can wind up with retained shed, which can lead to health problems. Unfortunately humidity can be even tougher than temperature to maintain properly in Calgary because our air is so dry. Humidity in the tank will disperse quickly into the surrounding dry air. There are tank systems that can produce high humidity environments, but these must be carefully watched to ensure they are functioning properly. Another important note about humidity? Watch out for mold! Many species of mold LOVE to hang out where the humidity is high, but they could make a human or animal sick, so frequent cleaning and good tank hygiene is very important.

Whew! That was a lot of information… but it all comes down to a simple take home message: Research, research, research! If you are considering an exotic animal as a pet, take the time to carefully research the animal’s native climate and determine whether or not it is feasible for you to provide those conditions in your home. Talk to experts in your area who are familiar with the species, including your exotic veterinarian, to determine if the pet will be a good fit for your home.

Is there a topic you would like to see covered as part of our Exotic Complexities series? We’d love to hear your suggestions! Share them with us on our Facebook page!