Herpetoculture is the keeping of live reptiles and amphibians in captivity, whether as a hobby or as a commercial breeding operation. "Herps" is an informal term for both reptiles and amphibians. It is undertaken by people of all ages and from all walks of life, including career herpetologists, professional reptile or amphibian breeders, and casual hobbyists.
The origin of the word "herpetoculture" is credited to Tom Huff, who devised the word to distinguish what he, as a self-described "herpetoculturist", was doing—working to keeping reptiles and amphibians alive and healthy—from what herpetologists of that era were generally doing, namely, collecting specimens for preservation in museum collections. The word itself comes from the Greek language origin herpein, which means "to creep".
Though traditional glass aquariums and terrariums are still widely used, in recent years glass and fiberglass cages designed specifically for herps have become more widely available. Many herpetoculturists prefer these newer enclosures as they come in larger sizes, are more secure, can be stacked, and are more easily modified to included heat and humidity sources. At one time it was commonly accepted to keep multiple creatures in a small enclosure; however, current cage size recommendations discourage this. These size recommendations differ depending on the species and its natural environment.
As reptiles are cold blooded they generally need to be kept in climate-controlled enclosures, especially when kept in regions further away from the equator. A standard enclosure usually incorporates a thermostat and a heat emitter; usually a heating pad, heat tape or an incandescent light bulb. Hot rocks can be used, but as a secondary heat source, as they often provide uneven heating. Some reptiles also require some form of Ultraviolet radiation which can be provided through a UV bulb. The lighting can be set to a timer to simulate a day/night cycle. Heat emitters are usually placed at one end of the enclosure to allow for a temperature gradient, so a reptile may move to the other end of the enclosure if it needs to cool itself.
Many reptiles are oviparous and will lay eggs if successfully mated. Breeders may use incubators to increase their chances of successful hatching. Reptilian incubators generally consist of a thermostat and hygrometer, plus various heating and misting devices, as to create a stable environment. Unlike most avian eggs, reptile eggs do not need to be turned; in the wild they are generally laid in mounds or underground and left to incubate.
Reptiles and amphibians can be omnivores, carnivores, or herbivores. Omnivorous reptiles can be fed species-dependent mixes of plant or meat-based foods, with additional supplementation, most commonly calcium. Carnivorous reptiles may need living or dried insects or whole rodents. Frozen rodents can be bought from pet shops and are then thawed before feeding, and live rodents can be kept and sustained before feeding. Some species of reptiles will also feed on smaller reptiles.
Many species of reptiles have a seasonal breeding cycle. For example, in southern Australia, the Eastern Long Neck turtle brumates over winter before mating in spring. Herpetoculturists who wish to breed their reptiles may have to alter the environment in the vivarium to simulate seasons to encourage successful mating. Amphibians are easily bred in captivity. Due to their small size and low-maintenance requirements, large captive populations can be substantiated easily and for a low-cost compared to other organisms.
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There are long-standing differences and disputes between herpetoculturists and professional herpetologists. With professional herpetology's increasing focus on scientific research, including conservation biology, some[who?] herpetologists believe that herpetoculturists are part of the problem: that collecting specimens from the wild for the live animal trade is having an adverse impact on wild populations. While many captive bred reptiles and amphibians are offered for sale at pet stores and reptile shows such as bearded dragons, corn snakes and leopard geckos, many animals sold are still removed from the wild. Complicating the matter further is the growing problem of exotic species escaping or being released into the wild where they occasionally establish populations outside of their natural ranges, becoming invasive species.
Herpetoculturists[who?] respond that with few exceptions, wild collecting is incidental and trivial compared to the losses resulting from habitat destruction and modification, highway mortality, and killing by people out of fear or ignorance. Herpetologists collecting specimens for preservation are also blamed for depleting local populations. Many herpetoculturists[who?] maintain that their animals are bred in captivity wherever possible and that their captive breeding efforts actually help to preserve threatened species. In addition, they contend that herpetoculture has saved some species[which?]from extinction. One example often given is the Crested Gecko, citing that while threatened in the wild, the species has flourished in captivity.
Another controversial issue is unethical captive breeding, in which animals are kept in sub optimal conditions in order to create 'morphs', which are commonly created through intense inbreeding. A prime example is the popular ball python, or royal python, which are sold in vast quantities.
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