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Terrariums 101

ter·rar·i·um

terrarium [tuh-rair-ee-uhm]
–noun, plural-rar·i·ums, -rar·i·a  [-rair-ee-uh]
A glass container, chiefly or wholly enclosed, for growing and displaying plants.
 
A terrarium is an enclosed glass or plastic container with decoratively landscaped features which complement live growing plants.

A vivarium is similar to the terrarium with the exception of it having the added dimension of a live animal cohabitating inside.

These miniature worlds are fun, easy, and educational to create for your home, office, or classroom....we'll show you how!
 
Introduction to Terrarium & Vivarium Keeping
 
The keeping of terrariums has its origin back in the Victorian era when explorers would bring back exotic plants from their travels to their European homeland. The climate was too harsh to successfully grow these plants out of doors, therefore special cases were made of glass in order to cultivate these rare treasures. These enclosures, known then as vitrines, were complete with their own heating systems and often adorned with elaborate decorations. The evolution of the terrarium continued and peaked during the 1960's and 1970's when they again became very fashionable conversation pieces for the home. These types of terrariums were generally enclosed units with little or no ventilation and provided a nice display for small plants. Today, these types of terrariums still exist, however, the term can also be applied to environments for the keeping of small animals such as reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, etc.

Terrariums for the keeping of these animals are much more open and airy. Most of these systems consist of a simple substrate and a few rocks or other hiding places for shelter, a water bowl and maybe a branch or two for climbing. This can be a very practical and easy to maintain type of cage for large collections.

Vivariums, on the other hand, will contain soil or a similar substrate along with a full complement of living plants and be more of a simulated "micro" ecosystem. These environments go a long way in making their inhabitants feel more at home and are much more likely to encourage breeding behavior than a more basic set up. One can even take this one step further by adding the element of water, either running or still, and create a paludarium containing fish and other aquatic inhabitants. The way in which an environment is termed will also vary by what part of the globe you are from. To keep things simple, we will use the term terrarium as this is the most universally accepted name.

In the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in terrariums, many of us try to create as close to a natural habitat as possible. What, then, would be more natural than live plants? Although this type of setup may not be practical for large scale production, even the most advanced "shoe-box breeder" can benefit from having a few naturalistic terrariums in their collection. Terrariums such as these allow us to create a "mini-jungle" in which to view our animals as though we were watching them in the wild. Many species simply would not do very well in captivity without such surroundings.

Terrarium & Vivarium Habitats


In the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in terrariums, many of us try to create as close to a natural habitat as possible. What then, would be more natural than live plants? Although this type of setup may not be practical for large scale production, even the most advanced "shoe-box breeder" can benefit from having a few naturalistic terrariums in their collection. Terrariums such as these allow us to create a mini environment in which to view our animals as though we were watching them in the wild. Many species simply would not do very well in captivity without such surroundings. The design can be as simple or as elaborate as you would like.

If a soil based terrarium is against your beliefs, live plants are not necessarily out of the question. There are many types of air plants (Tillandsias) that do quite well when mounted on branches and require no soil whatsoever. These can be combined with unique, decorative wood and maybe a few rocks to make a very nice display. Keep in mind, however, that soil substrates are not as bad as some people believe. If common sense is used and good hygiene practices followed, there is no reason that soil based terraria should pose a health risk to it's inhabitants. It is true that soil can harbor pathogens and provide a pathway for parasites to spread, but the same can be said for improperly maintained spartan setups.

Naturalistic housing for herps can even benefit their health and well being. While a simple, newspaper lined cage may be easy to keep spotlessly clean, it seems that the inhabitant would be under much more stress being in such unnatural conditions. It then would need such a sterile home to keep it healthy. A herp maintained in more naturalistic surroundings would feel much more at ease and have an improved level of immunity to fight off an illness naturally.

Another concern some people have is that their pets may hide in densely planted terrariums. This seems not to be the case. In fact, herps maintained in conditions similar to those of their native habitat will feel much more secure and tend to venture out more often than those housed in a sparsely decorated tank with just a simple hidebox. Activity can be encouraged by placing basking areas in the open where they can easily be viewed or by placing feeding dishes (where applicable) clear of any foliage or decor.

Plant & Animal Compatability Considerations


Many types of herps can benefit from living in a naturally planted terrarium. Additionally, live plants add another element of life and activity to the environment. They too, become part of the day to day growth cycles and are constantly changing. There are, however, several things that must be kept in mind when furnishing your herp's new home.

What types of animals do well in planted vivariums? Well, herbivorous lizards such as iguanas and bearded dragons would probably reduce a lush terrarium to lunch in a very short amount of time. This is not to say that their environment cannot offer a nice display, however, decorative wood and other non-living natural decor should be strongly considered. There are many types of plants that will prosper under a wide variety of conditions, while many more prefer a narrower climate preference. The trick is in matching the needs of the plants to that of the animals they are cohabitating with. Plants that thrive in the warm, humid environment will suit many small animals such as geckos, anoles, toads, salamanders, tree frogs, dart frogs, and arboreal snakes such vine snakes. Other plants, such as succulents, prefer things on the drier side and can live with leopard geckos and other non-vegetarian desert dwellers. Animals such as turtles and young tortoises can also be maintained with live plants as long as those with herbivorous tendencies cannot reach the plants. Remember, however, that smaller herps usually work out to be the best choice and pose the least difficulties.

Other plants, like the terrestrial bromeliads, will play not only a decorative part in the terrarium, but also may serve as breeding sites for species such as poison dart frogs. Some of the smaller Sansevierias will be used by day geckos for egg laying as well. Cacti and succulents can add a dramatic effect to desert terrariums, however caution must be used in that cacti should only be used in terrariums housing animals that would normally coexist with them naturally. Some desert reptiles possess such thick skin that they are almost impervious to the sharp spines of cacti. This is something I witnessed myself when my chuckwallas decided to use one of their cacti as a 'bed'. At first I was quite alarmed, but eventually the lizards won and managed to wear the spines off the cactus through their repeated traffic over it!