Prior to publishing this guide, I did quite a bit of research on the actual term vivarium. Comparing literature found in textbooks with what ranked on a number of search engines of the word, sort of left me feeling like I needed to do my part in justifying a clearer answer to what they actually are. I’m going to try my very best to give you a detailed guide to understanding the very nature of a vivarium and how to tailor an enclosure to your particular animal or set of plants. After reading this guide be sure to check out the various types of vivariums and let us know if you’d like to see one covered that we haven’t got to yet.
What is a Vivarium?
A vivarium, also commonly referred to as “vivaria”, is an enclosure made to house plants and/or animals.
The viva part of the word comes from the Latin word vivus, meaning “living.”The word itself translates to “a place of life.” The plural form of vivarium is vivaria.
Vivarium vs Terrarium: What’s the Difference?
The key difference between a vivarium and terrarium is simple. One has an established animal enclosed, and one does not. As a result, adding an inhabitant to a terrarium changes the enclosure to a vivarium or at the very least, a bioactive terrarium.
It’s easy to mix up the two terms. Many popular terrariums today are complex systems based on the premise of a planter. If you’re here to build a land dominant enclosure that could sustain a living animal, it will more than likely be bioactive and you are at the right place.
Types of Vivariums:
Vivariums are literally a representation of nature in a case, so they come in a variety of ways. There are four main types of ecosystems that can then be broken down to more individualized styles:
- Aquarium – A fully aquatic enclosure that will consist of saltwater, freshwater or a combination of both (brackish). These types of vivariums are made to resemble large bodies of open water like oceans or lakes.
- Terrarium – A non-aquatic enclosure that will consist of terrain like features. These tanks are usually modeled to look like various types of land found in nature like the forest, jungle or desert.
- Paludarium – A semi-aquatic enclosure that will consist of both water and land. These vivariums are designed to resemble land that has water flowing through or around it like the rainforest or woods with a creek.
- Riparium – A mostly aquatic enclosure that will consist of water with parts of the hardscape emerging from the water. This type of setup will resemble shorelines or river banks.
The many other types of vivariums you will see out there are more than likely based on one of these core designs. If you are building a vivarium with the intentions of housing a specific type of animal, be sure to go with a design that closely fits that animals needs. We will go deeper into why inhabitants need a specific type of vivarium later.
Building a Vivarium
This guide will cover the build for a bioactive terrarium. If you are more interested in another type of enclosure, be sure to check out the vivariums we linked out to above. Building a vivarium can be slightly different depending on the type of animal being kept in it. This is an enclosure that will closely resemble a forest floor which is ideal for moderate humidity, low light thriving plants, and animals.
Key Layers of a Vivarium
The Drainage layer of this setup is where your false bottom goes. A false bottom is a material like gravel which a lot of hobbyists find heavy and often go with lighter, engineered material like clay pellets. This area is important. It provides an easy way for stagnant water to escape the reach of flora roots in the potted layer. Allowing water to settle down here helps keep the humidity levels stable within the enclosure. This layer also serves as a good spot for healthy bacteria to thrive and break down unhealthy chemicals like ammonia. This layer is usually covered with a wool sheet to separate it from the substrate.
The Substrate layer of the vivarium is composed of soil and the roots of the plants. A coco soil mix will be ideal compared to other types of soil because it’s lighter and last much longer. You will want something that is easy for plants to root through. The material should also hold moisture well. Healthy bacteria reside in this layer and aid with the breakdown of nutrients that the plants will absorb.
The Plant layer of the bioactive terrarium is the centerpiece of the enclosure. This layer comprises the ground cover and upper plant parts (stem, leaf & flower). The ground cover is meant to help keep moisture in the substrate. It will consist of leaf litter to give an aesthetic look and provide shelter to small critters. Be creative! Try adding wood, various plants that fit the ecosystem and other accents like mushrooms, moss, or lichens.
The Lighting layer is a very important aspect for a vivarium. Insufficient light and plants will not be able to produce energy from photosynthesis. You can use direct/indirect sunlight or artificial lighting. I recommend LED lighting, but you can also use fluorescent lighting as well. A day and night cycle will be ideal for plants and animals living in the vivarium. Consider setting up a timer for the lights so they consistently go on and off every day… Just like the real world!
Caring For a Vivarium
Now that we’ve established the basic set up of the wooded vivarium… Here are some caretaking tips for a thriving vivarium. These tips are essential for the longevity of the overall life of the bioactive terrarium.
Ideal Temperatures – Even though most plants will do just fine in typical households room temperature, some species of animals will need very specific climates. Be sure to do research on the inhabitants being kept and stock a heater in the form of a heating pad or lights.
Regulate Humidity –Another very important factor for some animals is the moisture in the air. Specific plants and animals being kept need higher humidity levels than substrate may offer… Try adding a fogger to kick things up. Also be cautious the humidity isn’t too high as well, causing respiratory issues.
Proper Lighting –Even though we touched on this earlier, it’s very important that some plants receive a specific spectrum of light. Most reptiles will need sun rays in order to survive so make sure to provide additional UV and/or basking where needed.
Adequate Airflow –This is something most won’t notice when initially starting a vivarium. Air can become stagnant as well and proper ventilation or fans will be a necessary plus to circulate fresh air and prevent mold from setting in.
Good Water Flow –Some easy ways to avoid stagnant water would be to install a drainage outlet in the false bottom layer allowing the release of water building up. Additionally, adding a mister system or fogger will help circulate water to the upper areas of the vivarium where humidity levels will essentially be lower.
Best Vivarium Plants
There are a number of plants that would be great for a vivarium depending on the type of bioactive terrarium you are making (desert, wooded, tropical). I will recommend a few plants that would suit the type of vivarium we are covering today. Keep the inhabitants in mind as well if you plan on adding any. Some animals depend on the vegetation around them to for things like shelter, diet, and even mating.
- Ferns – These are a great background plant for shelter and “filling up” the vivarium. Ferns come in different shapes and temperaments making them good for most terrarium types. These types of plants like higher humidity levels.
- Moss – These are good carpeting plants that tend to maintain moisture in the substrate very well. This plant should be kept on the lower end of the vivarium near the more moist areas of the tank. Ultimately, moss is a really good “filler” plant but fully capable of being the centerpiece of the vivarium.
- Pothos – Like many other types of Aroids, come in various shapes and forms. These are one of the more easier plants to care for and can spread quickly if not maintained. Making this plant is great for climbing and can also provide an ideal spot for animals to find comfort resting.
- Bromiliads – One of the more popular plants on the list, these plants are aesthetically pleasing to have and can really bring out the look of a vivarium. Bromiliads thrive in brighter lit settings and will often reward your vivarium with brighter more colorful leaves order lighter.
Best Vivarium Animals
When it comes to vivarium animals, be very selective and make sure to do as much research as you can so you are bringing that inhabitant into the best habitat it will thrive in. Below are a few examples of animals that would do really well in the setup we’ve built:
- Isopods – These, as well as springtails, are key to making every terrarium bioactive. These guys do an incredible job keeping things clean.
- Frogs – Poison Dart Frogs and Tree Frogs are good picks for a vivarium high in humidity and dense flora.
- Skinks – Crocodile Skinks is one of my person favorites. These guys are nocturnal and like to hide most of the day.
- Gecko – Tokay Gecko, Crested Gecko are common picks if you are going for something a bit more social.
- Newts – Fire Belly Newts are colorful and add lots of life to a vivarium
Best Vivarium Tanks
There are a number of ways you could set up a vivarium tank. Once you’ve decided on the type of set up you are going to put together here are a few variations of a vivarium tank you could consider building within:
Tall Vivarium Tank
Tall vivarium tanks are ideal for those looking to have animals that like to climb. These tanks allow a unique way of heat and light elevation. Inhabitants have the option of climbing higher for more warmth or hang low and stay cool while quenching their thirst. https://amzn.to/2CwkxWS
Wide Vivarium Tank
Wide vivarium tanks are ideal for those looking to have animals that like to roam. These tanks are best when housing multiple inhabitants and allow room for animals of the same sex to coexist in a shared environment. https://amzn.to/2Fji2bm
Screen Vivarium Tank
Screen vivarium tanks are ideal for inhabitants that need to have airflow as their main priority. Chameleons, for example, need a constant flow of fresh air circulating throughout their tank… This would be the best option for them. You will have to be mindful of the room these vivariums go in as well since they have such an easy influence on the vivarium. https://amzn.to/2JykH6e
Vivariums are extremely fun projects to get into. Understanding the difference and which specific type you would like to build will take you a long way and save you tons on aspirin. Did this guide help you better understand what vivariums are? If there’s a different type of vivarium you would like to have us cover, please feel free to let us know below in the comment section!