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Terrarium and Vivarium Maintenance

The dream of many amphibian and reptile hobbyists is to create a complete living, thriving, self-sustaining, maintenance-free ecosystem that houses both live plants and animals. With proper planning, it is possible to create a beautiful living terrarium that comes close the dreamed self-sustaining system. Beneficial microorganisms play a large role in the health of a terrarium and do much of the work involved in maintaining it for the keeper. Unfortunately, these little creatures can’t do all the work, and some amount of upkeep is required by you in order to sustain a living terrarium or vivarium.

Definitions: First off, what is a terrarium and how are they different from other types of herp housing? By definition, terrariums are miniature greenhouses. They are replicas of natural environments that contain live plants. The addition of live plants, which help to breakdown waste in a cage, is the difference between a terrarium and your average reptile or amphibian housing. A vivarium is a terrarium that is specifically designed to house and accommodate certain kinds of animals. Generally, the focus of a vivarium are the animals that are being kept rather than the live plants. An aqua-terrarium or aqua-vivarium is a terrarium or vivarium that is designed for semi-aquatic plants and/or animals and has a large water area to accomodate them. The term paludarium is often used to describe two different types of enclosures. Most often, it’s used to when discussing large aqua-terrariums or aqua-vivariums that contain a variety of different habitats. Occasionally, it is also used to describe an established vivarium that relies almost solely on beneficial bacteria and microfauna to maintain it. In all of the above environments there is some maintenance required by the keeper. The amount of maintenance varies depending on many things, including the type of animal being kept, the amount of animals being kept, the amount and types of plants used, the size of the terrarium, the substrate, and other aspects of terrarium and vivarium design.

Waste Removal: The most frequent kind of upkeep involved in most terrariums and vivariums, besides basic plant and animal care (feeding animals, regulating correct temperature and humidity, etc.), is removing waste from the tank. When keeping insectivorous reptiles or amphibians, leftover dead feeder insects can create a lot of waste. Dead insects often mold over in tropical terrariums and can become a source of unwanted waste. As a general rule, dead insects should be removed from terrariums as soon as they are noticed. Fallen and rotting plants are another form of waste that is often overlooked. If a plant in the terrarium starts to rot or die it may need to be removed. A large dying plant in a small tank can create too much waste for the system to handle. Occasional fallen leaves usually don’t present a problem. Other common sources of waste that should be removed include large amounts of animal feces, shed skin, and infertile eggs.

A terrarium that has been setup for a few months also should have healthy populations of beneficial bacteria that help take care of the waste. Additionally, other good microorganisms and small helpful invertebrates can be introduced into a terrarium by mixing leaf compost from outside into the soil or substrate. Unwanted organisms can also be introduced from leaf compost along with desirable ones, so consider the risks before going out and grabbing a handful of leaf mold to toss into a tank. Pests include slugs, snails, and other animals that eat plants and reproduce easily, as well as possible parasites that could harm the plants and animals in the cage.

Water Changes: Water changes are another commonly overlooked part of keeping a healthy terrarium or vivarium. Just like in a simple herp setup, water changes need to be done regularly. Water dishes are easy to change but often look unnatural in a terrarium. Instead of using a water dish, many people prefer to create a small pond or reservoir where water naturally collects in a lower part of the enclosure. This works well and looks more attractive than a water dish, but it’s important that this water is still partially replaced on a regular basis. When there is a large volume of well-oxygenated water, such in an aqua-vivarium or paludarium, it’s often best to rely on beneficial bacteria to control harmful waste in a similar way to that of an aquarium. In these setups, partial water changes should be done every two to three weeks. Water tests should be done regularly to ensure that good water quality is maintained. The use of a filter may also be helpful when a large volume of water is being used. When using small volumes of water, it can be more difficult to maintain stable conditions, and partial water changes may be needed as often as weekly. The addition of live aquatic and emergent vegetation helps to reduce nitrates, and is a good addition to a pond in a terrarium or vivarium.

aquatic plants help maintain good water quality
Floating plants help maintain water quality. Partial water changes are performed every few weeks.

Cleaning Glass: Often the appearance of a healthy terrarium can be ruined if the glass is difficult to see through. Water spots are a common problem, and develop quickly if tap water or spring water is used to mist the terrarium. To help avoid this problem, use distilled or reverse osmosis water for misting. Condensation is inevitable and will always form on the front of the glass in tropical terrariums unless a large amount of ventilation is provided. Unfortunately, providing large vents or screen sections in a terrarium for ventilation can also drastically reduce the humidity level, and may not be practical for some terrariums or vivariums. Algae and cyanobacteria (blue green algae) often reek havoc on the glass terrariums, and may need to be wiped off regularly. You can use a razor blade to scrape the front glass of a terrarium every couple weeks in order to maintain good visibility. Do not use razor blades on acrylic because they will scratch it. Instead, use a paper towel or acrylic-safe algae pad to wipe the front of an acrylic enclosure.

Substrate Maintenance: Many people new to terrariums fear that the substrate needs to be changed regularly like it does in a simple setup. Fortunately, most properly-planned terrariums do not need to have their substrate entirely replaced. The plants and microorganisms living in the substrate help breakdown waste and do most of the cleaning for the keeper. In areas where large amounts of waste accumulate, such as a feeding area where feeder insects are dropped into the cage or underneath a basking site, it may be helpful to scoop out the substrate and replace it every few months. Soil mixtures based off of coconut husk fiber can last years in a vivarium. Those based off of peat moss or fir bark may spoil faster than those that consist largely of coconut husk fiber. It’s important that the soil never becomes waterlogged or completely saturated with water, so providing good drainage is essential.

The way a terrarium smells is a good indication of its health. A healthy terrarium will smell fresh and have a pleasant odor, like the forest floor or a pile of leaves. A terrarium that stinks or smells like muck in a bog is not healthy and should have its substrate replaced. Not all terrariums can go for long periods of time without a complete substrate change. Those that house large reptiles or amphibians, or contain a high density of small ones may accumulate waste too quickly for the beneficial critters to breakdown, and in this case the soil may need to be changed a few times a year to maintain a healthy environment.

To Conclude: Terrariums and vivariums are more attractive than simple herp housing and can be less work to clean. They are enclosed biological systems, and much of the cleaning that has to be done in simple setups is instead performed by beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms. Unfortunately, terrariums and vivariums are not maintenance free, and there is still a fair amount of work that needs to be put into keeping one healthy and clean. Removing large amounts of waste, doing water changes, cleaning the glass, and partially replacing some of the substrate are the regular tasks that need to be completed in order to sustain a living terrarium or vivarium. When these are done on a regular basis, most terrariums and vivariums survive for years with minimal maintenance from the keeper.

Last updated 05.20.08