Vivariums as Indoor Gardens and Habitats

vivarium indoor gardensAdding small creatures to a glass garden can truly bring a terrarium to life. Critters like geckos, chameleons, and tree frogs can make entertaining and interesting pets. Observing small animals go about their daily lives provides hours of fascination for kids and adults alike.

Turning a terrarium into a habitat for a small animal makes it a vivarium (Latin for “game park”). Vivariums come in a range of sizes, although the most practical container is an aquarium tank. Aquariums offer an unobstructed view of the plants and animals living inside. Pick a vivarium “case” size and an environment-- desert, bog or woodlands -- and a preferred list of pet and garden specimens will follow. While a large aquarium may be the perfect home for a snake, a glass vase may only support a few ladybugs or a praying mantis.

A vivarium needs a cover, such as wire mesh, to allow for air flow, keep the pets in and potential enemies out. A glass cover is another option and looks cleaner than mesh. A local hardware store can cut a piece of glass to match case size and shape.

Which creature for your vivarium?

If you base your vivarium on the animal that lives in it, make it all about personality. A chameleon will climb around and gladly eat from your hand, while a salamander prefers to hide and may only come out for sunning.

While owning your own personal mini-dinosaur sounds cool, not all chameleons make good pets for beginners. Some are more personable than others. Green Anoles (Anolis carolinensis) are a good choice, as they are small, inexpensive and easy to find. Veiled Chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus), Jackson’s Chameleons (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus) and others require higher maintenance, stress out easily, and sometimes bite. It’s a good idea to peruse online “chams” blogs and forums for buying advice.

gecko for vivarium

Leopard Geckos (Eublepharis macularius) are a top choice for vivarium beginners, as they don’t need a lot of space or attention. If handling live insects, the typical lizard food, isn’t your thing, try a Common Newt (Triturus vulgaris). These colorful and inquisitive salamanders eat a variety of packaged commercial foods. Both of these choices are more suited to night owl pet owners, as they are nocturnal.

Although rather timid, the hardy American Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea) rates pretty high on the vivarium pet cuteness scale. Tree frogs make good pets for the novice frog owner, just keep in mind that obviously they climb, and the males can be vocal.

vivarium tree from

Other critters suitable as vivarium pets include ants, beetles and crickets. A gardener might enjoy raising butterflies or lady bugs. And even though it’s a voracious predator, the praying mantis also makes an entertaining pet. Good mantids for beginners include the Chinese (Tenodera sinensis), Giant Asian (Hierodula membranacea), Budwing (Parasphendale affinis), and Giant African (Sphodromantis viridis).

Considering vivarium features

Adding small animals to a terrarium can sometimes create gardening complications. While turtles can be a fun choice as a pet, they can also quickly strip foliage, eating the plants for dinner. So, the woodland habitat for a turtle needs to be rather sparse. Pets at home in a more lush woodland vivarium include toads and chameleons.

Bog habitats are cool and damp, suited to mosses and ferns where frogs, newts, and salamanders feel right at home. And desert gardens are more suited to scaly or thicker-skinned pets like snakes, lizards, and geckos. These vivariums also make good homes for those trendy succie (succulent) houseplant specimens, like aloe, sedum and crassula.

aloe for vivariums

In general, making a vivarium requires these supplies:

  • Drainage layer materials: rocks, gravel, glass beads, sea glass
  • Horticultural charcoal
  • Terrarium soil
  • Substrate (litter/bedding)
  • Moss: sphagnum
  • Plants: tall background plants, vining plants
  • Light: depends on light, heat and UVB needs of pet
  • Water container: depends on pet
  • Food, vitamins: depends on pet
  • Thermometer, humidity gauge
  • Hide box: depends on pet
  • Optional: Wood, rocks, sheet moss, bark or other background supplies, decorative items

Vivarium safety tips

Thorough hand washing is essential before and after touching a vivarium habitat or its inhabitants. This keeps both pets and humans safe from viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases.

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