The More, the Merrier?
The establishment of a community cage of herps is an exciting goal, but it really only works under the strictest and most controlled circumstances.
A woman was in my store recently asking about a new cage for her pet Greek tortoise, who had tripled in size since she purchased him as a hatchling from me some years ago. We decided on a cage and all the supplies he would need, and as we were wrapping up the sale, she inquired, “I am worried that he’s lonely; what other kind of animal could live with him?”
I looked at the hundreds of cages around me. “If I could combine all these animals into one big cage, I would do it in a New York minute!” I told her. “I can’t. There are reasons—lots of them—that these animals do better kept individually. Your tortoise, as sweet and benign as he is, really will do better without a roommate.”
People, myself included, always have an impetus to keep animals in communities. It’s one way in which we anthropomorphize these wonderful animals. Unfortunately, it’s not the way they work.
Reptiles and amphibians are, almost without exception, loners. They live their lives in monk-like solitude and serenity, other than the rare moments in which they reproduce. Housing them otherwise presents a myriad of problems.
It is true that young animals, especially those out of the same litter, will sometimes temporarily live together very well, but even this can be deceptive. Customers often see baby bearded dragons stacked on top of each other three and four deep, and immediately conclude that they are friends. They are not. They are simply competing for the optimal basking point in the cage. See the way our minds work, as opposed to what is really going on?
Here are some of the issues that make community tanks so difficult:
- Herps tend to live in microenvironments with very specific temperature, humidity and lighting. It’s very hard to reproduce these conditions for multiple species in any but the biggest cages.
- Most herps are predatory, and often are willing to eat, or at least attempt to eat, their cage mates. For instance, most leopard gecko keepers are shocked to learn that, in the wild, their primary diet is other lizards. Even if your herps are not directly interested in eating their compatriots, many of them are movement-driven feeders. That is, they see something move and they attempt to consume it. They may not be actually interested in eating each other, but the mistaken attempt often will leave the victim of the attack injured or maimed.
- As with humans, males of most species of reptiles are prone to being jerks. They are driven by the breeding imperative to intimidate or kill other males, and to defend their perceived turf to a ridiculous degree.
- Amphibians are all toxic to some degree. They tend to gradually toxify the water supply of any cage they are in, especially if they are crowded. On top of that, there is no guarantee that one species of amphibian will be impervious to the toxin of another.
- There is an inherent problem should one of your cage inhabitants get ill and regurgitate. How can you ever figure out who is sick? You end up having to treat the entire community for the health problem of one member.
There are a few ways to arrange a successful community tank of reptiles. One must choose the right animals, and the right setup, to make this work. You will first and foremost want to provide a large space for this project. Crowding is a surefire way to have a community tank fail (crowding also does not work well with humans). For instance, I have successfully kept dart frogs together—even with multiple males—by providing a large number of hide spaces in a fairly massive tank. I had three males and five females cohabitate for years in a 50-gallon tank that was heavily planted, with a number of crevices and coconut hides. I have done similar tanks with vine snakes. The difficulty with them, and one of the main reasons community tanks are near-impossible with snakes, is that they require being separated for feeding. With such tiny brains, they will start at one end of a lizard and keep going, past the lizard and on to the snake who happens to be at the other end of the same lizard.
In fact, next to my vine snakes, I kept a community tank full of three species of lizards that were, in fact, the vine snake’s food. In the tank were house geckos, green anoles and long-tailed grass lizards. Oddly, that tank worked because I had achieved the right balance of crowding and comfort. There were enough males of each species in the tank to prevent any one male from dominating or any one male taking the brunt of male-on-male intimidation. However, that was not what anyone would consider a permanent situation; it also worked in part because it was temporary, with no one in the tank living there for too long.
I did have a multiple species tank of frogs going well for many years. In it I had green tree frogs, grey tree frogs, and firebellied frogs. Referring to the first four issues I mentioned earlier, here’s how the tank worked:
- All three species like the same temperature range and setup, with the exception that the tree frogs were arboreal, while the firebellies are rice paddy frogs.
- All three frog species eat the same sized cricket, and none of the frogs have mouths or teeth strong or sharp enough to do real damage to each other. In fact, it is great fun to see multiple firebellies wrestling and tumbling after their crickets. Also, because the firebellies are diurnal and the tree frogs are nocturnal, I fed them both morning and evening, reducing the competition.
- The males don’t tend to be territorial, and the worst of the competition for females was incessant calling.
- I cleaned the tank frequently, reducing the potential toxin levels of the firebellies. As the greens and greys are closely related, they managed to live together in close proximity without damaging each other.
This worked for me, and worked well. We also to this day have an enormous tank at the front of our store with an extensive waterfall drip and filter system, deeply planted with live plants, heated from above, with a strong UV light as well. It is big enough to include a few species of mantella frogs as well as day geckos. The tank is four feet tall, not including stand and filters, four feet wide, and two feet deep. It is beautiful, true, but it does require extensive maintenance and delicate balance.
So, community tanks are possible, but require the kind of care and dedication usually associated with saltwater tank enthusiasts. It is important that, as a retailer, you emphasize to your customer that attempting a community tank is something of a crapshoot, with the animals being the victims of human error. All community tanks are calculated risks. It is up to your customer to decide whether or not they want to accept that risk, and the consequences.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.