The Tiny Tank

Cultivating a microcosm of the natural world in a tiny tank is possible with the appropriate selection of animals and equipment.




I remember wandering into a competitor’s store about 25 years ago and being utterly floored to see him selling a series of pre-made, five-gallon marine setups, replete with a bit of living coral, a few invertebrates and even some fish. Nowadays, the technology might be such that this could be functional; I wouldn’t know, as it is outside the purview of my expertise. But I knew enough then to understand that what he was doing was selling magic—and magic is, by nature, unsustainable. Those tanks were doomed to fail within a matter of weeks, and all of their denizens would soon be dead. It was one of the most craven and despicable things I have ever seen a pet store do.

That store was playing on the human desire to miniaturize, and thus control, the natural world. It is the same impetus that makes bonsai so mysterious and enchanting. It is the same impetus that made me sit, riveted, as I watched the miniature king and queen biological curiosities in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein. It is the same impetus that made Swift’s tales of Gulliver in Lilliput a massive hit in literature and on the screen.

We ourselves are living in tighter and tighter spaces, and our work lives are often desk-bound, forcing us to exist within the confines of the Internet more than we do in real physical space. The ranch-style suburban manses of our parents are giving way to the tighter space of townhouses and condos. We need pets, or at the least reminders of a more natural existence, close at hand to keep us in touch with the real and natural world.

It may not always be possible to do that with a marine aquarium, but a vivarium can be a different case altogether. There are reptiles, amphibians and arachnids that can be perfectly comfortable in relatively tiny enclosures, and in fact, some of them adjust better to a constricted space than they will to an expansive one. After all, these are animals famous for their stoicism and their tendency to have evolved in microhabitats.

Of course, the biggest issue with that small a space is the design of heating and lighting. This is especially the case with reptiles, whose heating needs can be difficult to establish in even some big tanks. As they generally require a range of temperatures, I recommend the very small heating pads made by both Zoomed and Exoterra, which can produce a nice very localized heat if placed at one end of even a five-gallon tank. Zoomed’s basic day spot bulb has a useful and unusual design wherein it can shoot a tight and directed beam of light and heat that then gradates out, achieving a remarkable diversity of temperatures in a small space. The advent of the mini UV bulbs made by a number of manufacturers can nicely answer the daylight needs of the species that need them.

I also find it profitable to stock a number of variations in small tank design, rather than just the standard five-gallon. Longer, thinner tanks can work well for a number of small, shoreline species. Tanks with a standard-five footprint but greatly extended height can be wonderful for small arboreal species. I find that many people are drawn by some seemingly unconscious power to cube tanks, and so I carry those as well.

With bugs, even some of the larger ones, small cages are the order of the day. While a pet store may keep some animals in tight quarters on the theory that the caging is temporary, spiders, scorpions, stick insects, mantids and especially roaches all thrive in small spaces.

I once broke down the household zoo of a long-term customer and bug fancier who had suddenly passed away. His small home was an insect zoo from one end to the other, with every conceivable space occupied with a small bug cage. In all, we removed over 1,500 individual cages, none larger than five gallons. Every one of them was filled with a well-kept, happy and thriving bug. I am not suggesting that you convince your clientele to do this. My point is that these animals were doing quite well in tight quarters.

Frogs can also make appealing residents of relatively small tanks. Reed frogs (Hyperolius sp.) are a wildly varying cluster of more than 150 species of seemingly infinite colors and patterns. Most of them are around an inch in length and seem to do fine kept communally. On the other hand, the horned frogs (Ceratophrys sp.) are relative giants—think of a squashed out baseball—but are so sedentary that anything more than five gallons would simply be wasted space. I had a pair some years ago named Buffy and Jody that lived for over a decade in side-by-side large candy jars.
The thing to keep in mind with frogs is to provide adequate leaping space. The reeds are fine flitting from leaf to leaf in a small tank, and the horneds just waddle. On the other hand, even a small adult leopard frog (Rana pipiens) will badly bruise itself in anything less than a 50-gallon tank, and bull frogs (Rana catesbiana) should have something even larger.

There are many small geckoes I can recommend for small enclosures, but I will mention just a few here that may be relatively overlooked compared to the well-known and commonly kept day and crested geckoes. The dwarf sand geckoes (Stenodactylus sp.) are delightful little things that are very much like Leopard geckoes in miniature. Some species get no larger than a few inches, yet are calm tempered and durable. They seem to breed readily and, like the leopards, will thrive in colonies of a single male and multiple females. The slightly larger—up to six inches—banded gecko (Coleonyx variegatus) is an American specie that, as an adult, resembles a juvenile leopard gecko. Both the sands and bandeds recall leopards not only in looks but in care.

As notoriously delicate and difficult as chameleons are famous for being, their minute cousins the dead leaf chameleons (Brookesia superciliaris) tend to be inexpensive, hardy and fascinating, if difficult to find in even a small terrarium. They like moderate temperatures and damp leaf litter, and they require baby crickets and fruit flies, even when adult. By the way, we drop the “dead” part of the name in the store; that word is, in our business, simply bad juju.

There are even a few snakes that do well in captivity but stay small enough to thrive in a little tank. Sand boas (Eryx sp.) and western hognoses (Heterodon nasicus) immediately leap to mind, both of which max out at under three feet. However, I find the most popular and best pets of the small snakes are the rosy boas (Lichanura sp.). Sweet natured and beautiful, they seem to melt the hearts of even the most strident ophidiophobes. Two tricks to success with them: feed them very small meals compared to other snakes of the same size, and do not leave a standing water dish in with them. Rather, offer them a water bowl twice a week, let them drink their fill and then remove the dish. They are susceptible to water blisters if subjected to unending humidity, and their very small stomachs cannot handle large meals. Otherwise, they are total winners.

Showing potential customers that they can get into our hobby without having to give up a room to it, or that they can experience the joy of interacting with living creatures even while at their work desk is one of the ways we can open the door to new customers. Anything wrong with that?

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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