Terra Firma
by Owen Maercks
September 1, 2011
Retailers need to be armed with the right tools and information to get their terrarium business on solid ground.



There is always going to be a customer who will walk through your door with a predetermined and typically impossible notion of what they want. Often, what they want is a slice of the natural world—densely populated and living in a finite space in their home. They want a terrarium.

It is a near universal childhood fantasy to have a window into the natural world encapsulated in your bedroom. It probably harkens back to the recesses of our own evolutionary past, when humans were necessarily one with nature.

It used to be that, as pet shop owners, we would shrug our shoulders, pop that balloon, and bring our customers down to the bitter reality: nature don’t play that. To some extent, you can fake it, but the more species you involve, the harder it becomes to achieve the kind of balance you find in the natural world. So, we would reduce the number of animal species, replace live plants with plastic, and so on, until we had a workable tank that would please the client and have a reasonable shot at staying stable for awhile.

I remember walking into a short-lived exotics store in a neighboring city one day back in the 1980s and being stunned to see that the owner had set up a live terrarium in what must have been a three-hundred gallon or more Plexiglas tank. I thought, “This can’t be. There are dozens of species of lizards, turtles and frogs, as well as hundreds of live plantings. How are they coexisting? Why isn’t everything either eating or toxifying each other?” 

Turned out he was a fish guy laboring under the notion that you could treat terraria like aquaria. Every morning, before opening, he was reconstructing the landscaping, cleaning out the dead, and restocking the sick and eaten. And, sure enough, the shop closed within months. Terrariums are a different kettle of fish, as it were.

But, as with everything, time and technology move on, and things have changed. It is time for pet stores to take full advantage of this potential market niche. In my own store, we have done this in a couple of ways. First, there is now a growing number of products that work for developing the terrarium hobby. The UV lighting that works for reptiles also seems to work well for plants. Zoo Med also sells a waterfall kit that is easy to construct and yet allows maximum creative flexibility for the customer.

We have expanded our line of tanks to include front-opening models that are more terrarium friendly. And, whereas we used to carry plastic plants and the occasional insectivorous live plant as a novelty, we now stock a line of ferns, indoor plants and small ficuses for terrarium use.

However, constructing a terrarium that is functional over a long period of time, looks good and is efficient to maintain, well, that’s no easy feat. To satisfy those folks who just want the end result without the muss and fuss, we have started pre-constructing terraria to sell out the door, readymade.

We have also started taking orders for people who want their fantasy tank built for them. I would suggest that if you want to go this route, start by building a bunch of trial tanks and maintaining them for several months to start to learn the tricks of the trade, and to learn the problems associated with maintaining them. As with anything in our business, to be an expert, you have to become an expert.

Populating terrariums with live animals also requires planning and a bit of finesse. Many people want to keep animals that are not suited for the micro-climate of the terrarium or that don’t cohabitate well. With care, however, some animals do beautifully in multiple-species tanks. I have had great success mixing fire-bellied newts (which are largely aquatic), green and gray tree frogs (closely related species with no toxicity issues between them) and fire-bellied frogs.

The other approach is to simply concentrate on one spectacular species that will shine like a jewel in the tank. For example, a planted terrarium will be an awesome framework for a green tree python. A pair of Jackson’s chameleons will do well in a planted cage (making sure that, in this specific case, there is plenty of cross-ventilation). Dart frogs are living jewels, flashy and fascinating, while day geckoes can be dazzling and have tons of personality.

The living terrarium is the fantasy that got all of us started in this hobby. It no longer needs to be a fantasy—it can even be a moneymaker. Here are some things you need to know to help make that happen:

• All amphibians protect themselves by secreting toxins. Different species are not immune to each others’ toxins. Two amphibians may seem to be getting along but will exchange toxins that prove deadly.

• Most amphibians and many reptiles are movement feeders. They see something or anything move, and they try to consume it. That includes each other.

• Terrariums are micro-habitats, whichmeans the animals chosen to live there have to conform to that habitat. The larger the tank, the more flexible one can be with animal choice, but, for instance, you will never be able to have a tank that will satisfy the needs of a newt and a bearded dragon.

• A planted terrarium is subject to being eaten by the very animals you introduce as feed for the populace of the tank. Crickets will, for instance, decimate your plantings if more are put in the tank than can be readily consumed by the tank’s inhabitants. Also, if some of your creatures require large crickets and others medium, you will have to develop a rather intricate feeding regimen, so that everybody is satisfied.

• Some animals are surprisingly territorial, and sometimes in ways that are not readily apparent to the casual observer. For instance, tiny dart frogs will often bully each other into starvation without showing much more aggression than taking up a “bulldog” stance on a favored piece of turf.

• Plants do not typically fare well in the levels of heat that most reptile species require. A desert terrarium is a near impossibility, and even many temperate animals require more heating than most plants will tolerate. Choose animals that will thrive in conditions also conducive to health of the plantings in the tank.


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.