The first thing one sees when they walk into my store is a large display filled with live plants, dripping water flows, and small frogs and geckos. This tank is 4 ft. square and 2 ft. deep, and it is—if you will allow me a breech in my usual humility—zoo or museum quality. It sits atop a stand, which conceals the filters and pumps that drive the system. It has been operating in our store for more than a decade, and the only additional upkeep it requires beyond that of our usual cages consists of topping off the water supply and keeping the foliage trimmed.
And we did it ourselves.
More specifically, my business partner did it himself. But the fact is, it has served as an inspirational piece to our customers all this time, and it has generated a tidy side business for us creating and establishing this kind of display. Each display we do takes one to three months, but the end product is sensational, and our customers are always happy with the results.
This year has seen the major herpetocultural dry goods manufacturers (Zoo Med and Exoterra) jump into the game in a big way, providing ready-made tanks and peripheral products to make it work. In a field that is a bit resistant to trends, we have a trend.
The living vivarium is not the easiest thing in the world to create, just as Nature herself is a delicate and fragile balance. I have seen many of them fail, and to a great extent I think the problem is a matter of impatience. Just as a basic freshwater aquarium takes time to establish and needs small incremental adjustments to succeed, the living terrarium is not an overnight affair.
Here are some guidelines to consider before building a living terrarium:
1. Use a large front-opening tank, preferably 30 gal. tall. Keep in mind that the larger the basic structure, the more forgiving the system will be to various unforeseen problems and events. It may be counterintuitive, but building bigger vivaria will give you the wherewithal to tackle smaller setups later on.
2. Sketch out a basic plan before you start construction. You will need to consider the inhabitants, both plant and animal, and establish for them planting sites and hiding spaces. You will need to lay out where to run your plumbing, how you’ll want the water to run down your rocks and branches, where you will plant, etc. You may make adjustments as you go, but start with a concept.
3. If you opt for a rock wall, research what rocks will work. If the wall is too heavy, the tank will simply break. You may want to consider other options, like coconut fiber planks or foam sculpting material.
4. After you have drilled your tank, installed plumbing and built your backdrop, walk away for a while. Let the installation cure, and let your brain cure as well. When you come back fresh, you might very well see things you didn’t previously notice, and this is the point where you can make small adjustments to more fully realize your ideas.
5. Get the tank in place, establish your water system (I strongly recommend you use reverse osmosis water, which will prevent mineralization in your tank and extend the lifespan of your filter system), and watch what happens. Watch for leaks. Wait.
6. Establish your bottom system using clay balls, carbon media and screens. I would go as light as possible on topsoils, which can really muck things up. Wait some more.
7. Lightly plant your tank, and let just a few plants establish themselves at a time. A good garden store can advise you as to what plants might work best for this very particular system. Don’t forget to have a fluorescent UV fixture atop the tank. Do NOT use an incandescent UV unit, as you want the light to spread as thoroughly as possible. Remember: everything in this tank will do better with LOTS of UVB lighting. I have found that the bulbs designed for the UV needs for reptiles are plenty sufficient for plants; but the reverse is not true. Wait.
8. Once your plants are well established, you can start to think about adding animal life. WARNING: Living vivaria work best for temperate biological systems. Tropical animals and plants will be doomed to failure, as the heat requirements for the animals will, in this miniaturized system, completely destroy the plant life. However, there is one sneaky way to accomplish heating within this system: use a submersible heater in your recessed plumbing. The warm water, combined with discrete heat lights, can raise the temperature up enough to sustain some rainforest tropicals. Still, your options for animals largely boil down to some of the geckos, chameleons and amphibia. You will need to be careful about not only introducing the animals incrementally, but also tightly controlling the live food they will need. You will need to feed them enough to keep them healthy, and yet not so much that the feeder animals will start taking down your plant life!
9. Introduce only one or two animals of a single species at a time. Let them establish residency and slowly, over many weeks, add to the population. Be slow in your goals for an ultimate community. Research carefully how the animals might interact. Almost all lizards require some modicum of heat, and to that end a small discrete fixture on top with limited wattage will probably do the trick. Place it in such a way that your lizard can bask sufficiently while simultaneously keeping it far enough away from live plants so as not to burn the leaves.
After all this, keep in mind that your first experiment might fail. Our industry is an almost magical interface of science and art, and results are not always certain. But, as your skills increase at making these objects of beauty and fascination, you can start to offer them to your customers.
In the meantime, Exoterra has several lines of really outstanding tanks with backgrounds that are excellent starting points for the do-it-yourself crowd within your customer base. Its Bamboo Forest line is particularly good to my eye. Zoo Med’s newest innovation is its Palludarium line, which takes a basic tall tank and moves the doors up enough to allow the bottom quarter of the tank to be used as a mini-aquarium. That might have been enough of a good idea, but the company has taken the whole thing a step further, with a full range of back up products, including specialized filters, heaters, UV and heat lights, etc. These things are really good—we’ve been running a test-model of the full setup for months now and it’s cooking like a little perpetual motion machine! I suspect that they will be huge in the next few years as the public catches on to their charms. Zoo Med’s Waterfall Kit is another winner that can work in conjunction with any tank on the market.
I suspect that the entire trend will be the next boom in herpetoculture, as it works very nicely in conjunction with what is currently the most popular reptile pet going: the crested gecko (Correlophus ciliatus). After all, it is a temperate rain forest dweller with a limited need for heat, and a love of mossy and damp climates. You may opt out of the idea of building and selling your own living vivaria, but that should not stop you from promoting the do-it-yourself approach to your clientele. This is, pretty clearly, the next phase in our hobby, and a new and fun adventure for your customers. PB
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.