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The Ultimate Terraria

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Keeping reptiles and amphibians can be more exciting and satisfying if you maintain them in naturalistic habitats rather than in mere utilitarian cages. Intricately decorated terraria are more popular in Europe than in America, but the trend is finally catching on in the United States.

Aquarists have long kept their favored tropical fish in lushly planted aquaria. To maintain this profusion of aquatic growth, they use special lighting – plant bulbs, if you will - that produce the spectrum of light that induces aquarium plants to flourish. Some plants grow under comparatively low light situations, but others require a higher lighting intensity.

The Aquaterrarium

Herpetoculturists have adapted the aquarists' ideas for aquatic herps and call the end result an aquatic terrarium. This is essentially a water-filled tank. It can be home to aquatic frogs of several species, newts, turtles, aquatic caecilians and such specialized snakes as tentacled snakes.

Some smaller aquarium inhabitants – newts, smaller waterdogs, dwarf underwater frogs, immature clawed frogs and Suriname toads – will thrive in a lavishly planted aquaterrarium without dislodging firmly rooted plants in their day-to-day activities.

Such surface dwelling species as rice-paddy frogs and fire-bellied toads will thrive in the aquaterrarium if you provide a spot for them to get out of the water when they want. They do nicely on a floating "haul-out" area such as a commercially made plastic water-lily leaf or a prolific tangle of floating plants like water lettuce, water fern, water sprite or even unrooted anacharis.

These surface species can be fed individually with sections of earthworms or other food offered on the tip of a broom straw. Be certain that the tank is fully covered, for most amphibians and many reptiles are escape artists.

Larger frogs, caecilians and big mudpuppies can, and often do, uproot all but the most firmly rooted aquarium plants.

Turtles of all sizes offer a different sort of challenge. Not only can they uproot many plants, but many species of these shelled reptiles will eat all but the most distasteful growing plants. We have had reasonable success keeping the various Anubias and Amazon sword plants with many turtles.

The Semi-Aquatic Terrarium

Modify the aquaterrarium a little, lowering the water level, adding a land area of rich potting soil and incorporating a different group of plants and you have the semi-aquatic terrarium.

There are two ways to make a semi-aquatic terrarium. First, you can merely sink a large water receptacle to its lip in the substrate, making a water area that can be lifted free when the time comes to clean and sterilize it. Second, you can insert a low, sloped piece of glass into the tank and cement it in place with silicone aquarium sealant. The top will be closest to the land section, the bottom will angle into the water section, thus making a gently graduated slope enabling the creature to go from water to land with ease.

The semi-aquatic terrarium is suitable to a great many beautiful plants, among them pothos and sturdy begonias, and a larger contingent of reptile and amphibian species.

In the semi-aquatic terrarium we may maintain many species of frogs and treefrogs, some toads, some salamanders, a few lizards, additional turtle species and a far greater variety of snakes. As with all terraria, the growth habit and resiliency of the plants must be compatible with the size, weight, and activity patterns of the herps housed in the terrarium.

For example a small gloxinia or begonia will be quickly broken into tiny bits by the activity of an adult spotted turtle or box turtle, but tough-stemmed self-heading philodendrons will better withstand the onslaught. On the other hand, slow-moving, light-bodied salamanders (such as spotted or tiger salamanders), and small treefrogs (gray treefrog or green treefrogs), are compatible with all but the tiniest or most delicate plants.

Over-tank, full-spectrum lighting will promote plant growth and the normal activity patterns of diurnal reptiles and amphibians.

The Woodland/Rainforest Terrarium

Take away the water (except for a water dish) and, depending on the herps kept and plants used, we have a woodland or rainforest terrarium. If it is based on a temperate theme (with woodland plants such as partridgeberry, pipsissewa, ferns and spotted wintergreen) this terrarium is often referred to as the woodland terrarium.

This can house red efts (the terrestrial stage of the red-spotted newt), woodland salamanders, spring peepers, five-lined skinks and red-bellied snakes. The plants in this terrarium, which must usually be collected from woodlands, often require cooling (dormancy) during the winter and are not always easy to grow. It is also best to use the soil from which the plants are taken in your terrarium.

When this terrarium is based on a tropical theme it is called a rainforest terrarium. This is far more easily maintained than the temperate setup, and the plants used in its setup can be purchased from any nursery. The soil is merely a good quality potting soil that does not contain styro beads or pelleted fertilizers. Flowering begonia, dwarfed cultivars of many orchids, small bromeliads and other plants can be incorporated into the arrangement.

The rainforest terrarium is one of the two easiest of the land-based setups to maintain (the other is the aridland terrarium). It can be excitingly different and contain many magnificent herps (treefrogs, anoles, and day geckos among others) from the tropics of the world.

Dry Savanna Terrarium

Dry the land-based terrarium out some and you come up with a dry savanna or with an aridland (desert) terrarium. Savanna terraria are the more difficult of the two to outfit because savanna plants are virtually unobtainable and are quite seasonal in their growth patterns. Some makeshift nursery plant selections may be small pachypodiums, snake-plants and purslanes (portulacas). Some aloes and haworthias will also suffice.

While true savanna plants often become dormant during drought and/or winter, the types we have suggested will actively grow year round. Small snakes (such as racers, garter snakes, and brown snakes), many lizards (European green lizards, jeweled lacertas, leopard geckos, and Great Plains skinks), and many toads will thrive in such a setup. A small dish of clean water should always be present for the herps.

The Desert/Aridland Terrarium

Aridland terraria are very versatile and can include an almost never ending number of plant species (cacti and succulents among them) and an immense diversity of herps.

The substrate can be of sandy soil. Cage furniture such as cactus skeletons, manzanita limbs, or attractive rock formations can be included and will be utilized by the resident herps. There are so many lizards and small snakes that are indigenous to the deserts of the world that your choice of inhabitants will be staggering. Among others are banded geckos, beaver-tailed agamas, spiny-tailed agamas, some garter snakes, shovel-nosed snakes, rosy boas, sand boas, and green toads. The desert terrarium is, in my estimation, the most versatile and easily kept of all terrarium types. A very small and shallow dish of water should be provided for the herps this terrarium holds.

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