Vivarium Basics

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Mythological Creature
Original poster
My application for the "vivarium basics" Sticky.
A vivarium is usually defined as a half-land, half water set-up for reptiles. That is slightly incorrect. A vivarium is actually a land only set-up for reptiles/amphibians, while a paludarium is the half aquarium/land set-up that most people think of first. For the sake of this forum, I will use “vivarium” to cover both types. I am also going to assume that you have never had any reptiles before, but have knowledge of basic fishkeeping. So if you are an experienced reptile keeper, please excuse the “beginner” lingo and basic reptile knowledge.

The first thing you must know about vivariums is the needs of your particular reptile. We are all well versed in the needs of our fish, so the aquarium portion of the tank will be second nature to us. We know the water needs filtration (regardless if the water portion has fish or not), stagnant water is no good for any plants or animals. We also know that good lighting and upkeep go along way in making a aquarium work. The same things are important with a vivarium. Here's how to get started. I am going to assume that you have a specific reptile in mind, and are going to build the tank around them. Not buy the tank then fill it. If you do it the second way, you'll need to flip-flop a few of the steps below. But eventually you will end up with the same thing. A tank and a reptile.

1. Research the needs and behaviors of your reptile. Does it prefer low humididty? Is it nocturnal, diurnal or crepuscular (active during twilight)? Does it have the ability to co-habitate with other species, or is it a predator that will eat anything that moves? Will it eat fish (in the case of setting up a paludarium)? I find it best to research and write down a list of specific needs, per species, so you can have a side by side comparision when picking out your reptiles. FAQ's are nice, but having 5 printouts of different reptile and anuran (the correct name for the frogs and toads line of amphibians) species can be a pain to sift through. You also need to decide whether a paludarium or a vivarium is what you are trying to accomplish, based on the needs of your reptile/amphibian. I recommend http:/ as a starting place for your research. They have the most extensive, up to date listings on reptile laws, species care, and also have an educated community of people willing to share their experience. I am not including basic food and water needs in this essay. Such to say, I am not going to tell you what or how to feed your reptile/amphibian, that is your job as a responsible keeper to educate yourself.

Do NOT buy the animal at this step. Impluse buys with reptiles are as bad as unprepared buys for fish.

2. Tanks size. Next you need to decide exactly what size tank you'll need for your reptile. I use the word “tank” loosely, because I have seen viv's in anything from a normal glass aquarium to metal horse water tubs, to whole custom made rooms in someones house. Pick out a tank that will hold your reptiles comfortably at their ADULT size. (Once again, please draw parallel between fish and reptiles). Pick something that is large enough for the reptile, and allows you to work creatively. I find with beginners, starting with a larger tanks gives you more options when it comes to dividing the tank (paludariums) and setting up a complex filtration system if needed.

3. Lighting. Does your reptile require UVA and UVB lighting to thrive? Reptiles and amphibians use UVB to help utilize calcium in their diet to build strong bones. This is a heavily debated subject among keepers. There are people on both sides of the fence on this one. Some reptiles thrive without UVB light, but their colours emerge more clearly with it. I am pro-UVB just from my own personal experience. Even a nocturnal animal will emerge from it's hiding spot to bask in the last rays of the sun.

Reptiles are exotherms just like fish. They require an environment that allows them to thermoregulate their body temperature. This is usually accomplished by the use of a basking light at one end of the tank. The other end of the tank is cooler, and the reptile moves from one end to the other, depending on whether it needs to raise or lower its temperature. BEWARE: basking lights can be VERY hot. They can melt plastic lids, so a screened top is usually used for reptile tanks that require high output basking lights. For intance, a bearded dragon is a desert dwelling lizard. It's basking sites can be 100+ degrees F. That is much hotter than the average aquarium light. Also, make sure that your lighting system can handle the wattage output of the bulb that you plan to use.

Most people (myself included) use a combination of incandescent lights for heat, and flurescent bulbs for UVB light. There are bulbs that do both, but they are rather expensive. I would suggest a beginner keep to a simple set-up, in the event that you lose interest in the hobby, you haven't spent large amounts of money one something you may never use again. Also, a timer can be used to regulate the light cycle. I use 12 on 12 off for my reptiles, but that changes when I want to induce breeding or brumation (a semi-hibernation most reptile can go through in the winter months). Research the best timing for your reptile and buy a quality timer and power surge strip. Coralife sells a combination of the two that is very convienient.

Amphibians on the other hand, bask much less that their reptile cousins. Most anuran tanks are heated ambiantly. Meaning that the temperature of the tank is constant throughout, due to lighting and water temperature. Make sure that your lightingon the amphibian tank doesn't lower the humidity too much. Misters are also helpful in regulating humidity in a tank. The goal is a good balance between temperature and humidity.

Other questions to ponder: Are you going to have live plants in your vivarium? Aquatic or terrestrial? Will your reptile eat your plants?

Research the lighting needs EXTENSIVELY(can I emphasize this any more?). They alone can mean life and death for some reptiles.

3. Water- If you are going to have a paludarium, I would suggest a sumbersible filter. I've used several brands and find Duetto to be a good company. Their filters are quiet, run smoothly and are easy to clean. Reptiles and amphibians can be very high waste producers, so there is no such thing as overfiltration. These filters can be easily masked with driftwood or other décor, just like you can do in a fishtank. If you plan on having fish, you already know the needs and how to set up the water half of your tank competantly, so I will focus more on the terrestrial portion of the set-up. Also, I am focusing on a terrestrial set-up in a tropical/semi-tropical environment. Desert dwellers have a whole different series of set-up requirements.

4. Decor and basic needs- start collecting décor. This can be anything from driftwood to rocks to plastic plants from your LFS. Basically, you're going to need the same thing as you would for a fishtank: hiding places, good substrate, plants, etc...There are a million different choices on the market, and you will need to make decisions based on your reptile/amphibians needs as well as practicality. For instance, since your herpetile (a name for both the reptile and amphibian groups combined, usually abbreviated “herp”) will be travelling from water to land and back again, be aware that terrestrial substrate will end up in your water. Floating bark is easier to remove, but has the possibility to change the water conditions. Some people will have a land based section, followed by a “beach” of pebbles to keep substrate out of the water. This works well if you have a herp that doesn't dig. Diggers will mangle a tank in less time than it takes to blink. With a herp that likes to bury itself in the substrate, a simple set-up is much easier to care for...substrate that is easy to dig in and a few rocks will save you much time in maintainence. Herps will also sometimes eat substrate and decor. Pac-man frogs are famous for eating aquarium gravel. If it fits into their mouth, they will eat it. Turtles will eat gravel too. But this can be prevented by knowing the specific needs and behaviors of your herp. Beware of materials that could leach toxins into the environment. Driftwood and rocks can be cleaned using the same methods of boiling and baking used in the aquarist hobby.
Here are some steps for piecing a paludarium tank together. There are other ways to do all of this, but I will tell you some of the most basic.

Dividers- to seperate the land from the water. Usually a glass sheet siliconed into the tank, spliting it into two sections. Check that you don't have any leaks by filling only the water side and leaving it for a while. If you have water on the land side, dry the tank completely and re-silicone. NOTE: This sheet should have smooth edges on the top to prevent any glass shards from piercing your herp.

Land section
: If you want a “beach” area, insert a piece of cardboard behind the glass sheet (on the side that will hold your land) to form a channel that will hold only pebbles. On the land section, dump about 1 inch of small pebbles. Then add soil if you are adding plants, leaving room at the top for the groundcover (coconut husk, bed-o-beast, moss). The groundcover should be level, or just below, the height of the glass divider. NOTE: Avoid potting soil that contains “pearllight”-the little styrofoam balls, or “vermiculight”the silvery gold flecks- these both can cause impaction in your herps if eaten. Avoid soils with any sort of fertilizer or additives. If you can find organic compost, even better.

Now, you should have only the space between the cardboard and the water to fill. Fill this with pebbles, then slowy remove the cardboard, leaving the “beach”. Add rocks, driftwood, coconut huts and anything else you would like to add to your tank. Don't forget many herps like to climb, so utilize the vertical space in your tank with branches, vines, and shelves of wood and rock siliconed to the sides of the tank.

Go ahead and set up your basking site (if neeeded). Most people use a flat rock so the herp has a place to fully streach out without having to keep his balance. Some reptiles will bask on branches, so a well placed branch will work the same as a rock on the ground. Also, if your herp requires food and water dishes, provide a place for them as well.

Set up your water portion, lights, filtration, mister, etc...and let your tank set for several days. Check the temperature and humidity twice daily to regulate any “hiccups” in your set-up. Now you are ready to introduce the inhabitants.

Picking out quality specimens should be a top priority. Look for an animal that is in good health, eating well (ask for a diet sheet so you know what the animal was eating before you got it), and generally acts “normal”. Don't base your decision on activity level, as some herps, such as frogs and toads, don't move much compared to other types of animals. Quarantine new arrivals (if you are going to have more than one herp in your tank) as usual, and watch for disagreements between tankmates. Also, make sure to check the local laws regarding your herp. Some state are much more strict on the sale and owning of reptiles. Obtain all needed liscences and permits.

This is a basic set-up overview, I did not cover disease prevention and treatment, nor feeding. I did this for a specific reason, because there are a million ways of keeping herps, each one with their different requirements and concerns. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to just take the time to research it and make an educated decision.

I will probably edit and post updated versions of this essay in the future, so please remember it is not 100% complete :)

-Ariane (“Siren”) Feb 5, 2007.


Tactical Refreshment Action
Nov 25, 2006
arlington heights - hoffman estates, IL
wow, nicely written.


I'll sleep when I'm dead...
Feb 16, 2005
Good Job Siren! Makes me want to set one up right now!


AC Members
Feb 28, 2007
Fairfax, VA
Also on your substrate note, one must really look into substrate for specific reptiles. Loose substrate can cause major problems to small reptiles if eaten, and should be avoided if possible (especially when they are young). Impaction is common and should be taken seriously as it can lead to death. Tiles, paper towels, and reptile carpet are all great ways to avoid risking this.

Not all critters need lights for heat as well, which should be thoroughly researched. Reach out to people around you to find out, check out websites, and don't listen to the pet store, they are likely to know nothing. Look at the reptile calcium sand they sell, which is the worst thing you could put in a tank for a leopard gecko (which is what they give you in the 'leopard gecko starter kit'). Under tank heaters can be used, and there are controllers to regulate the temperatures. Heat rocks aren't very safe, as they can burn a reptile, but can also be used as a heat source if regulated.
I'll continue something at a later date.


AC Members
Mar 3, 2008
portland, me
A vivarium is any area or created environment where one can observe animals or plants under natural conditions.


Registered Member
Jan 21, 2009
hello, I am new to the whole paludarium set up. I got a 125g tank from my father in law and was going to put ohio pond fish in it, but decided I want something different since I will be looking at it all day. I am not sure what I want to put in it yet still doing lots of research. I dont want to be in a hurry. I have more time then money to replace aniamals all the time. I wanted a water dragon but I have found that I would never be able to go back to just a normal fish tank again. so they are out of the question. I know I want real plants and some sort of land aniamal and fishies but dont know where to start. I have a daycare in my home and think the kids would love to see them in the tank. I know I want to set the tank up first. then put the friends in last but what would be a good choice of friend that wont eat the tank or make it so that I dont mess up the tank? If any one has any ideas please let me know. I have been to the pet stores here in town but they are stupid. they didnt even know what a paludarium or a vivarium was they said i wanted a terrarium. last i looked terrariums were just land right?